If you thought African art begins and ends with the words “ethnic” or “tribal” or that it is just some curio you buy at a street market as a souvenir, then think again. African art is transforming by leaps and bounds, writes reGina Jane Jere, who recently visited Africa’s leading art fairs, Southern Guild and Design Indaba in Cape Town.
Last year was a good year for art and design lovers in South Africa and beyond as Cape Town celebrated being given the accolade of the World Design Capital 2014. It is, therefore, of little surprise that leading design creatives and curators in the country are capitalising on that high honour.
It is also probably why the South African tourism authorities are keen to draw the world’s attention to the country’s oldest city – attention that goes beyond Cape Town being a magnet for tourists, to it being a city that is using art and design as a tool to improve social, cultural and economic dynamics in South Africa. The city is also seeking to take South African design beyond its borders through collaborations with world-renowned names.
However, as a first-time visit to the Southern Guild art fair, which is receiving increasing acclaim worldwide, the 2015 exhibition, held at the Lookout V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, evoked mixed feelings.
On the one hand the Guild promotes groundbreaking high-end designs by Africans, some of which have found a home in the abodes of the rich and famous, in South Africa, Europe and even in Hollywood. On the other hand, from mingling with the art lovers and visitors to the Guild’s 2015 fair, anyone would be forgiven for wondering if contemporary art, in places such as Cape Town, is pluralistically diverse and inclusive. Why did South Africa, if not Africa’s foremost art fair attract so few black visitors? It is a question that the co-founder of the Southern Guild, Trevyn McGowan, agrees is fair: “With design soaring and interest in it growing monumentally, it is all a matter of education – we need to educate grassroots South Africans more on the importance of events like this and the value of high-end art and design. That is something we and our partners are working towards,” she tells New African.
It’s a view which Andile Dyalvane, who won the Icon Award at the 2015 Southern Guild Art Awards, supports: “It is a field that many black parents don’t see as financially rewarding, like other traditional vocations. For the black and young in the last 21 years of our democracy, art and design is not a career choice that many make, but I have had a lot of support including from my family in this industry, and that is why I am here today, running a successful business. And a lot of the time I get reactions like, ‘We didn’t know you can do so much with ceramics.’”
Andile admits there is still a long way to go before art and design in his country is widely appreciated at the grassroots level: “Art and design is not taken seriously, but since Cape Town was awarded the Design Capital of the World award last year, there have been a lot of conversations and education with the general public about what creativity and art is about, what it can do and how far it can go. This education needs to be expanded so that at every level, including in the village, people appreciate the value of art. Many black people recognise the beauty of the art, even what they make themselves, but they don’t see the value of money in that talent.”
He believes that a lack of exposure of successful black talents in the industry is one of the reasons the art and design worlds still remain largely white and male in many parts of Africa, especially in South Africa.
“At the grassroots level, they see all this work in the arts, animation, paintings, graphic design, textile design, architecture, and they think that it is always someone from Europe or a white person that has done that, and yet there are so many black people behind successful creative work. That is something that we are working on changing by bringing art and education about it to the very heart of our people, in the townships.”
Design Indaba largely proved that during the design and art fair week at the end of February. Design Indaba 2015 totally sold out and was a jam-packed event that attracted creative and art enthusiasts from across the globe as well as South Africans from all walks of life.
But although the same could not be said about the Southern Guild’s exhibition, which was largely by invite only, the Guild – whose theme for 2015 was all about collaboration – brought home an eclectic and show-stopping exhibition. The high-end design talent was as diverse as diverse can get, from Mali to Kenya, Burkina Faso to Zimbabwe, Senegal to, of course, the host, South Africa.
A popular crowd-puller at the Guild was the Dutch-funded Design Network Africa (DNA), part of the exhibition, which this year brought four pioneering African talents – the art and design powerhouses by the names of Cheick Diallo (Mali), Adele Dejak (Kenya/Nigeria), Babacar Niang (Senegal) and Hamed Outarra (Burkina Faso).
Trevyn and her husband Julian are not only Southern Guild founders, but are also the brainchild of Source, the platform that coordinates Design Network Africa. DNA connects established designers from sub-Saharan Africa who “represent the vibrancy and distinctive expression of a new African identity.”
“Craft is very old in Africa, but design is very young. Part of the global appeal of contemporary design is that it’s unfettered, imaginative and energetic…In the established world of collectible design, Southern Africa has something very new to say,” Trevyn told a group of journalists while giving a tour of the 2015 exhibition.
DNA designers are selected for their authentic and diverse voices, sophisticated and original products and unique global appeal, according to Source, whose other premise is to expose Southern African design to the global marketplace.
The current phase of Design Network Africa works with designers from Mali, Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
Collaborations at the Guild 2015 also featured big names. Perhaps some of the most memorable would be those between the uber-talented Peter Mabeo from Botswana and Porky Hefer, one of South Africa’s leading conceptual designers, he of the award-winning human-scale “bird’s nest” works celebrated around the world for their uniqueness; and the work of the US’s Haas brothers with the Monkeybiz women of the deprived Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s biggest township.
Other collaborations included those between the Massoud siblings (Lebanon) and Bronze Age (South Africa); Frederik Molenschot (Sweden) and Gone Rural (Swaziland); and Sipho Mabona (South Africa) with Kendell Geers (UK).
A plaque about the collaboration between the Haas brothers and the Monkeybiz placed at the entrance to their exhibition (weirdly named Afreaks) provoked thought about the state of art and design in South Africa:
“We work to subvert traditional concepts of hierarchies in addressing the systematic divisions within and beyond the art world – those of race, gender and class – by confronting them under the banner of creativity… we foreground the work, removing the Xhosa women’s art from its usual context of tourist markets while exposing the meta-context of Black African female artists creating in a white, male- dominated system.”
It is something that Peter Mabeo also picks up on in an interview with New African: “Art and design allows for freedom of thinking in new ways. It allows for what has been irrelevant to suddenly become relevant. It is not dependent solely on quality of education, status or on budgets alone. A budget required for building a boring and unpractical building, for instance, costs the same as building a masterpiece of design. And in the creation of a masterpiece, there could be included within it, the opportunity to use a local artistic or artisanal skill that would otherwise be overlooked. So it is important that this lack of appreciation be looked into.
“Art and design is not for the elite. Nor should it be used or viewed as such. It is for the people. I work with so-called basic crafts people and artisans, and yet we produce internationally award- winning products… at the highest levels.”