Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design

Veronica Simpson visits the Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design, which busts stereotypes and prejudices through a focus of contemporary creativity and innovation.


Making Africa -- A Continent of Contemporary Design opened at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao late last year: a chaotic, colourful melting pot of an exhibition whose aim was to investigate and celebrate the ways in which digital technology has opened up opportunities for self-expression, innovation and communication in this vast region.

The availability of online information and connection has certainly levelled the playing field. In 2014, there were apparently 650 million mobile-phone subscribers on the continent -- more than in Europe or the USA. This is one of many powerful statistics revealed in Making Africa's Prologue -- the show's opener -- which illustrates the poverty of understanding afflicting many in the 'Global North' about the 'Global South', where news headlines on poverty, famine, war and corrupt governments create a very one-dimensional perspective, almost entirely filtered through the prism of 'trauma'.

To counteract this, the Prologue is host to a series of filmed interviews with designers, artists, gallerists and cultural commentators in Lagos, Dakar, Cape Town, Cairo and Nairobi, all of whom were consulted by the curatorial team while developing the show. As one interviewee says: 'The single story creates stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.'

David Adjaye’s model for the new Johannesburg station
David Adjaye's model for the new Johannesburg station

In this darkened room, fascinating facts keep popping up. For example, as of 2014, an estimated 34 per cent of Africa's 1.1 billion people belonged to the educated middle classes. Also, Africa's economy is growing at five per cent, outstripping global growth (3.7 per cent) Or there's the eye-opener that only 28 per cent of economic opportunity in Africa comes through formal, wage-earning jobs. Which means that 72 per cent of the continent's income is generated by the informal economy; Africa is nothing if not entrepreneurial.

Technology is driving innovation in Africa as everywhere else. As Mateo Kries, director of the Vitra Design Museum that first presented the exhibition, and whose curator Amelie Klein devised it, says in the exhibition's accompanying tome: 'Today, the results achieved by a fab lab workshop using 3D printers, the experimental typography developed by a graphic designer in Harare, the furniture sculptures of an artists' collective from Mozambique -- all of this fascinating work, which once would barely have made its way across local borders, is now conquering social networks within a matter of hours.'

A certain amount of this technology appears in the show, including a documentary about M-Pesa, a branchless bank set up eight years ago, operated via mobile phone, which has given 17 million people across Africa access to a banking system, cutting down cash-based corruption in the process. But the standout exhibits are those that use Western media, but infuse them with a uniquely African sensibility.

These include: Dakar's Omar Victor Diop's striking fashion photography; avant-garde films from Ghanaian Frances Bodomo (Afronauts) and Kenya's Wanuri Kajiu (Pumzi); brilliantly subversive linocut posters from Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai, parodying corrupt politicians; an extraordinary video (Scary Beautiful) by South African Leanie van der Vyver that brilliantly highlights the cruel contortions the fashion industry imposes on women's bodies in the name of beauty; and a graffiti artist from Senegal (Docta) who has used his street art to spread important public-health messages.

With 120 designers and artists represented, the show goes wide rather than deep. It avoids the more familiar issues of oppression, famine and conflict to explore topics of identity, social connectivity, informal urbanism and upcycling (tyres are turned into designer furniture; charity shop clothes transformed into style statements).

Textile made by El Anatsui from bottle tops and sweet wrappers
Textile made by El Anatsui from bottle tops and sweet wrappers

Thirteen new artworks have been added for the Guggenheim Bilbao show -- thanks to its curator Petra Joos -- and these add considerable aesthetic and emotional weight to the distractingly eclectic array. Most affecting was Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu's animation, The End of Eating Everything (featuring a Medusa-headed monster eating everything in her path), made all the more powerful for Mutu's unique perspective: an African meditating on the West's all-consuming greed.

Klein admits her approach to curation was unusual. When the idea first occurred to her in 2011, she began checking out African designers and artists on Facebook, a somewhat flawed research medium, given that it favours quantity and self-promotional zeal over quality. However, this exploration initiated conversations with fellow curators, including Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich's Haus der Kunst and artistic director for the 56th Venice Biennale (2015), who became the advising curator for the exhibition.

Enwezor was apparently keen for this show to establish a new vocabulary for design in Africa. He wanted to ditch the automatic association with the artisanal, with recycling, remodelling, and impoverished materials.

He undoubtedly approved (or suggested) the elegant assimilation of an African design aesthetic into modernist architecture, demonstrated by David Adjaye both in his new station for Johnnesburg (a democratic replacement for the pre-Apartheid original) and Oliver Hardt's eloquent documentary, This Building Will Sing for All of Us. Here Adjaye, a Ghanaian-born Brit, articulates his vision for a landmark building for African architecture in the West: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington DC.

And yet one of the most inspiring exhibits is from architect Kunlé Adeyemi, whose Amsterdam practice NLE developed a low-cost solution to the lack of educational opportunities for children in the Makoko slums of Lagos: a floating school, made from salvaged wood. Every world city -- not just African ones -- has disenfranchised populations that need to utilise the resources available to them, both human and structural, to improve social and economic resilience. Furthermore, what could be more empowering than the W Afate 3D printer, depicted in the show, assembled from electronic waste by a collective called WoeLab, from Togo?

Equally inspiring is El Anatsui's shimmering textile made from reused bottle caps and sweet wrappers. As Klein said at the exhibition's opening: 'How can you speak about trash when he sells pieces for more than $100,000? We have to rethink materials.' She continued: ' I was super keen to get this piece of art. The North has been shipping all its "waste" to Africa for decades. If we can change the perception (and re-perceive waste simply as another material), instead of sitting on rubbish, they will be sitting on vast resources.'

Rather than deny the role that salvaged materials and creative reuse has played in fuelling Africa's artists, designers and architects, it should be cause for celebration. As Mugendi M'Rithaa says in his catalogue essay: 'If necessity is the mother of invention, then Africa should be a superpower in innovation.'

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