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Photos

Amid Rapid Urbanization, African Designers Emerge Front and Center

A new exhibit, "Making Africa," showcases the continent's modern—and influential—creative class.

© Justin Plunkett, "Skhayascraper, Rendering," 2013 (Courtesy The Cabinet, Kapstadt/ Cape Town/Vitra Design Museum)

The sidewalks and stalls of most African capital cities are littered with touristy trinkets: luminous wooden masks, photos of dreamy safari landscapes, cheap spears that Westerners must pull from their luggage at airports as they head home. The ubiquity of these "African" designs perpetuates an inaccurate perception of the continent as a society of tribal and provincial cultures—with equally antiquated art.

A more sophisticated portrayal of modern African artistry—"Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design"—will open Saturday at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

The exhibit is an ambitious collection of fashion, photography, fine art, and examples of architecture and urban planning. Evident in many of the designs is the entrepreneurial spirit of Africa's creative class. Cities have become laboratories for vibrant innovation, which continues, to sweep across the continent. African cities are undergoing revolutionary change right now. By 2020, it is projected to become the most rapidly urbanizing region of the world. This show couldn't be more timely: Africa's designers, like its cities, have flown under the radar for far too long.

© Chris Saunders, "Lethabo Tsatsinyane," photographed for Dazed magazine, from the "Smarteez" series, 2010. (courtesy PAPA Photographic Archival and Preservation Association, Kapstadt/Cape Town/Vitra Design Museum)

"Africa is a place that has been connected to trauma for a very long time," says Amelie Klein, curator of "Making Africa." Klein acknowledges there are lingering sociopolitical issues that do the continent, and its inhabitants, no favors in building a better image—sprawling slums, corruption, and relentless poverty, for example. But Klein is confident that viewers of this exhibit will walk away with a more nuanced understanding of Africa and its role as a global design influence.

"It would be good for people to realize [Africa] is a place of innovation, where we can find solutions to design," Klein says, "not only from a humanitarian point of view but from a larger and broader point of view. A point of view that connects with us and will have relevance in the global North also."

Klein admits it's "impossible" for any exhibit to completely capture the creative zeitgeist of an entire continent. Rather, she calls the exhibit a "suggestion" or "hypothesis" as to where contemporary African design is heading. She and her colleagues selected pieces for the show after traveling to countries on each corner of the continent and meeting with more than 70 African designers, academics, and intellectuals.

In African cities now, creative design provides a strong alternative voice in contentious urban planning debates. Dense slums, for example, which fill the nooks of many African cities, are generally viewed as markers of human plight. A trio of Kenyan artists, however, illustrate the opposite. In their sculpture, titiled "Jua Kali" (a Swahili slang term loosely meaning "informal"), informality is depicted as the beating heart of Nairobi, one of Africa's most vibrant cities.

(Tahir Karmali)

The giant wheel-and-cog sculpture is made of scrap metal. The outer wheel, a silhouette of rugged skyscrapers, represents the formal city. But the cog, the engine propelling the city forward, is the informal city. The essential message of the sculpture is that Nairobi, a massive hub of 4 million residents and rising, churns largely on the energy of the slums, street hawkers, and small-scale artisans operating on its periphery. It's an antithetical concept to most urbanists, which is precisely the point.

"It's all about making yourself whoever you want to be perceived as, out of the things around you," Tahir Karmali, a co-creator of "Jua Kali," says.

The narratives crafted by African designers today will not remain static. African cities are reinventing themselves—demographically, economically, socially—at a historic rate. And thanks to such rapid change, we can expect even more dazzling design in the future.

© Mário Macilau, "Alito, the Guy with Style," from the "Moments of Transition" series, 2013.  (Courtesy Ed Cross Fine Art Ltd., London/Vitra Design Museum)
© Iwan Baan, "Chai House, (Architects unknown)," Nairobi, ca. 1970. (Vitra Design Museum)
© Michael MacGarry, "Excuse me while I disappear," video still, 2014. (Vitra Design Museum)
© Mikhael Subotzky & Patrick Waterhouse, "Ponte City, Windows," 2009. (Courtesy Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg/ Vitra Design Museum)
© Jürgen Hans, "Thron/throne." (Vitra Design Museum)
Cyrus Kabiru, "Caribbean Sun," 2012, from the "C-Stunners" series. (Carl de Souza AFP/Getty Images/Vitra Design Museum)

"Making Africa" will be featured at the Vitra Design Museum from March 14 until September 13. Learn more here.

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