A Continent of Contemporary Design
Vitra Design Museum 14.03. – 13.09.2015
From the entrance of Frank Gehry's stunning cubist building a handsome half afro-coifed goateed young man stares at you via a large colour photograph. Half his face is consumed by a spiderweb contraption radiating from where his eyes should be. Surrounding him in the showcase installation are 14 similarly wrought contraptions dangling on elegant stilts. A denizen from outer space? An extra on a sci-fi movie set? Oh, no.
It's Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru, a wunderkind sculptural artist currently igniting the international Art & Design scene. The spider contraption he's wearing is one of his "C-Stunners." Eyewear like nothing you've ever seen. Kabiru, a TED global alumni (California, 2013), makes his artsy cornucopia from junk scavenged from backyards and rubbish dumps in his hometown Nairobi: bolts, screws, rivets, nails, cork, wire, netting, cutlery, radio parts, beer bottle tops, tin cans, calabash - you name it. He gives them a new life in a transformative process that blurs the boundaries between design, art, fashion and theatre. "I like to give trash a second chance," he says, echoing Yinka Shonibare's credo, "art is turning the mundane into gold, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary."
Kabiru joins that select group of magicians, such as El Anatsui, Willie Bester, Gonçalo Mabunda and Ibrahim Mahama, who produce wondrous stuff from banal objects and detritus from our modern life. In fact, he has top billing in Making Africa, A Continent of Contemporary Design an exhibition which opened on March 14 at the trendsetter Vitra Design Museum, located in Weil am Rhein, on the German-French-Swiss border. Assembled under the undulating roof of Gehry's shimmering white, dancing-form architectural tour de force are a delightful smorgasbord of physical works and video ambulation by 120 Africans living on the continent or in Diaspora. They make era-defining statements in graphics, furniture, film, haut couture, architecture, photography, illustration, printing, e-digital, etc.
We are talking David Adjaye, Kunlé Adeyemi, El Anatsui, Kader Attia, Kudzanai Chiurai, Marc Coetzee, Cheick Diallo, Omar Diop, Okwui Enwezor, Lisa Folawiyo, Pierre-Christophe Gam, Manuel Herz, Yinka Ilori, Wanuri Kahiu, Tahir Carl Karmali, Francis Kéré, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Koyo Kouoh, Gonçalo Mabunda, Mario Macilau, Achille Mbembe, James Muruiki, Wangechi Mutu, Azu Nwagbogu, JD Okhai Ojeikere, Edgar Pieterse, Robin Rhode, Yinka Shonibare, Paul Sika, Alexia Webster, Ushahidi ...
Sample: Zimbabwe Institute of Visual Arts (ZIVA) founded by Saki Mafundikwa in 1999 presents five infographics that address developmental challenges in independent Zimbabwe and speak equally to all post-colonial Africa. Sean Jacobs, with Africa is a Country, co-opts the colonialist habit of treating the continent as an enigmatic entity by turning the cliché into a statement of solidarity, pointing out the continent's "diversity and multiplicity of perspectives." Hopkins, Otieno, Karanja, Pusch and Nikolic, with the Slum TV of Nairobi's Mathare informal settlement, seek to rebut what they call the "NGO aesthetics," by offering different, community empowering perspectives. Jim Chuchu, with All Oppression is Connected wall painting, highlights the plight of sexual minorities and his own engagement in fighting for these rights. A scrumptious 1950s Drum cover featuring Miriam "Mama Africa" Makeba poignantly reminds of a time when female sexiness meant baring little and leaving lots to the imagination.
To my knowledge never before has such an in depth, delightful effort been made to highlight and explore the creative genius of a continent constantly brushstroked as little more than a theatre of poverty, corruption, bad governance and war. Making Africa goes beyond showcasing artifacts and objects. The programme, staggered over six months, also brings in prominent Africans in art & design and other creative fields to Weil am Rhein, a bucolic rural place along a bend in the sleepy Rhine where Roman legions stomped in their world-conquering expeditions. The conquest today is of a different kind: to stimulate reflection on the past, and more importantly, Africa's place within the global discourse; to underscore the continent as a hub of experimentation, "generating new approaches and solutions of worldwide relevance and as a driving force for a new debate on the potential of design in the 21st century," according to the curators.
"The main object was to present a different image of Africa. We are not denying what's problematic on the continent, given the images that most people outside have of Africa, basically, three narratives: the corrupt dictator, the hungry child and the idle wild, all set on a backdrop of a beautiful sunset, an Acacia tree... We decided to focus on a different narrative. I think we managed quite well in doing so. That's at least what the media reports suggest!" – curator Amelie Klein told The Star. The exhibition has Munich's Haus der Kunst director, Nigerian Okwui Enwezor and star architect, Ghanaian David Adjaye as advisers. Talk about powerhouses indeed!
Making Africa, a feast of the senses, is the kind of seminal happening that managers and practitioners in the art & design industry and culture worldwide, thirsting for new frontiers, shouldn't miss. There's plenty of time – it closes on September 13. The late sage Chinua Achebe gifted Africa, and the world, with the following gem, which is one of the pithy comments emblazoned on walls at the exhibition: "Until Lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters."
Today, it's a motivated group of experts, Africaphiles, who've stepped up to the plate to be historians for Africa's lions. Hallo, Addis Ababa – the Africa Union... Are you still there?
Osei G Kofi, Geneva, June 2015