Tour: 'Making Africa' at The High Museum in Atlanta
As 'Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design' comes to a close this weekend at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, its first U.S. venue, it is an ideal time to reflect on the small portion of this sizable touring exhibition that tackles contemporary design on the continent.
A fitting introduction of the exhibition is Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru and his series C-Stunners, wearable, sculptural eyewear created from discarded materials and e-waste found in Nairobi. Kabiru's work captures the essence of some of the main concerns of the exhibition, that of design's purpose beyond utilitarian function, design as ingenuity in response to informality, and the importance of thinking about the politics of recycling in African design. C-Stunners is surrounded on three walls by video projections of interviews with several practitioners and theorists on the continent and of the diaspora, discussing the difficulty in defining "African design," the importance of design in shaping Africa's future, and its impact globally. One interview features Okwui Enwezor, Consulting Curator of 'Making Africa' and Director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, discussing the imperative of redefining traditional design terminology when thinking about African design.
The adjoining room, a continuation of the 'Prologue' portion of the exhibition, explores how designers visually portray information about the continent, featuring infographics by Kai Krause and Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA), Popular Mechanics I, II, III, a series of Linocut prints by Kudzanai Chiurai, and even a film on the making of Slum TV, a local tv station produced by the residents of Mathare, a small settlement just north of Nairobi. One thing particularly interesting about this exhibition is its incorporation of websites into the museum setting, as a means of preserving an integral outlet of contemporary design but also as an invitation for the visitors to seek out design outside of the institution. The exhibition does not overlook the impact that the internet has had on Pan-African development and the recording and dissemination of African creative expression. Africa Is A Country, Okay Africa, and Future Cape Town are just a few of the websites featured in the exhibition, which cover a range of topics, from arts and culture news to urban geographies and architectural history.
The exhibition then transitions into the 'I and We' portion, mainly concerned with design as a tool for self expression within a global cultural context, and the political dimension this can take on. Malian photographers Seidou Keïta and Malick Sidibé and Nigerian photographer J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, who worked in the 1950s and 1960s documenting a new era of Independence, are featured alongside contemporary photographers Mário Macila, Chris Saunders, Daniele Tamagni, and Hassan Hajjaj. This portion of of the exhibition offers a diverse array of cultural production, from visual art, film, a music archive, and print media such as Drum, a South African magazine reporting from a black perspective during Apartheid.
Another aspect of this portion of the exhibition is to explore the role of visual production in the aid and representation of marginalized communities. Photographs by Zanele Muholi, in her series Being, documents lesbian couples in South Africa in an attempt to combat erasure and address discrimination and violence enacted against the community. Similarly, Ian Berry's series Cape Town Moffie Drag, consists of intimate portraits of the underground drag scene in Apartheid South Africa. Other featured pieces act as political tools for disenfranchised communities, such as Chicoco Radio a project by NLÉ, which provides the residents of communities threatened by municipal government to be pushed out of their homes in Lagos with a platform for communication and protest. Mapping Violence Against Pro-Democracy Protests in Libya, a project by Twitter user Arasmus, was a crowdsourced map for reporting air strikes, police violence and also food and other resources during the civil unrest in Libya in February and March of 2011.
The next phase of the exhibition 'Space and Object', considers the element of informality in the city that allows design to respond to the ensuing social, economic, political and cultural challenges of urban life. This concept is expanded into design of technologies, materials and systems that address the personal environment. The short film Afronauts by Frances Bodomo is inspired by the story of a newly-independent Zambia's unrealized Space Program and the utopian endeavor of a 'global outsider'. Meschac Gaba's Perruques-Architecture is a series of sculptural synthetic braids shaped into iconic Parisian architecture, which utilizes the traditional Beninese hair braiding skills to comment on the hybridization of a global culture and the associated burdens of colonialism.
Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré's Centre de l'Architecture en Terre is also featured for its utilization of 'local building materials, knowledge and technologies' for 'socially and ecologically sustainable' projects. The building is made of clay and uses overhanging roof construction to adapt to regional climate and allow for air circulation.
The last portion of the exhibition 'Origin and Future' examines the historic and contemporary global culture that shapes African design and visual production. It also features the work of practitioners shaping and manifesting the future of Africa on an increasingly global scale. It also examines the impact that the long history of colonialism has had on contemporary design. One example is the Ankara, or Dutch Wax fabric, that became popular in West Africa, and which has been both criticized for its associations with colonial exploitation and also adopted by West African artists.
Designer Duro Olowu's Look 12. Birds of Paradise, autumn/winter 2013/2014 collection, is featured for its hybrid techniques, using patchwork patterns, a western haute couture silhouette of wide-leg trousers and a cape, and an ancient and complex embroidery technique from Burkina Faso. Omar Victor Diop's Project Diaspora series of self-portrait photographs is inspired by the distinguished travelers of African descent who became the subjects of traditional European portrait paintings. He realizes the modern day equivalent in the African athletes who gain success in Europe, while addressing the exoticization of these individuals. El Anatsui's iris is one of the bookends of the exhibition and serves as an interesting comment on the traditional elements of design that the exhibition sought to challenge. The sprawling sculptural textile, created from discarded metal bottle caps hand-fastened together with copper wire, takes on an entirely new and unrecognizable element. The metal textile is inspired by Kenté cloth from West Africa and the dramatic transformation of the materials acts as a symbol of the innovative nature of design.