Africa may be a contradictory and stratified continent, always sidestepping attempts to picture or define it but South Africa magnifies these shifts and multiplies their ambiguities. This is especially so since, although imbued with Africanness – if indeed we can happily speak of Africanness… – many see South Africa as only half African. The other 50% of the state is European, American, Jamaican, Cuban, Indian, Chinese... such fragmentation, apparent in its geographical, social, architectural and linguistic (South Africa has around 11 official languages) boundaries, is of course channelled into art and its elective application in design.
In 2014 and 20 years after the proclamation of democracy, Cape Town is World Design Capital but few people outside South Africa knew this until last February, when the annual Design Indaba festival came around, which, by the way, only coincided in calendar terms with the first CTWDC2014 events. At the same time came the Guild Design fair, the third design highlight across February and March, and, in turn, disconnected from the Indaba expo. That means three probably very costly operations with a high communication impact (at least nationally) and a programme of guests and talks that would be the envy of the disorganised Milan. However, rather than delivering a shared message (probably inexistent when it comes down to it) to the outside, these days were spent narrating the three identities of South African design, each one of these, in turn, multiple and complex.
Let us take Design Indaba, an institution created by Raivi Nadoo to bring together and connect the best of international creativity to what is emerging locally. A fair that, this year, celebrates its 20th anniversary. Apart from the conference, considered its flagship event and always sold out, the other two showpieces of Indaba’s three festival days this year – and with all the big names (this year, Thomas Heatherwick, Naoto Fukasawa, El Ultimo Grito, Stefan Sagmeister and Hans Ulrich Obrist to name but a few) – were a seminar by Li Edelkoort and a small visionary MINI exhibition by Stefan Scholten and Carol Baijings on CMF (colours, materials, finishes) at the CTICC entrance.
Foreign journalists encountered in those corridors kept asking: “OK, but where is African design?” This is a very hard question to answer but it is even more difficult to make sense of a question that is probably – and inevitably – corrupted by a Western European viewpoint and the presumption of coming from a privileged observatory, and maybe wearing the (colonial) hat of the ethnologist busy patting shoulders. On the other hand, we cannot turn a blind eye and speak of South Africa as of any other country without also seeking in its designs the history and stories that run through it. This applies even though much of the design seen over these days really does seem intended to come from a no man’s land...
Like Italian, Swedish, German, English, American etc. design, African design has varied and multiple interpreters and expressions that range from local crafts revisited (a craft 2.0 with one eye on tradition and the other on the European continent) to the emulation of a stateless and widespread language (that speaks the tongue of skulls, shabby chic and the Dutch aesthetic), self-productions (in the designer/business model so popular among wealthy white South Africans, who open and close one-brand shops for which they self-design chairs, bookcases, planters and tables), digital maker projects, art/design projects sold locally to affluent clients in the hope that a foreign gallery owner will notice them and turn them into a new talent. Alongside these expressions, all legitimate and some of excellent quality – but that, inevitably, do not really answer the key question asked above by those from outside –, there is an intelligent, useful, alternative and original design not just “Made in Africa” but “Made for Africa”, design triggered by local emergencies, needs and demands and that turns them into answers with a global reach.
Happily, despite its serious communication and international image, the Design Indaba festival is crammed into just one pavilion showcasing the best of not just South African creativity but that of all the continent and not only products but also fashion and jewellery (very little furniture), making it relatively easy to quickly track down the rarities. These are, in my opinion, to be found on two facing stands: the “Africa is Now” exhibition curated by Design Indaba and with a selection of 60 objects from 25 African countries; and the “Yenza. Make it!”, subtitled “Celebrating self-made objects from self-made homes”, project – one of the few World Design Capital ventures in this venue. The latter has three strong points: it, subtly in a new context, celebrates the global phenomenon that is now hugely relevant of the Homo faber/maker; it displays an array of interesting and material anthropological examples of projects that convey the daily intuition, common sense and recycling of life in the townships (cf. the “Made in Slums” exhibition at the Milan Triennale until last February); and it launches a business project based on these communities, connecting them with a concrete, albeit currently limited, commercial demand.
The subtitles of “Africa is Now” are, by contrast, five powerful messages to the rest of the world: “Africa is Urban”, “Africa is Transformed”, “Africa is Tradition Reinvented”, “Africa is Sharp!”, “Africa is Resourceful”, and they come from Malawi, Kenya, Mozambique, Cameroon, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Ghana and the Ivory Coast in an incredible succession of types “thought for Africa”, including most notably self-diagnosis medical equipment designed to reduce the costs and hardship linked to transfers; apps and software for farming and health; portable lighting systems that exploit solar energy and recycled material; inexpensive sanitary pads made from natural and hypoallergenic local materials (in Uganda, 90% of the female population living in makeshift dwellings cannot afford those on the market and so either live segregated or employ non-hygienic solutions) and modular recycled-plastic systems for the rapid but permanent construction of houses; a specially designed wheelchair for children living in rural areas and even a reinvention of the wheel to resolve manual transport on varying terrains. Many of these are projects in need of further developments and funding to be viable on a large scale and, in certain cases, their true functional efficacy remains to be tested but what is new is that we are talking applied experimentation, a seeming tautology which much self-referential research design has, however, made us forget.
Strictly speaking, this design is not more African than the previous one because it looks inwardly instead of outwardly, nor can we claim the right – after Europe has spent decades designing bookcases and chairs – to tell those climbing onto the product design carousel that there is no room for them, or to advise against embarking on certain paths as experience teaches that companies are becoming few and far between and that the other forms of visibility and earning are saturated and exclusive (and already occupied here). Finally, we must move past the conviction that we are better at it simply because we have been doing it longer. After ten years of going back and forth to Cape Town, I see a city transformed, with futuristic and sophisticated urban development (all the more striking because sometimes executed in the most rundown areas) and it is not hard to imagine that, in ten years’ time, the standard of the designs and designers will be super-competitive but, for those looking from this side, and who are, probably, sick and tired of a certain aesthetic, it is in answers such as those offered by the albeit very limited selection (more than 66 innovative designs, we are sure) of “Africa is Now” that African design seems to have found its most interesting image. Above all, it seems the home of a more promising design formula, that which has been sublimated here without, perhaps, having been fully resolved and which we in Europe ought probably to rethink some time: that which connects need to beauty, to resources… and to people.