It was at an exhibition called Guild on Cape Town’s V&A waterfront that I was struck by the fact that the pieces I loved the most, the ones I wanted to wrap up and take home with me, were by a designer from Burkina Faso, one of Africa’s poorest countries.
There before me were what the organisers, South African design platform Southern Guild, described as “celebrated global galleries and institutions showcasing ground-breaking limited-edition design”, including works by some of Europe and America’s finest artists. Yet it was the battered-metal table (from $4,500) and Gongosso cabinet (from $4,900) made by Hamed Ouattara in a small workshop in Ouagadougou that grabbed my attention with their vitality, creativity and strange, wayward beauty. When respected Milanese gallerist Rossana Orlandi saw his first collection, she bought the lot.
Ouattara is one of the shining stars of a new generation of designers in Africa who aren’t steeped in European aesthetic traditions, but who have found their inspiration and their own way of doing things by looking at the immediate world around them. He makes his furniture out of the cast-off materials that come to hand – mostly old oil barrels that he shapes and hammers himself. In Burkina Faso, Ouattara has to do without many of the things western designers take for granted – constant energy supplies, ready-made instruments and equipment. The electricity is often down for hours at a time and he has to fabricate his own hinges, nails and tools. He designs not with an eye on the tastes of smart gallerists in the west (though they seem to love his work), but with the desire to meet the needs of his fellow Africans, making their lives not just easier in the practical sense but also culturally richer and, critically, “plus belles”. He sees his pieces as a “modern African design luxury”.
And he’s not the only one. All over the continent there’s a new confidence, a growing self-belief. A generation has been born that is free of old colonialism. In the big cities – places such as Nairobi, Johannesburg and Lagos – there is a large globalised, interconnected middle class, whose children are often educated at some of the world’s most eminent institutions, and who bring back with them new ways of doing things.
The number of democratic nations has increased in recent decades, too. Everything is by no means perfect, but Africa has something that Europe has lost: economies that are growing at a phenomenal rate. Its population is huge – some 1.4bn people estimated to grow to 2.4bn by 2050. The World Bank has forecast an average growth of 5.3 per cent for Africa in the coming year, while some of its economies are expanding at between seven and 12 per cent per annum.
Today some 650m Africans use mobiles phones. Around 16m of them use the M-Pesa money transfer service for banking, and for buying anything from beer to cattle. Nairobi has recently been dubbed the San Francisco of Africa because of the large number of high‑tech start-ups, and multinationals such as Intel, Samsung and Hewlett-Packard setting up shop there. Africa is now a land of opportunity and what this means for the design and fashion worlds is that they have growing home markets they can sell to, with consumers who are demanding increasingly sophisticated wares (which is no doubt partly why renowned architect David Adjaye is about to open an eagerly anticipated concept store called Alara in Lagos). Africa has long been a source of inspiration for artists and designers from around the world – now a growing number of indigenous designers are tapping into the aesthetic and cultural heritage they have all around them.
Africans have always had an entrepreneurial zeal – in Lagos, opportunists exploit the crowded roads and can even sell you a washing machine and attach it to your car while you sit in a traffic jam; in Nairobi’s squatter camps, ingenuity is essential for survival. Now this creativity is being harnessed to make things of great beauty and the work is as varied as the nations that make up the continent. But what these new young designers seem to share is an ability to take the unloved and the discarded (think of the baskets of the townships made from old telephone wire) and turn it into something fresh and beautiful. Few of them have access to factories, so things have to be made by hand. They also come with a great deal of emotion, often tapping into folk memory, with moving stories to tell. And, above all, they want to honour their heritage and have little interest in passing trends. All this makes much of the work irresistible to westerners, who have had too much of the mass-produced and the anonymous.
Many of the designs are deeply personal. One of the other pieces, for instance, that I particularly loved at the Guild exhibition was Andile Dyalvane’s Docks table (R65,000, about £3,524). He’s a ceramicist who is one of the designers behind the award-wining Imiso ceramics studio, but his Docks table is a more ambitious work. Inspired by the view of the docks from Dyalvane’s home in Cape Town, it consists of movable ceramic pieces representing the ships and containers lying in the harbour. Meanwhile, South African Haldane Martin’s curiously enigmatic table (£5,000) is made from wood and based round the molecular structure of bones, while a handmade solid-beech sideboard (£11,000) made by Dokter and Misses has hand-painted patterns inspired by the homes of the Kassena people of Burkina Faso. Katy Taplin of Dokter and Misses designed the graphic pattern in keeping with the Kassena tradition that only the women should do the home decorations. All these items are available through Southern Guild.
Peter Mabeo from Botswana (whose work was recently exhibited by Viaduct in London during Clerkenwell Design Week), describes himself as a “designer-editor-entrepreneur” who wants to draw on local traditional craft skills to create really beautiful design that, as he puts it, “engages with the outside world and yet honours Botswana’s heritage”. So he has a studio and workshop with more than 20 craftspeople in Gaborone, where he produces sustainable and very attractive furniture, much of it designed in collaboration with Patricia Urquiola. He has also tracked down weavers in the Etsha villages of the Botswana Delta and is now busy selling their baskets (from $300) in studios and galleries around the world. The Etsha people are descendants of the Hambukushu tribes that fled the Angolan civil war in the 1960s, settled in Botswana and now make these pieces out of the leaves of the mokola palm, creating them in subtle shades of chocolate, golden-brown, off‑white and black. As Mabeo puts it, “These objects stand as universal exemplars of how tragedy can be transformed into beauty.”
And although South Africa has for some years now had a thriving design community, it is interesting that this year, for the first time, Ravi Naidoo’s Cape Town‑based Design Indaba – launched way back in 2004 and now an internationally recognised forum for intellectually stimulating debate – showed the work of designers from all over Africa as part of a special featured exhibition called Africa is Now. Alma Viviers, editor of Designindaba.com, says, “It’s these designers’ ability to rethink materials and use whatever is to hand, still with the fingerprints of the maker on it, that so interests the design world. Rapid urbanisation is giving them a new energy and creating opportunities – and the results are here for all to see.”
At Africa is Now I found pieces by Cheick Diallo, who comes from Mali but now spends half his time in France, though his studio is still in Bamako. He takes everyday detritus – bottle tops, old computer batteries, wood, tyres, metal, nylon strings – and transforms them into extraordinary pieces of furniture, always concerned with making something innovative. As he puts it, “I don’t have an interest in design if it is only to remake what already exists.” He has, for example, made a wonderful stool fashioned out of an old spade (from £1,500), metal cabinets (from £1,500) and chairs made from nylon strings twisted over recycled metal ($5,718) – all inspiring and unlike anything you would find in your local furniture store.
Paris-born Senegalese-French designer Bibi Seck and his collaborator Ayse Birsel, who is Turkish, are based in New York but have been inspired by African ingenuity and have turned their imaginations to using recycled plastic in new and lovely products such as the Taboo stool and table (price on request), using rotational moulding. As Viviers points out, “Their Taboo stool and table draw inspiration from the daily habits of Africans, who traditionally sit on low stools or squat on the floor around low tables, eating in an informal style and socialising over a hot cup of attaya tea. The stool and table focus on sustainable design principles and are made from 75 per cent recycled material.” To make the pieces Birsel and Seck collaborated with Transtech, a manufacturer of septic tanks that uses recycled materials in its processes. But the influence of Africa is also clearly visible in the Bayekou rocking recliner (£660) that the pair designed for Moroso, or the wonderful Madame Dakar love seat, which spurred one fan to write: “Wow, what a beauty! African inspired, part oversized armchair and part hammock and looking like a ginormous butterfly.”
From Mozambique comes Gonçalo Mabunda, who takes AK47s, rocket launchers, pistols and other weapons recovered after the nation’s long civil war, and fashions them into extraordinary chairs-cum-thrones (£10,000), as well as other more sculptural pieces (from £4,500). As several commentators have noted, they echo imagery found in works by Braque and Picasso. The Jack Bell Gallery in London sells his work.
These are just some of the many designers working all over Africa. A lot of their pieces are one-offs and quite often are only available to buy sporadically – either in touring exhibitions or from their own websites. Ambra Medda, co-founder with Craig Robins of DesignMiami, has been very taken with the creations she has come across in Africa, in particular “the handcraft in South Africa. [It felt] like a playground – I enjoyed seeing so much work with beads, wood, woven natural fibres and repurposed materials”.
On her fastidiously curated design website, L’ArcoBaleno, Medda sells some of her discoveries, mostly work that is at what she calls “the intersection of fine art and craft”. Some pieces are by relatively well-known South Africa‑based designers such as ceramicists Clementina van der Walt (about £56 each) and the Zambian-born Hylton Nel (whose work she “loves, loves, loves” and is also on show at Stevenson Gallery). But among the items to look for are Cheick Diallo’s limited-edition chair made from grey or red recycled metal and nylon fishing wire (from $5,735) and the stools ($1,872) and an austerely beautiful Kalahari bench in Panga Panga ($3,539) that are the fruits of the Mabeo-Patricia Urquiola collaboration. She also loves the work of Aboubakar Fofana, a calligrapher, artist and textile designer who was born in Mali but now divides his time between Paris and Bamako. He is committed to preserving and revitalising Mali’s nearly lost tradition of natural indigo and mineral-mud dyeing and makes extraordinary tents (price on request), bed covers (from $2,500) and cushion covers (from $360). Atelier Courbet, a niche and very enterprising gallery in New York, gave him an exhibition space earlier in the year, but keep an eye on Medda’s site because she will be bringing in new pieces as well as one-off vintage works.
Another artist who creates really interesting objects – that look like crazy sunglasses – is Kenyan Cyrus Kabiru. Some of his designs have bars, referencing Nairobi’s jails, while others use spent bullets. The results are extraordinary, unlike anything you’d find on the high street.
Meanwhile, African fashion is more than alive and well – it’s flourishing. Visit Styled by Africa, “a curated selection of the best in African fashion, lifestyle, creativity and innovation”, as it describes itself, and you’ll need a heart of steel not to be uplifted by its joyous tone. It’s full of bubbling, confident, beautiful people, particularly The Khoi Fro, a Botswana style blogger – an utter delight and what a dresser! You can buy a range of African clothing from the website, such as Sindiso Khumalo’s bold graphic prints (top, £175, skirt, £285) or Chichia London’s Pwani midi-skirts (£65) and other colourful offerings (jacket, £120, camisole, £75, and trousers, £99).
Christie Brown from Ghana is an authentically luxurious brand. It was created by Aisha Obuobi, who recently dressed Beyoncé’s dancers and has won several awards. She will take a pristine white short-sleeved dress and run a slim panel of traditional pattern down the front. Her ready-to-wear collection starts from $50. As well as panels, bold colours and textures, she loves beading, which she adds to otherwise simple sophisticated shapes.
Studio One Eighty Nine, founded by the American actress Rosario Dawson and West African New Yorker Abrima Erwiah, is a collective that sells artisan‑produced fashion, mainly from Ghana. There are clothes (from $20) in ethically sourced fabrics such as silk and cotton with glorious prints based on hand-batiking and pieces that use weaving techniques such as kente (from $20), all designed to keep African craft skills alive.
Bantu Wax is a beachwear label whose products are made in Africa by Africans. Its website highlights that more than half of Africa’s population is under 20 years of age and that Bantu Wax was created by “merging the rich history of African art and textiles with a deeply rooted surf culture”. The result is some lovely youthful beachwear. It can be found at Merchants on Long (Hanneli Rupert’s store in Cape Town’s Long St, which only sells entirely Africa-based brands), as well as Moda Operandi.
But we mustn’t forget the jewellers. Africa has a long and wonderful history of glorying in personal adornment. Authentic tribal jewellery from Ethiopia, Benin, Somalia, the Omo Valley and other parts is scarce today and fetches relatively large sums. But modern jewellers are taking some of its imagery and fashioning it into contemporary pieces. Rebecca Manners, designer and founder of Bex Rox, worked with the Maasai to come up with a range of jewellery that she sells on her website. A long tasselled gold collar costs from £1,100, while a shorter one starts from £590, and there’s a bracelet in gunmetal (£240). Similarly, three Italian women based in Nairobi were so inspired by what they saw all around them that they launched Crea, a company that aims to transform the lives of local artisans by promoting their business internationally. One of the resulting collections consists of some seven pieces – all rather sculptural, some referencing African imagery such as arrows and feathers, and made from locally sourced, highly polished metal – which is now sold exclusively on The Style Director in the UK. Pieces include the Dreamcatcher necklace (£120), Feather earrings (£62), an oval-links necklace (£180) and a bracelet (£78).
Whether producing fashion or furniture, objects or jewellery, most of the designers face the same problem of getting their work publicised. The internet, of course, has been a huge influence and most have their own sites. In addition, Trevyn and Julian McGowan, the founders of Southern Guild, were tasked with developing Design Network Africa (DNA), which is funded by the Danish Centre for Culture & Development and helps furniture and fashion brands to market and distribute their products. It was the McGowans who helped curate an exhibition of African work called Graphic Africa for Habitat last year, bringing pieces by some 15 different designers from east, west and southern Africa (among them Outtara) to the UK. Living in South Africa but travelling widely, Trevyn is acutely aware of the challenges many of these people face. “The problems in Africa are largely of disconnection,” she says. “There are issues of reaching markets, shipping costs, transport, bribery and corruption. Work can sit in a port for three months. There’s a lack of infrastructure and materials. But what if you group together and share those problems?” This is exactly what DNA was set up to do and it’s beginning to pay off. Interest in the work of sub-Saharan Africa is growing: next year Vitra Design Museum will have an Africa-themed show, while in Notting Hill the ever‑enterprising Themes & Variations is planning one as well. As Ambra Medda puts it, “It’s exciting to see the mainstream design conversation open up to embrace a continent that’s been overlooked for so long.” Africa’s time, it seems, really is now.