Out of Africa - Africa’s burgeoning contemporary design scene

We were so excited when we saw African Design featured on UK based, The Telegraph, that we just had to repost the whole thing here. Africa is truly entering into the international design scene.


Africa’s burgeoning contemporary design scene is not just a force for good, but a rich and inspiring source for collectors of art and design

African design is having its moment in the sun. From a coffee table book of beauteous inspiration in the form of the upcoming Contemporary Design Africa by Tapiwa Matsinde (Thames & Hudson), to the imminent Making Africa exhibition at Vitra Design Museum (in Weil am Rhein), to the steady beat of creative initiatives and covetable designs emerging onto the market, it’s very clear: Africa’s design scene is rapidly growing and increasingly sophisticated. It’s high time it took its place on the global stage. African designers are not merely catching up with their counterparts in Europe; they are defining directions and setting global trends. For collectors, it’s never been a better time to invest.

Thanks to the annual conference and exhibition Design Indaba, now in its 20th year, the contemporary African design scene has often been held up as a benchmark for how creativity and innovation can overcome barriers, and how a little resourceful design thinking can bring relief, shelter, nourishment and light where its needed most. At the recent Guild Design Fair in Cape Town, this reputation was advanced to a new level – Africa is also growing a noteworthy and vibrant luxury design and art market.

Only in its second year, Guild is primarily a fair for beautiful objects – Cape Town’s answer toDesign Miami or PAD – presenting work from Africa, the US, the Middle East, Britain and Europe to a genuinely fresh audience. The flavour of what was presented, however, was decidedly more local, with many of the galleries choosing to work with African designs and African inspired pieces. The Paris and London-based Carpenters Workshop Gallery showed the latest works of South African born artist Kendell Geers. “Guild is a fantastic opportunity for us to approach the African market which is paramount for the gallery’s development,” says the gallery’s director, Loic Le Gaillard.

Design maven Helen Chislett exhibited for the first time with her new venture London Connoisseur. “Design is such a democratic force for good when harnessed well, so it is gratifying to see how it has been embraced by South Africa. Guild gives an insight into where that force and energy can take us next. It is a little slice of time travel into the future."

New York gallery R & Company also presented South African artists work at the Guild Fair, including pieces by Monkeybiz and Bronze Age. Later this month in their New York gallery they will show a series of work by four African design studios. Entitled Grains of Paradise, the showcase has been organised in collaboration with local gallery, Southern Guild. New pieces from Dokter and Misses will be shown alongside Porky Hefer’s iconic human-scale nests, sculptural wooden seating by Babacar Niang and detailed ceramics by Ardmore.

Particularly noteworthy was the Kassena Town series by Dokter and Misses, a Johannesburg-based husband-and-wife studio. Named after the Kassena tribe, as an ode to the architecture built by men and hand-painted by women, the designers built a "village" of colourfully-painted, characterful cabinets. “It is our dream village with all the complexities of a community,” say founders Katy Taplin and Adriaan Hugo. “A town always needs a few homes, a church, a liquor store and at least one guy with a fast car, thinking he is the king.”

For those who missed Guild but are keen to catch up on the Sub-Saharan scene, a major exhibition by the Vitra Design Museum opens this week looking to shed further light on contemporary African design. Showcasing the work of over 120 artists and designers, Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design presents the nation as a hub of experimentation, generating new approaches and solutions of worldwide relevance – and as a driving force for a new discussion of the potential of design in the 21st century.

It is a sentiment echoed by the aforementioned book on the subject by Matsinde too. In the 21st century Africa’s designers are eschewing romanticised, clichéd interpretations of the continent’s creative heritage in favour of compelling visual narratives, she explains, offering a challenge to widespread and tired perceptions of what design from Africa looks like, through designers such as Zenzulu and Banke Kuku, who are making waves by reinterpreting traditional methods and styles in beautiful and highly individual ways. 

Africa is a continent clearly demonstrating that democratic design and luxury are no longer mutually exclusive, as the rate of social change catches up with newfound consumer priorities. And now is its time to shine.

Image: Kassena Town series by Dokter and Misses