The luxurious frivolities of art and design are a hard sell in South Africa, which is focused on redressing the inequalities of the past. Where exactly does the word “beautiful” feature in the emerging democracy’s mass rollout of houses, toilets, education and social justice, for instance?
However, boosting the economy and creating jobs — promoting the concept of trade not aid — is what Design Indaba, South Africa and Cape Town’s flagship annual design event, has been doing for the past 21 years.
“It was scary; we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” says founder Ravi Naidoo about starting out in 1994 in a country newly emerged from economic sanctions and with no design economy of which to speak.
Naidoo, who was also responsible for South Africa’s winning bid for the 2010 Fifa World Cup, credits this and other work as having bankrolled the early years. Only in 2004, when it moved into the newly built Cape Town International Convention Centre, added the expo component and signed department store Woolworth as a sponsor, did the event start drawing attention beyond the marketing, advertising and design-orientated professionals.
The idea was that such speakers as Terence Conran, Tom Dixon, Marcel Wanders, Ferran Adrià and Stefan Sagmeister would bring the world to the tip of Africa, and that visitors would hopefully pick up some South African design at the expo to take back.
The 2014 economic impact assessment of the event — which now includes elements of music and film festivals, and is also broadcast live to venues around the country — reported a R385.2m ($32m) contribution to GDP and 1,146 jobs created. Since 2009, the total GDP contribution has been R1.7bn.
The fact that, despite these figures, the creative economy remains difficult to market is shown by the fact that, until last year, Design Indaba pretty much had the run of the city during the last weekend of February. As Alayne Reesberg, chief executive of the Cape Town World Design Capital (WDC) 2014, said in her outgoing media address, her biggest regret was not being able to make an economic case for commercial sponsorships.
The WDC is an initiative of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, a non-governmental organisation that promotes industrial design.
WDC2014’s biggest success was arguably to focus the city and international media’s attention on the last weekend of February.
It helped husband and wife Trevyn and Julian McGowan — interior designers and founders of Southern Guild, a platform for showcasing South African design — to launch SA’s first international design fair, Guild, last year. This in turn spurred the Cape Town Art Fair to reschedule from October, creating a cluster of events at the end of February.
The McGowans established Southern Guild in 2008 after noticing that the South African design industry needed a stimulus to create more high-end, collectable design.
Rather than bringing the world to Cape Town, their focus was to work with individual designers to create very limited-edition works and take them to international fairs such as Design Days Dubai, Design Miami/Basel and London Design Fair. Works such as Porky Hefer’s Weavers Nests and Dokter and Misses’ Kassena series have become widely known.
During the last week of February, the Cape Town Art Fair also grew, extending itself throughout the V&A Waterfront, linking into a public art programme from the under-construction Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, as well as hosting museum and gallery evenings throughout the city and township art tours during the day.
Also taking place was the unashamedly grungy That Art Fair, hosted in a parking garage, presenting the early days of an authentic underground.
“It just makes sense: people can come out from afar and have a lot to do,” says Elana Brundyn, owner of Cape Town gallery Brundyn+, who exhibited at the Cape Town Art Fair.
The art fair’s producer, Liza Dyason, is equally thrilled by the speed of growth of the event run by exhibition and conference experts Fiera Milano. After just three editions, they are ready to seek sponsors and secure a larger venue.
“It’s right in the middle of [Cape Town tourism] season for international and local visitors. And it fits in with the international art fair calendar,” Ms Dyason says.
Design Indaba’s Mr Naidoo is more sceptical about how much competition the local market can accommodate without competitors “shooting each other in the foot”.
However, it is safe to say that interest in design is growing in South Africa. The country may still be grappling with the legacy of its recent past, but the value of art and design to its economy — in terms of the potential boost to GDP as well as simply creating jobs — is beginning to be recognised.
First published in Financial Times, 27 March 2015