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

Design Indaba founder shifts focus in a bid to revive cultural showcase


Ravi Naidoo – founder of Design Indaba. Picture: Supplied

Is the country’s design industry in trouble? One of our most prestigious cultural showcases, the internationally acclaimed Design Indaba, is scaling back. Despite claiming a R2.1 billion gross domestic product contribution over the past seven years, the event has cancelled the important trade show of its annual festival.

Known as the Design Indaba Expo, the trade fair has shown a sharp decline in visitors since its record-breaking 63 560 during the World Design Capital 2014, to 49 523 in 2015 – figures so low they were last seen in 2009.

Despite reduced visitors, trade sales and exports showed only a small decrease from R201.9 million to R195 million, emphasising that the actual value of the event lies not in the eye of the domestic consumer. For both buyers and exhibitors, trade shows are widely considered to be the most time- and cost-efficient way of making big business deals across the globe.

The conference, which will be relocating from the Cape Town International Convention Centre to Artscape, will soon announce a new date, no longer the usual last weekend of February, says founder Ravi Naidoo.

The expo was founded in 2004 when “the Woodstock Exchange didn’t exist, the Biscuit Mill didn’t exist, Watershed didn’t exist, SAM on Bree Street didn’t exist”.

Naidoo denies the event is in trouble. He says he preferred to innovate with the times along the lines of the London Design Festival and Milan Furniture Fair, where the truly progressive work is showcased across the city.

Nonetheless, both these festivals have a trade-orientated anchor event. Naidoo felt that this sector contribution should no longer be the responsibility of his “small, private company of 30”, when the City of Cape Town and Western Cape Government had their own priorities in terms of investing in special purpose vehicles.

“Maybe there’s a savvy entrepreneur who can go in and fill that gap, and maybe the City will support it, and maybe they’re not of a dusky hue like me and they’ll get better endorsed by the province,” said Naidoo after bemoaning that the company has not once presented to the Mayoral Committee despite its GDP contribution.

He also bemoaned the fact that the convention centre’s economic model and price points were orientated towards international events.

Naidoo wanted to refocus Design Indaba along “a more distributed nationwide platform”, expanding nationally into Maboneng in Joburg and Florida Road in Durban, and even internationally.

A big push remains the Indaba’s online magazine, which now attracts more than 100 000 unique visitors a month. The brand is no longer concerned with being a mega-event, but “morphing into other spaces locally and internationally … that operates 365 days a year”.

About the art and design side events that have cropped up around the same time as Design Indaba, Naidoo is equally indifferent.

“Most of them have not come over to us to collaborate or coordinate, they just happened. So maybe they’ll just have to happen when we happen.”

City Press, 4 August 2015

More spectacles in Cape Town: Cyrus Kabiru

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An exhibition of the C-Stunners spectacles by Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru is running in Cape Town, expressing the multiple, one-of-a-kind perspectives on and from Africa.

His spectacles are wild and whimsical, serious and resourceful. Kabiru works with objects and recycled materials found on the streets of Nairobi. Bars evoke prisons, bullets evoke police brutality, bones and calabashes talk to tradition, wire satellite dishes and other elaborate metal constructions comment on technology and the future. Most involve many of these elements.

The press release lobs Kabiru into the Afro-futurism box, a philosophy that has increasingly become an empty populist label celebrating everyone from Sun Ra to Outkast and Janelle Monáe.

Frankly, it’s a patronising surface-level reading, as Los Angeles artist Martine Syms explains in her The Mundane Afro-futurist Manifesto: “This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a ‘master/slave’ relationship.”

Kabiru is self-taught. In fact, he started making the glasses when he was seven years old and has forged his own path.

A fellow at TED’s The Young, the Gifted, the Undiscovered in the US in 2013, he explained: “They used to tell their kids ‘Work hard. If you won’t work hard, you’ll be like Cyrus.’ I was very different. I was always in my house doing art, painting and making sculptures. And no one understood what I was doing. I didn’t study. I wore shaggy clothes.

“To them it was a bit weird. I didn’t know Sunday. I didn’t know Monday. I didn’t know.”

Aside from a selection of the spectacles and selfies of Kabiru wearing his glasses, his Black Mambas are also on show.

These are sculptures made from fixed-gear bikes that have increasingly become obsolete with the advent of the scooter. As such an expression of extreme individualism and the celebration of multiple narratives – numerous perspectives, positive and negative – and a grounded presence in the now, Kabiru’s work is far more nuanced than “black sci-fi”.

Also worth comparing with these C-Stunners is Cape Town’s favourite talking point, the Perceiving Freedom “public spectacles” by Michael Elion.

Unfortunately, instead of being supersized and displayed in public, Kabiru’s work is hidden away in the obscure The Palms complex in Woodstock, where SMAC Gallery relocated to at the end of last year.

Published by City Press, 22 February 2015

The geopolitical trash

“What is good for the trash is good for poetry,” reads Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó’s artwork on show at The Poetry In Between: South-South exhibition currently on in Cape Town.

The exhibition is billed as “exploring the connections and disconnections between Africa and Latin-America”, drawing its name from the geopolitical term “Global South”.

The contested term refers to the non-Westernised world and has become preferred to “developing world” or “third world”, but still draws criticism for highlighting the political tensions between the West and the “other”, or “the trash”.

There’s another level of trash in this exhibition: other people’s flotsam.

For instance, works on display by Brazilian artists include a massive bale of hay that apparently houses a golden needle and thread by Cildo Meireles, an installation of found objects by the peripatetic Paulo Nazareth, a fabric sculpture by Sonia Gomes hanging from the rafters, and a flute embedded in a soapstone by Nuno Ramos.

Is there truth in the meme that the Global South is more resourceful in terms of repurposing waste since we always end up with the West’s leftovers, or have we fallen prey to our own clichéd platitudes?

The South African work on display is more specific – or at least more recognisably specific from this viewer’s context.

These include canvases made of correctional services sheeting by Turiya Magadlela, and a lightbox installation of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s seminal Ponte City work. Ariel Reichman’s Tea for the Master, Coffee for the Madam performance that saw him don a domestic worker’s outfit and serving two chairs delivered unexpected poetry when the queue for wine engulfed his set.

And, of course, never shall there by a Goodman group exhibition without a David Goldblatt or William Kentridge – whose 1991 animation, Mine, has revealed a new dimension since the Marikana Massacre. It was Kendell Geers’s 1993 Hanging Piece that defined the show, however.

Set up in the entrance foyer, the work entails red bricks suspended from rope tied to the rafters at various heights.

Although most people tried to skirt around the obstruction, the work is revealed by people weaving their way through it, setting a brick swinging that could hit another over the head.

Although made a good 13 years before the term BRICS was coined in 2006, it seems an entirely prophetic work in its comical enactment of how clunky and problematic any of these geopolitical terms are; and how they can hit you over the head when you’re not looking.

As the exhibition promises to be the first of an annual series, one hopes that future iterations might explore these tensions and contradictions.

Since it also bears mentioning that the Goodman’s idea of “Africa and Latin-America” in fact refers to “South Africa and Brazil” (with an exception of Kudzanai Chiurai).

City Press, 15 February 2012

Chopper safari

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‘Cape Town tower, Papa, X-ray, Juliet, good day and ready for lift,” my “baby” sister, Rudi Botha, says into the microphone of her noise-cancelling aviation headset. This is not a simulation and I’m most definitely not dreaming – except, when did the student transform into a tough-as-nails 24-year-old woman?

We’re sitting in a two-seater Robinson 22 helicopter (RH22) as the engine warms up for takeoff. The rotor blades are gathering speed, and sweat is pouring down our faces as the temperature in the tiny cabin climbs. Rudi’s reflective aviator sunglasses could not get more Tom Cruise, except this movie is more Top Girl than Top Gun, with the two of us about to helicopter into the blue yonder, like Thelma and Louise.

I repeat, this is not a simulation.

“Papa, X-ray, Juliet, lift own discretion. Remain west of runway one niner. Wind two one zero degrees, one two knots,” a male voice comes over the radio.

“Lift own discretion. Remain west. Papa, X-ray, Juliet,” Rudi chimes back. A qualified private helicopter pilot, Rudi has been adding flying hours towards her commercial licence for the past two years, and has about 75 of 200 left to go. Her school replaced the engine and main rotor blades on one of its RH22 choppers – the bodies last 6?600 hours, the engines up to 2?200 hours and the main rotor blades 2?000 hours. New engines need to be broken in with 25 hours of flying at maximum continuous power – ideal for high-speed, long-distance flights – before the helicopter can be used for the slower, more precision aspects of training.

So Rudi offered to take it for a spin around the country over the festive season, and we were up and away with the aquamarine of False Bay melting into the horizon on one side, mosaics of tin roofs below our feet and dark green mountains up ahead. It was my first time in a helicopter – no half measures for me – and I was so relieved to be feeling fine, over-the-moon excited to be on the brink of an unchartered experience, and gloating about my new Airwolf ringtone. It was time to take a selfie.

The plan was to take two days to fly up to the Free State over the Karoo, spend Christmas with our father on the farm, then take three days to fly back along the Wild Coast and Garden Route.

No, helicoptering in a RH22 is not really faster than driving when it comes to long distances, mostly because of the fuel stops every two hours or so – and we also had to wait out bad weather, sometimes for days.

The changing weather also makes it nearly impossible to book accommodation. Nevertheless, we still took the opportunity to smirk down at the Somerset West traffic pile-up and shrug at the escalating daily road-deaths reports, although it didn’t stop our mother’s frantic hourly WhatsApp messages.

The unmanned and noncommercial airstrips are a story unto themselves – a backstage of contemporary life that none of us ever see, and far grittier than Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport.

From the Jägermeister-bottle-lined clubhouse, replete with ties and G-strings nailed to the bar in Swellendam, to the ghost-like Graaff-Reinet airstrip, its tarred surface pointing to a more illustrious history now left to sunset photo collages, a very shy parrot and no running water.

The rather preppy Gariep Dam airstrip was home to the only other female voice we heard on the radio, belonging to the part-time air traffic information provider who keeps an eye out for the fleet of leisure gliders.

Larger aerodromes told different stories. Oudtshoorn, for instance, is dominated by an international flight training academy with a Chinese contract to train pilots for less than it would cost in the communist homeland. The cafeteria serves reheated stir-fry from sweaty bains-marie. Port Alfred is home to the famous 43 Air School, which trains SAA cadets, and where we eavesdropped on a conversation between a visiting graduate, now an SAA pilot, who bemoaned the number of disappearing planes. Bethlehem boasted numerous hangers and facilities, but once inside, most were empty, with less than a handful of people rattling around. But these impressions were fleeting and we strapped in again and left as rapidly as we arrived. Floating in a bubble with the ground 350m below our feet for an average of five hours a day makes it very hard to fully invest in what increasingly felt like trivialities of the human condition. The most literal physical embodiment of a “new perspective”, the bird’s-eye view made roads look like arteries, bushes like bunny rabbit tails,

hills like belly rolls and valleys like stretch marks, trains like mercury running up a thermometer, cows like omega seeds, rivers like wounds and gashes, shorelines like fractals and dams like mirror shards.

Different areas had different textures – the Karoo had a smooth fur-like layer of grass with a range of rich colourings mimicking animal prints. The Valley of Desolation was rough and hard, like a macroscopically enlarged gravel road, with scratches revealing fiery red soil beneath. The most geometric, like a meticulously laid out lappieskombers, was the Free State, while the KwaZulu-Natal hillocks showed a geometry of interlocking circles. The Wild Coast looked like a pristine golf course and, coming back to the Western Cape, it was all of the above – the most diverse.

From up there, the geopolitics of South Africa is also laid out for all to see: towns shaped like lopsided bow ties with large houses camouflaged by leafy streets and neon-blue swimming pools winking up from one side, and corrugated iron matchbox dwellings tightly gridlocked in a stark mirror image on the other side.

Working the nine-to-five in a city, one can get quite mentally stuck in the global urbanisation project of the 20th century – you know, “cities are the future” kind of thing – but there are thousands of kilometres and tens of hours between moderate sprinklings of human life out there. Entire expanses, especially on the Wild Coast and in the Valley of Desolation, had no signs of human life.

Time and space is different out there in the middle of nowhere. Take, for instance, the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda, which is the prolific artistic output of 31 years of Helen Martins’ life squeezed into a single museum.

In the 21st century, investing that amount of time into any project is hard to wrap your mind around. Even 200 hours towards a commercial licence sounds like a lot.

We flew around the country in 24 hours – the same amount of time it takes the earth to circle the sun – and less than a week later, we’re back at our office jobs.

Yet everything feels different. Anything feels possible. And that’s a holiday feeling worth having when starting off the new year.

Published by City Press, 18 January 2015

The quiet violence of dreams: Mohau Modisakeng

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A black riempie chair bristling with erect sjamboks is hardly what you expect to see when you walk into a colonial museum. Then again, who still walks into those dusty old mausoleums of white power?

Well, there’s one in Cape Town that has replaced its mothballs with a retrospective exhibition of work by Mohau Modisakeng: Chavonnes Battery. This site-specific installation of the 29-year-old artist’s arresting race, violence and power-infused work is, frankly, profound.

Dug up in 1999 by the V&A Waterfront construction team, Chavonnes Battery was a heavy artillery fortress completed in 1726 to protect the Dutch’s Cape outpost from potential invasion. It remained in working condition until about 1860, when construction on the harbour saw it slowly demolished and covered up in warehouses.

The museum’s ground floor is currently home to more than 20 of Modisakeng’s sculptures, videos and photographs, 17 of which form part of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art’s permanent collection.

Curated by Mark Coetzee, the installation is arranged as a linear story emphasising the tools of control and power used as symbols of repression in Modisakeng’s work.

The first floor is little more than a passageway around the building, allowing viewers to peer down into the basement below the art installation. Gangplank-like glass walkways allow one to explore the museum’s story of “shipwrecks and isolation wards, soldiers and slaves, exiles and explorers, locals and settlers, knechts and convicts”, according to the website.

It’s hard not to see the fort’s crumbling foundations as a representation of colonialism, and Modisakeng’s lavishly produced work of art as a sign of a new era, literally floating above it. In his photographic and video work, he engages the viewer with a smirk, a cocked eyebrow, nonchalantly swinging a panga. There’s no blood or guts or gore. Everything is in perfect control; it is only the threat of violence and a sense that the tables are turned.

This potential for violence draws an interesting parallel with Chavonnes Battery, which, according to its website, only once actually fired a single weapon in anger. The strategy to build the biggest fortress with the flashiest canons to deter invaders seems to have worked.

The Quiet Violence of Dreams, the title of K Sello Duiker’s seminal novel exploring the divisive social geography of Cape Town, comes to mind. In a city that continues to struggle with spatial apartheid and the lack of redress to its predominantly colonial public sculptures, memorials and museums, this exhibition visualises ways in which a revisionist history can be realised without erasing or replacing.

As for Modisakeng, he’s one to watch after having both his first solo gallery exhibition and first museum retrospective in one year.

Published by City Press, 7 December 2014

Comfort zone

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Married to your mohair? Wedded to your wool? Nadine Botha explores why a blanket is the perfect partner for winter.

Most of us had a favourite blanket as a child. And whether it was called Blanky or Banky or Pinky or Lovey, it was supernatural. In seconds it morphed from blanket to teddy bear to tent to picnic to superhero cape to comforter. Being tied to our mother’s back was sublime, sleeping without it was unimaginable, and as for warding off the giant big-nose monsters…

Security blankets are for many of us the first inanimate object with which we create a relationship and find comfort in. Like Linus and his blanky in the Peanuts comic strip, dependence on these comfort objects can either evoke empathy or scorn in others.

Psychologists, however, regard them as a positive part of key developmental stages. Termed a ‘transitional object’, the security blanket eases us into independence from our mothers, and are said to facilitate learning as well as helping children adapt to new situations.

Recent research has also revealed that adults who have kept some form of comfort object (not necessarily a blanket) are more independent and better at dealing with stress. In Japan, many adults have traded up from blankies to robotic pets, while in the UK it is estimated that about 35% of adults still sleep with a teddy bear.

The blanket as comfort object is timeless. Weighted blankets are used in psychiatric care to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to autism, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD. They provide deep pressure and are described as a ‘firm hug’.

Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort writes in her latest book, Fetishism in Fashion (win one of five copies by entering here), ‘Most babies are given a safety blanket that is meant to be a partner and protector, a cuddle to be cherished. Some people will hold on to that first bit of cloth for the remainder of their lives and will be very distressed when losing the cherished object. Therefore this first encounter with fibre and weave is responsible for many of our future encounters with fabric. We will continue to search for the same softness, a similar colour, an equal weight.’

A blanket as fetish object? Well, there’s no denying that wrapping yourself in a good blanket is a sensual experience and that, especially as adults, we often choose our blankets with as much care as we do our partners. We do, after all, have to sleep with it.

What makes a good bedmate? Natural, manmade or blended? Cotton, wool, mohair, merino, polyester or nylon? What about allergies? Matted, woven, knitted, felted or fleeced? Will it get too hot? Handmade or machine produced? What about microfibre and, even, electric? With the range of options on the market today, you should be able to find whatever you desire. You can even find one with sleeves, called a ‘slanket’ – not that it’s advisable to leave the house wearing a sleeved blanket.

If you’re having a Linus day and can’t get by without your blanket, rather take your cue from Louis Vuitton. Developing the hipster oversized scarf trend to its supersized conclusion, swanky men and women were seen wearing blankets across their shoulders and around their necks during the European winter. However, with Louis Vuitton’s blanky going for US$1 260 (about R12 600), it’s not likely to take off here any time soon.

Mzansi is the original home of blanket fashion. Many African people use blankets as cultural identifiers. Checked Masai blankets are widely known, and Zulu and Xhosa people also make use of blankets during initiation ceremonies and other rituals. The Basotho people in Lesotho and the Free State wear their tribal blankets throughout the year.

Deeply embedded in the Basotho culture, blankets are differentiated through striking colours and motifs, which indicate special occasions and social status. Originally produced in Britain, the blankets are now produced locally based on the patterns and colours integrated by the Basotho. To this day, the blankets are still made of 90% wool and 10% cotton, making them fire and rain resistant. Shnu Tribal & Basotho Blankets produce beautiful heirloom blankets, with royalties going to the Basotho nation.

Breathing new life into traditional blankets is young fashion designer Thabo Makhetha. Born in Lesotho and now based in Port Elizabeth, she showed a striking range of clothes and accessories made from Basotho blankets at this year’s Design Indaba Expo.

Laduma Ngxokolo, who’s known for his Xhosa-themed Fair Isle knit jerseys, has also collaborated with mohair weaving company Hinterveld on a range of blankets inspired by African culture, from the corn blankets of the Sotho to the burnt orange blankets of the Xhosa and the colourful throws of the Ndebele.

Just a rectangular piece of cloth – that’s all a blanket entails. Native Americans leave a flaw in the weaving to let the soul out, while Nasa coats plastic with a metallic film to create space blankets that conserve body heat in emergencies. So simple, so versatile, so indispensable.

First published in iMagazine and VISI, 5 August 2013