Contemporary Design Africa by Tapiwa Matsinde
Thames & Hudson
British designer and creative consultant Tapiwa Matsinde has teamed up with celebrated UK publisher Thames and; Hudson to tell the stories of some outstanding African designers whose work is shaking off the romanticised, clichéd narrative that often accompanies tales of Africa’s creative heritage. The glossy paperback pulls together an emerging design culture that defies Western conceptions of African craft.
The works present a unique dedication to employing business practices that ensure the sustainability of the craft and décor industries and the environment, yet still manage to match and sometimes surpass the functional and aesthetic demands of a design-savvy global audience.
Among those spinning the wheel on these outdated perspectives is Durban craft business Zenzulu, whose wirework designs sit on the edge between high design, craft and curio. The work could easily be mistaken for typical roadside wirework, the kind you’d find at any airport store. But over the past 20 years and countless collaborations, Zenzulu has redefined the craft of wire and basket weaving into a fine art. The company employs more than 150 weavers.
The late Senegalese sculptor and designer Babacar Niang’s one-off chairs are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Often working alone, he moulded, carved and brought wood to life. As Matsinde puts it: “Animals crossing the savannah, the gangly legs of a giraffe, a feline predator poised to pounce, or hints of an elderly wise man reclining in his chair, inviting you to sit with him awhile.”
Further myths of Africa are debunked in the visual storytelling of playful Cape Town textile company Shine Shine. “With each of the fabrics, I try to tell a story. The stories are really simple, everyday life, about contemporary, urban Africa, but they are also universal,” says Heidi Chisholm, one of the brand’s design collaborators.
“The term ‘design’, as a discipline, was not seen to apply to aspects of Africa’s classical visual art. While the emergence of a viable design industry may be recent, the element of design in Africa’s creativity should not be seen as something new,” writes Matsinde, reflecting on the continent’s rich creative traditions.
She also unpacks the origins of African commerce with colonial traders who saw the intrinsic value of creative skills like basketry, ceramics, metalwork and wood carving to reveal the long-term effects of trade on a society whose designs weren’t market driven, but “created to fulfil personal, domestic or ceremonial needs, as opposed to generating incomes”.
What the author fails to point out is that the consequence of the voracious colonial taste for the “ethnic” goods of the continent resulted in most of the early examples of Africa’s surviving design, art and craft being lost for good to the communities that made them.
Think of the insatiable appetite for African masks across the world. The objects these traders were most interested in were often the same sacred “ceremonial” objects she speaks about. Instead of made-to-sell items, local traders were forced to part with objects that were imbued with a value far exceeding the material – they were tangible relics that communities used to access the past.
They were put in museums like the Tate in London and local communities did not benefit from their legacy. Designers like those in the book are proving these exploitations should not happen again. They prove that the growth of the industry is important, but should happen with the growth and empowerment of the communities