This year’s “What Design Can Do” festival in Amsterdam focused strongly on Africa as a place of challenges and stimuli, thanks partly to collaboration with Design Indaba.
“You would never expect the world’s largest design conference to be held in Africa but Milan or London,” says Ravi Naidoo. We are sitting on the third floor of the Muziekgebouw aan’t Ij and can admire the bay behind Amsterdam’s central station through the glass front of this futuristic building designed by 3XN.
Not far away, in the main concert hall, Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi is presenting his work to a host of designers, creatives, students, activists and the simply curious. We are at “What Design Can Do”, a Dutch conference on the impact of design, but Naidoo is referring to Design Indaba, a veritable institution in the creative industry sector, not just in Cape Town or just in Africa but worldwide. Carried forward for 20+ years by Ravi and his Interactive Africa, the event oozes very African energy and spectacle – and far removed from the TED-style plug-and-play format, he is keen to stress – but it is primarily driven by an activist approach. “A conference cannot exist for its own sake, it must have a purpose. We always say the event represents three days of think tank followed by 363 days of do tank.”
It is this pro-active enthusiasm that spurred its collaboration with the Amsterdam festival, from the very first centred on the social impact of design. This year, it focuses strongly on Africa as a place of challenges and stimuli. As is customary for the Dutch event, the programme – part of which was officially “powered by Design Indaba” – comprises a mix of humanitarian issues and colourful and energetic presentations, reflecting two different but important tensions: on the one hand, technological and architectural innovation that can address specifically African problems; on the other, an expression of creativity and cosmopolitan style extending beyond the confines of the continent.
Active on the first front are Juliana Rotich and Christian Benimana. The former is executive director of the Ushahidi open-source data management and visualisation platform as well as being a cofounder of BRCK, a self-powered WiFi device that connects to the Internet where there is no electricity. The latter is a member of the MASS Design Group, already present at the last WDCD, and director of the African Design Centre recently opened in Kigali. Both are figures – technologist and architect – previously hard to conceive in an African context but now more than ever at the heart of an infrastructural revolution that people such Naidoo started facilitating at the end of the last millennium. I ask him about one of the first campaigns, Hip 2B Square, and how important it was back then to encourage young blacks to embark on scientific studies. “We wanted to inspire the new black generation to study programing and understand technology after that type of education had been denied to their parents during apartheid.” Both Rotich and Benimana studied abroad but Raidoo points to the significance of their involvement in their native countries. “This new generation is creating specific technology for Africa,” he explains. “They aren’t waiting for governments but doing it themselves. I love this ingenuity and spirit of initiative. Many of them studied abroad but they’ve returned. They could have stayed in the United States but they believe they have a mission and that the future lies in Africa.”
The emergence of African aesthetics focused on the future rather than a typically colonial and folkloristic nostalgia has been palpable for some years now and could not be lacking at WDCD. Creative excellence was represented by Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane – whose designs can be spotted on celebrities of thecalibre of Beyoncé – and the musician Ibaaku, whose “Afro-hypnotic experimental” sound accompanied her visionary fashion show in an old station in Dakar. Elsewhere in the programme – centred strongly on the music dimension, given its venue – the public was able to enjoy a sound journey back in time by Moroccan-American Officerfishdumplings, who records and remixes the traditional music of his homeland, turning it into contemporary audio-visual compositions.
As everyone, however, is aware, not everything in Africa is optimism and creativity. The South African cartoonist Zapiro explains the controversy linked to his work, from the days of apartheid to condemnation by President Jacob Zuma, aimed at censoring his satirical coverage of corruption and scandals. Nigeria’s Michael Ewemedimo of CMAP (Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform) presented several media projects – petitions, radio and community planning – to lend a voice to the informal communities of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, ignored and threatened by urban development. Collective media emancipation via control of self-representation was a recurrent theme and Ewemedimo’s activist approach was accompanied by the documentary one of Eefje Blankenvoort who, along with Anouk Steketee, gathered the testimony of New Dawn, a popular Rwandese radio soap that exploits the force of the radio medium to unify the country (instead of dividing it as in the times of the genocide).
As well as presentations and break-out session workshops, the theme “What Africa Can Do for Europe” has become an anthological publication featuring 31 projects (plus another 18 “bonus” ones via a link in the appendix). They include the listed speakers, of course, plus a selection of very mixed projects – one example being the Queens of Africa dolls, conceived as an alternative to the melanine pallor of the usual Barbies and which are outselling them in Nigeria; another is the Lumkani heat detector, designed to detect fires in South African townships and trigger GPS and SMS alarms all over the area, facilitating a prompt response.
Although the projects in the programme and book are extremely varied, the more advanced countries such as South Africa constitute the lion’s share. But Naidoo is ever the optimist: “Innovation is expanding fast and, when they invited me, I wanted not so much to tell my story but to give a perspective of what young African talents are doing, far beyond our national borders.” The growing penetration of the Internet helps but is not the only factor. “We feel a sense of connection, although the colonial period has left language barriers. Millennials interact far more with each other. We want to be a large Pan-African platform promoting creativity. We want to turn the inspiration into action.”