Making Africa – we need new names

City Press: January 15, 2016

Kenya’s cellphone micropayment system, M-Pesa; Beninese artist Meschac Gaba’s architectural sculptures made of hair braids; Umlilo’s Magic Man music video; Zanele Muholi’s portraits of black lesbians; Nigerian celebrity and lifestyle magazine Ovation; Cyrus Kabiru’s eyewear sculptures; the Diesel + Edun’s Pantsula vs Puppets advert; Robin Rhode’s street art animations; Vlisco fabric; and fashion website That Skattie.

These are just a sample of the range of work by more than 120 artists and designers included in the Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design exhibition, which is now showing at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Originally curated by Amelie Klein for the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, Switzerland, it is arguably the first major museum survey show of contemporary design in Africa, and neatly avoids stereotypes of humanitarian design and cultural craft by positioning itself within the “Africa is rising” narrative.

However, as the art world learnt with seminal exhibitions such as Africa Remix by Simon Njami in 2005 and The Short Century by Okwui Enwezor in 2001, survey exhibitions are inherently flawed because Africa is not a country, and any showing of Africa in Europe will evoke the spectacle of the other, raising the question of who this exhibition is really serving, and to what end.

Nigerian-born Enwezor also played an advising role in Making Africa, which originally opened just before his centrepiece Venice Biennale show last year. There is a feeling that his name gives the exhibition some sort of stamp of approval, particularly since his curatorial fingerprint is not discernible. However, in his catalogue interview, his call for a new design vocabulary that interrogates the power relations of Western-imposed concepts such as recycling and informality is to the point.

These etymological questions about design in Africa are echoed by everyone from Joburg-based Ghanaian architect Lesley Lokko to Edgar Pieterse, the founder of the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, in the interactive video component of the exhibition. Featuring interviews with 12 art and design thinkers and practitioners, this gives meaningful intellectual context to the exhibition and is also available as an invaluable online resource.

It is disappointing that the richness of the design etymology conversation is not continued throughout the rest of the exhibition, comprising four seemingly superficial sections – Europe’s perceptions of Africa, social and cultural identity, urbanism and products, and future visions.

Obviously, there will be gaps in any exhibition that attempts a continent-wide scope (the most obvious being the iJusi magazine from Durban), but the selection criteria for what was included are not easily discernible.

At worst, given the show’s impetus to show a perspective on Africa divergent from the usual poverty and desolation themes, the uniting thread leans towards trendiness – something Jim Chuchu of The Nest decries in his video interview.

At best, the exhibition shows how, as Klein describes in her curatorial statement, design can begin to rethink itself beyond being in the service of the market economy.

Showing this achingly contemporary side of Africa to the rest of the world is important to inspire people to look further than the doomsday headlines and stereotypes. As a South African, however, I would have appreciated more interrogation of the premise that Africa is rising.

Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design runs at the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain until February 22