The Global Africa Project: Design Show Extraordinaire or Business as Usual?
Listen to AfrobeatRadio’s radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM broadcast on January 29, 2011: The Global Africa Project: Design Show Extraordinaire or Business as Usual? The program features Tony Whitfield, Xenobia Bailey and Lowery Stokes Sims and hosted by Dowoti Désir.
“Afrikan designers offer the world uniqueness in terms of products. Design is influenced by a number of factors, but creativity is still one of our greatest assets that we can use to gain competitive advantage. Another thing is inspiration from the Afrikan continent which is still virgin and unexploited.” So says South African designer Masana Chikeke, and unique New York exhibition gives us the opportunity to respond to his intriguing argument.
The Global Africa Project is billed as an unprecedented exhibition exploring the broad spectrum of contemporary African art, design, and craft worldwide. It premiers at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) through May 15, 2011. The exhibition features over 100 artists working in Africa, Europe, Asia, the United States and the Caribbean.
An eclectic mixture of works has something for everyone interested in design, from car culture enthusiasts to clothing designers to furniture crafters. Its curators Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims and Dr. Leslie King-Hammond sought to challenge conventional notions of a singular African aesthetic and identity. They succeeded with aplomb. Thankfully the exhibition reflects the integration of African art and design without making the archaic but persistent distinctions between “professional” and “artisan.”
MAD like many mainstream American cultural institutions is not in the habit of featuring the works of designers of color or readily engaged in assimilating works of the global African community as part of their normative curatorial practice. Along with the exhibition itself, the collaboration between MAD and an academic institutions whose primary focus explicitly analyzes thorny societal issues and their relationship to the visual arts, the Centre for Race and Culture the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is a commendable one, keeping both institutions at the cutting edge.
A comprehensive and memorable show taking up three floors of the newly renovated MAD building at 2 Columbus Circle, in New York City, it is peppered strikingly with intelligence, grace, and a ferocity to excellence and innovation. There are faults lines in the exhibition that point us away from the Jim Crow politics of the arts world to the world of ideas, beauty, and practicality even as there are works whose sensibility cling hopelessly to the conventional. Some so much so, they serve little purpose other than demonstrate a most superficial homage to African aesthetics.
The late Keith Haring’s piece are among them. But so are African American architect Jack Travis’ renderings of the “Khalahari”. Travis insists,The search for a Black cultural design aesthetic” is on on-going search and has been effecting my works as an architect for the last ten years. Key to the foundation of anthropological, social, and cultural imaging, beliefs, practices and “ways of being” of people of African descent. Though often, “hidden in plain view” the existence and importance of Black Culture and its influence on American life over the centuries is evident, continues to manifest and prevail as one of the most intense, colorful and rich cultures of in all history.
Yet after years of theorizing about an African design aesthetics, both Travis’ renderings represented in the exhibition and the building itself [situated on 116th street between Malcolm X Blvd and 5th Avenue in Harlem] are neutered, decorative studies in what is acceptable in building design by a renown Black built environment professional at least here, in New York City. On the other hand, fiber artist Xenobia Bailey has had her own theories about Black design among Africans in the Americas. Her sensibilities marry largely African, Asian and Indigenous design elements together. Bailey’s treatise on an ”aesthetic of funk” leaves one breathless at the thought of sporting her crocheted coat or the crowns on view at the museum. A master colorists, she makes yarn look like lacquered armor. With strong silhouettes, and subtle patterning Bailey has color and form speaking in tongues. Her work and ideas leaves us listening with rapt attention. See her website: http://xenba.blogsoy.com
In fact, several artists/designers in the Global African Project play at the intersection of cultures; interlocking the various overlapping narratives of the real and metaphysical into the most exquisite material constructs. Sometimes with hard-edged humor like Alex Locadia (of Haitian Venezuelan origin) whose sleek black leather Ashanti-style stool is impaled by and waiting to impale anyone seated with rusted iron nails. “Ass Rest” is one part commercial Hollywood, one part noire comic book culture, and two parts spiritually charged domain of the Nkisi Kongo. Japan-based Cameroonian, Serge Mouangue is another, even as his African print (kaba cloth) kimono styled objects d’art and questionable teas ceremony video leave one wondering to what extent African designers play into universally held stereotypes about their brethren? And if they contribute to the commodification and exoticification of the “other,” in this case Afro descendants by other people of color?
Fred Wilson (United States) and Alice Yard’s Marlon Darbeau (Trinidad) take the things we take for granted, a mirror in Wilson’s case and shoe polishing boxes for Darbeau, and challenge us to think profoundly about the constructed inequalities in our societies. A large Rococo black Venetian looking glass entitled, “Iago’s Mirror ” speaks to how Africans and African descendants in general, but Blacks in leadership are historically despised as evident in Shakespeare’s principal antagonist in Othello but Wilson also forces us to meditate on the morpheme, “black,” its various meanings, and how that word forces perceptions such as “evil” and “deceitful” to disempower those of that hue.
Concaving social and economic dynamics are addressed by the Alice Yard collective with the re-conceived wooden shoe cleaning kits Black men and boys make and carry wherever shoes are found. Associated both with entrepreneurship and poverty, these work instruments are recreated with tinted galvanized steel. Their modernist, crisp edges momentarily flip the script of economic dynamics by resembling traditional West African seats of power, forcing one to reconsider who is serving whom? In this instance Wilson, and Darbeau share something with Locadia since all three act as an nganga, a shaman redirecting notions of power as we understand them. To learn more about Alice Yard as both a physical and conceptual place go to http://aliceyard.org.
Other representations in the show serve as material evidence that Black people are like their white, Asian and other counterparts equally capable of creating for mainstream sensibilities. Come Haitian-American designer Victor Glemaud whose men’s line according to the curator’s catalog essay, ”… reflects a sartorial remix in his designs celebrating the urban hipness of contemporary fashion.” In fact, Glemaud’s photographed works say little about urbane-ness, coolness, or the male body. Distinguished in the trove of truly fascinating clothing mannequined in the exhibition precisely because of its banality.
The curators would have done viewers a greater favor by showing more of the clothing and videos of (white) South Africans designers: Black Coffee/Danica Lepen and Jacques van der Watt (www.blackcoffee.co.za) whose futuristic ore colored jersey knits outfits stand as clear and proud descendants of Gue Pelou, the sacred mediator between the ancestors and the land of the living of Cote d’Ivoire. With elongated torsos (especially as presented in the video,) Jetson cartoon pooch in his own body mask and architectural knapsacks their presentation is otherworldly, performative, phantasmal, elegant, fluid in their language without being derivative. These are among the items making this exhibition so worthwhile.
Designer Tony Whitfield has one of the most provocative works in the exhibition. “Chapel for the Betrayed,” falls more under the category of art than design. The installation is really a shrine with multimedia components. Barbed wire crosses paths with bone china rose buds, and tile as we gaze upon the black and white prints of a man of African descent who may be in pain, ecstasy or both. His truncated body diverts cruelty to his invisibility and more so, undesirability in society as suggested in an accompanying text. But it isn’t just any where. Whitfield goes to battle in Uganda where a recently passed bill entitled, “The Anti-homosexulaity Act 2009″ has delivered on its most violent and tragic components. Pages of text from the bill are plastered through out the installation’s commanding scale. Damning anyone whose lifestyle poses a “threat to the traditional heterosexual family” with death. The bill identifies itself as, “An act to prohibit any form of sexual relations between person’s of the same sex; prohibit the promotion or recognition of such relations and to provide for other related matters.” In an interview with the designer, we learn that Whitfield’s works takes on special resonance with the recent horrific death of Uganda’s most prominent gay activist David Kato. Also, see Museveni Regime Denies Kato’s Murder was Homophobic by AfrobeatRadio’s Anne Garrison’s.
The Museum of Art and Design has smartly planned a unique series of intimate master classes. Ranging from Haberdashery, to extreme crocheting, and Senegalese sweetgrass weaving, the Master Classes will provide museum goers with the rare opportunity to learn directly from artists seen in the museum’s exhibition.
With the doors wide open to see, hear, and learn more from and about designers of the global African community, will institutions like MAD begin to show their work more consistently and incorporate them in their on-going curatorial dialog and design discourse? Co-curator and MICA Founder, Leslie King-Hammond optimistically notes, “No longer are these artists viewed as part of the periphery of the main stream art world. This work redefines a new center of creativity and innovation for the twenty-first century.” We can only hope so.
For on-line discussions about the Global Africa Project go to the microsite “Africa Talks” at http://GAP.madmuseum.org.