The most comprehensive exhibition yet on contemporary design from Africa comes from Germany.
“Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design” is co-produced by Germany’s Vitra Design Museum and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and now the show sprawls throughout the whole first floor of the Blanton Museum of Art, on view through Jan. 6.
By showcasing 120 artists directly from the continent, the exhibition forges a timeline sorely missing from artistic scholarship. Its bold but already apparent claim is that Africa is abounding with innovation and inventiveness in design; it is home to a contemporary generation of problem solvers, history rewriters and hometown humanitarians who are using design creatively for the advancement of themselves and their communities. The goal of “Making Africa” — beyond this claim — is to assert that fact for Western audiences.
The exhibition itself is a masterpiece of design. Several massive centerpieces and four central themes visually anchor the collective thought of the featured artists around the narratives they disrupt.
Cyrus Kabiru’s “C-Stunners” are the first to be encountered at the gallery’s entrance, the name for his set of nonsensically crafted eyeglasses foraged from discarded plastics and metals. Affixed on stands at the viewer’s eye-level, the eyeglasses immediately signal the metaphorical stance one should assume through this exhibition — that of revisiting preconceived notions with an ascribed clarity.
The curators have done much to provide the context needed to achieve that clarity. In the first segment of the show, entitled “Prologue,” video clips of interviews with African intellectuals pepper the walls surrounding Kabiru’s sculptures. In them, they discuss the trajectory for the future of Africa and how it is overcoming its colonial past.
With the course set for an ethnographic telling of African design, the rest of the exhibition’s sections expand the criteria beyond deliberate individual pieces and include magazine covers, infographics, fashion, websites, viral videos, comic books, furniture, and more, all to get at the heart of the revolutionary trends that are setting off new waves of thought among African creatives.
Visitors will leave this enormous show with lasting impressions of the big and memorable pieces, like Porky Hefer’s person-sized basket swing, “Humanest” and Tahir Carl Karmali, Dennis Muraguri, and Tonney Mugo’s “Jua Kali City”, a massive metal representation of an alternative economic structure in Kenya that resists formal capitalism or the Wakanda-esque visions of futuristic African cities in fashion house Ikire Jones’s 2013/2014 lookbook entitled “Africa 2081 A.D.”
More understated pieces can be overlooked in the rush of so many works on view at once, but they still have their impacts. The subtle brilliance of Leanie van der Vyver’s project “Scary Beautiful” comments on female beauty standards with a pair of impossible high-heeled shoes that restrict the wearer’s whole lower legs, seen in a painful-to-watch accompanying video. Works like “Scary Beautiful” point to the variety of problems challenged by this cadre of artists, this one especially linked to feminine identity.
From the beginning, “Making Africa” sets out to say that Africa is multitudinous; there is no single identity that can be forced into a stereotype of an entire continent. A wonderfully illustrative video piece featured in the “I & We” section, which focuses on cultural identity, reveals a breadth of subcultures in a matter of minutes. Essentially a compilation of YouTube videos uploaded by users from dozens of African cities, the participants sing along and dance to the inescapable 2014 hit song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. We American viewers see several things that contradict the popular image of Africa: African individuals, participating in a worldwide pop cultural moment, celebrating and presenting their communities for the world to see.
In a show that seeks so earnestly to encompass all of Africa, my art historian’s instinct tells me to look for the flaws. A prevailing trend in the art world since the 1990s (I’m thinking specifically of encyclopedic museums and international biennials) has been overly ambitious survey shows of non-Western art composed by Western curators.
Several of these covering Africa have already been attempted, and rather than educate or elucidate the true conditions of the continent, they are better known for what they left out – political, social, economic contexts.
“Making Africa” curator Amelie Klein of the Vitra Design Museum admits that Europeans undertaking the task of representing Africans is inherently flawed. Her counter-strategy was to first bring in an advising curator, Okwui Enwezor, a multi-talented Nigerian thinker who previously served as the Venice Bienniale’s first African-born curator.
Secondly, Klein organized a board of curatorial advisors based in Africa as well as several think tanks of artists and influencers so that the show would accurately reflect their distinct voices.
Thinking cross-culturally about a topic as contemporary and universal as design teaches Westerners that design can be retrofitted to solve a vast array of real world problems. The prevailing though evolving view is that Africa is full of problems and that design can help solve those problems.
In fact, design and progress have grown concurrently in Africa and projects range beyond the practical and political into the representational, whimsical, and even just-for-fun.
Just because we Westerners are not aware of it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.