Running until late August, the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona – CCCB) hosts Making Africa, one of the most extensive collections of Contemporary African design ever, in an impeccably curated exhibition.
A diverse range of creative fields are on offer including object and furniture design, graphic arts, illustration, fashion, architecture, urban planning, art, craft, film and photography (both digital and analogue formats).
The exhibition showcases the work of over 120 African artists and creators and illustrates how design fuels economic and political changes. Making Africa speaks, from Africa, of a new continent “under construction” and places emphasis on its possibilities over its problems.
Consulting Curator of Making Africa Okwui Enwezor opens the exhibition with a wonderful statement on the exhibition statement on the CCCB website saying:
“Thinking about the future means thinking about our possibilities in the world. The future belongs to Africa, because it seems to have happened everywhere else already.”
Even before setting foot in the exhibition space I thought this view on the future of Africa was incredibly profound.
I really like the idea and optimism that Africa’s turn to take its deserved share of possibilities in the world is just around the corner. Other continents have already experienced their political, social and economic futures, so it only makes sense that Africa is next in line. There’s a simplistic beauty to this. A statement that no doubt gives hope to many and for others confirms what is already becoming a reality.
The contemporary works in the exhibition forge a link with the middle of the 20th century when a young generation of Africans celebrated liberation from colonialism and took their place in the world. Other more recent works sit beside them offering a chance to understand what’s changed in the intervening years and how it has fed into the creative processes and outputs of an entire continent.
The exhibition flows through 4 distinct areas weaving a story of African design under each of the themes.
Prologue looks to give examples of how contemporary graphic designers are representing Africa in a new and completely different way, challenging what we think we know about the continent. I and We delves into how Africans express themselves in the modern age and how younger generations have represented themselves in various unique subcultures. Space and Object is devoted to people and the places they live, and finally Origin and Future looks at Africa and the bright future it holds in its hands.
Walking into the first room of this exhibition Cyrus Kabiru’s series C-Stunners (2012) greets you, an interesting and thoughtful piece setting the tone for Making Africa, a sort of mish mash of art, performance, fashion and design. An internationally acclaimed body of work, the Kenyan self-taught artist creates intricate sculptures from second hand, discarded materials.
These eyewear sculptures focus on transformation as a key theme. On a physical level, the ingenuity and creativity involved in transforming mundane items into something so attractive is transformationally impressive. On a more abstract level the eyewear represents focus, and narrowing of vision through lenses. However, this focussed and more narrow vision is not always positive, and in the case of Africa stereotypes and stigma persist, and are far less easy to put aside than a pair of glasses.
Moving between the artwork, lining the walls and dominating the middle of the expansive space, Studio R!ot’s work, in collaboration with Nosarieme Garrick, founder and creator of the documentary series My Africa Is… drew my attention.
The bold, colourful and simplistic but multi-faceted poster design depicts an African woman with her hair worn up into the shape of a black fist – a symbol of solidarity especially within African communities. The colour and design elements, particularly the blue pattern, pays homage to the African continent. It’s such a powerful poster design. I’m a big fan of colourful and minimal design like this, and luckily there was more to follow in this exhibition.
I and We
Sat in a glass case displaying graphic design and fashion were Karo Akpokiere’s Tokeria slip ons designed for BucketFeet. They, much like Garrick’s poster design, combine distinct African patterns and striking geometric shapes that really caught my eye, combined with aesthetics of Japanese woodcuts.
Akpokiere has a keen interest in understanding how his drawings can be applied to other materials, such as clothing, to make them more accessible and visible. This chimes well with the purpose of BucketFeet who aim to make “wearable art”. The internet has become an essential part of how he connects with new audiences worldwide, but also in collaborating, sharing ideas and engaging people far beyond his immediate physical surroundings.
There’s an undoubted trend in the design work from Making Africa that I enjoyed the most, bold statements, bright colours and simplicity appeal to me a lot. Kabelo Ramasobane’s work Gaborone Couple struck a chord with me, the illustrator and designer having put this personal artwork together for a friend’s wedding.
Both characters are depicted with natural hair, a trend that is returning tracing its roots to the African Renaissance Movement. Coupled with the retro design and block printing/relief printing aesthetic, the outcome is two portraits that depict a confident and middle class urban couple in modern Botswana – a positive and encouraging image of modern Africa perhaps often overlooked.
Space and Object
This penultimate room in the Making Africa exhibition held the pieces of most interest to me. Partick Waterhouse and Mikhael Subotzky’s documentation of the life of Johannesburg’s Ponte City skyscraper is a tumultuous tale. The 54 storey building was once one of South Africa’s most fashionable buildings turned dangerous and decaying, but now on the rise again with increasing investment.
Viglism, otherwise known as Olalekan Jeyifous, displays his work Cardboard Cityscapes, digitally rendered images that question and examine the urban planning of large cities, the societal consequences and architectural tradition. According to the artist ultimately these “suggest the changing contours of urban settlements and an idea of a degenerate futurism.”
These fascinating images echo the typologies of the worlds biggest cities, such as Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria with roughly 20,000 people inhabiting every square mile making the total population of 8 million. The image uses cardboard to represent areas of the futuristic city plan, a nod to the inventiveness, ingenuity and creativity to many on the lower rungs of society living in the world’s megacities today. This is a lifestyle not settled upon by choice, but by necessity.
Finally in this section the portraits of Vincent Michea untilted (black with spot) and untitled (orange with chairs) with collage and strong graphic elements featuring to distort, conceal and enhance the characteristics of the subjects within, were fantastically minimalistic yet powerful. Created from things he finds in his native Dakar, these portraits change the seemingly unremarkable subjects into something quite different.
For example, (black with spot) combines a piece of common local Dakarian architecture and semi profile to create a portrait where the subject appears to be Nefertiti-esque, transforming her into a “Grande Dame d’Afrique”.
Origin and Future
My own obvious interest in street art meant Haroon Gunn-Salie’s intervention video documenting his street art project in 2013 was a crucial piece of this exhibition. The short video of his intervention forces an interesting dialogue about the past and future of the central Cape Town district of Zonnebloem. Performed using vinyl stickers, the street signs of Cape Town were altered to read “District Six” in place of “Zonnebloem”.
District Six was a neighbourhood of the city that until 1968 was the only place where a closely knit, multi-cultural and multi-racial community existed peacefully. In 1968 it was declared to be a “whites only” community, creating one of the most iconic sights of forced removal during apartheid. The area was renamed as Zonnenbloem, or Sunflower, which it is still called to this day.
Gunn-Salie’s intervention brings to the forefront the concept of District Six as a place and idea and the contemporary politics that now surround the site. It’s an area precious not only in real estate but historically. Interestingly, months after the intervention was staged, authorities had yet to remove the stickers and restore the Zonnenbloem name…