Design from Africa
Designers of Global Transformation

Amunga Eshuchi and Cyrus Kabiru “Big Cat”, 2012, image from the “C-Stunners” photography series, edition of 10
Amunga Eshuchi and Cyrus Kabiru “Big Cat”, 2012, image from the “C-Stunners” photography series, edition of 10 | Photo (detail): © Courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art Ltd, London, photo: Amunga Eshuchi

Can design make the world a better place? The exhibition “Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design” in the Vitra Design Museum presents seminal and reflexive positions from current African design.

They have titles like Caribbean Sun or American Grill, the eyewear sculptures by Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru. The futuristic vision tools welcome visitors to the exhibition Making Africa. They serve as a symbol of a new perspective on Africa and equally as a metaphor for our clichés about a continent that are so much more difficult to set aside than a pair of glasses.

Cyrus Kabiru “Caribbean Sun”, 2012, image from the “C-Stunners” photography series Cyrus Kabiru “Caribbean Sun”, 2012, image from the “C-Stunners” photography series | © Carl de Souza AFP/Getty Images Africa is large – and the diversity of its designs, its art and its creativity is equally extensive. No museum could fit it in, unless in a continent whose immense geographic dimensions are presented to the visitor in Kai Krause’ info-graphic The True Size of Africa. The USA, India, China and a couple of European nations as well could all fit inside the contours of this continent. Curator Amelie Klein, supported by Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst and artistic director of the 54th Biennale in Venice, spent two years in intensive research. Having to make a selection was frustrating. “In the concept, it was clear from the beginning that it could not be an exhibition on ‘the African design,’ not even an exhibition on ‘the best in African design’ – that’s just impossible,” remarked Klein. “What interested us was the question: How can and should design accompany and advance global transformation?”

Learning from Africa

  • Kai Krause, „The True Size of Africa“ CC Creative Commons
    Kai Krause, „The True Size of Africa“
  • Expand Design „Splice”, 2012, Hocker © Ifeanyi Oganwu, courtesy Expand Design Ltd, Galerie Armel Soyer and Priveekollektie
    Expand Design „Splice”, 2012, Hocker
  • Cheick Diallo „Fauteil Sansa bleu”, 2011, Sessel/ chair © Cheick Diallo
    Cheick Diallo „Fauteil Sansa bleu”, 2011, Sessel/ chair
  • Ausstellungsansicht Raum 1, Prolog Foto: © Vitra Design Museum, Mark Niedermann
    Ausstellungsansicht Raum 1, Prolog
  • Chicoco Radio Station, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, entworfen von NLÉ Architects, 2014, Rendering © NLÉ Works Lagos, Amsterdam
    Chicoco Radio Station, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, entworfen von NLÉ Architects, 2014, Rendering
Although in Europe the concept of design is generally associated with industrial design, in Africa the concept is understood far more comprehensively. In the maker cultural skills and technologies of the global South, the boundaries to art are dissolving. People are experimenting with a high degree of informality with methods and materials, hacking and making use of available resources and techniques. Improvising with whatever is at hand in the way of knowledge and materials and includes others. “Making” is subverting the concept of cheap industrial mass-market goods. Resource scarcity is a problem, but not an obstacle; quite the contrary: it spurs on improvisational talent and creativity. “It’s a different approach to design in which the concept of sampling is in the foreground – a concept from music, but one that is also familiar in the visual arts from collage. That’s the new thing in Europe, too,” explains Klein. “Europe can learn a lot from Africa in this!”.

Resource scarcity in a new light

Take, for instance, the large-format tapestries by Ghanaian object artist El Anatsui: they consist mostly of used aluminium screw-caps and are sold on the international art market for a million US dollars. These filigree works of art cannot be classified under the category of recycling, which in Europe still has a negative connotation of rubbish. The concept of sampling reflects far better the artistic procedure at issue here of understanding materials in new ways and repurposing them. Thus Amadou Fatoumata creates unique pieces of utilitarian furniture and sculptures from used tyres, and Cheick Diallo makes marvellous armchairs out braided industrial fishing wire. Porky Hefer constructs nesting pieces of furniture from natural materials and architect Francis Kéré realises the Centre de l’Architecture en Terre with traditional and sustainable techniques.

Informality and booming cities

Justin Plunkett “Skhayascraper”, Rendering, Limited Edition of 20, 2013 Justin Plunkett “Skhayascraper”, Rendering, Limited Edition of 20, 2013 | © Justin Plunkett. Courtesy The Cabinet, Cape Town Booming African cities and their exploding informal sectors are confronting a young generation of designers with significant challenges. But their responses are in no way pessimistic. In their installation Jua Kali City, Tahir Carl Karmali, Dennis Muraguri and Tonney Mugo show how the small gear of the informal sector of sheet-metal huts drives the large gear, the formal city of glass. The message: without the ingenuity of the makers who prime the transformation of society and the economy, the glass city cannot move forward. Among the numerous solutions for architecture and urban development, the projects of Studio NLÉ von Kunlé Adeyemi in Nigeria that time and again wrest humane places from the wildly proliferating city deserve mention here as representative.

Smart, decentralised solutions

Technologically highly interesting innovations are coming for the most part from Kenya. The money transfer service M-Pesa, for instance. M-Pesa makes the impossible possible, such as cashless purchasing or making transfers – simply by text message. About 12.2 million people in Kenya use this service for which a regular bank account is not necessary. M-Pesa is now functioning in Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, India and Romania. Ushahidi, a platform for citizen journalism developed by bloggers and programmers is also decentralised. It collects and disseminates eye-witness reports about violent incidents in crisis regions and now in all areas of life, that are posted via text message or email. Ushahidi also developed BRCK, a mobile Wifi device that simply works with a SIM card and solar energy.

Asking questions

Gonçalo Mabunda “”, 2012, throne, Collection Vitra Design Museum Gonçalo Mabunda “”, 2012, throne, Collection Vitra Design Museum | Photo: © Vitra Design Museum, Jürgen Hans And Lagos also has a lively start-up scene that is mainly generating games, for example the bride-price app, which has been downloaded two million times world-wide. With witty questions relating to setting bride-prices, it initiates discussions about the sense and/or nonsense of this tradition. Critical design does not deliver solutions, it first asks questions. The “throne made of weapons” by sculptor Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique can be interpreted as a commentary on the propensity to violence of African regimes. It is welded together out of rifles, rocket launchers and magazines. What power does one make one’s own when one sits here?

Reflexive fashion design

Ikire Jones “The Madonna”, from “The untold Renaissance” series, 2014, pocket square Ikire Jones “The Madonna”, from “The untold Renaissance” series, 2014, pocket square | © Walé Oyéjidé [] African fashion design is also presenting itself with new aesthetic strategies: traditional fabrics, patterns and themes are taken apart and put together again in new ways. It sometimes also investigates the colonial perspective. For instance, in Waxprint Prison of the textile printing series Who is Wearing My T-Shirt, German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku deals with questions relating to identity and the legacy of colonialism. The Untold Renaissance, a series by US-Nigerian fashion label Ikiré Jones is also “sampled”: on breast-pocket kerchiefs that reference historic tapestries, it depicts dark-skinned people where they would normally not be present, thereby narrating history anew from an African perspective.

Whether in textile creations or urban planning – Making Africa not only casts new light on proactive African design, it also investigates preconceived opinions. In the times of upheaval and transition of the 21st century, we can learn much from Africa – we just have to take off our glasses!

A comprehensive catalogue with a detailed index of all exhibited works and in-depth contributions accompanies the exhibition, which will be on tour from 2015 to the next 3 to 5 years.