Between the Artist and the Designer

10 Mar 2013

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By Joseph Gergel
Designing Africa: Appropriating Culture, Mediums, and Meanings presents a survey of the vital yet often under-appreciated emerging tendencies in contemporary design on the African continent. With a particular focus on Nigeria, Designing Africa examines the work of a diverse group of artists in the country who explore the multifarious avenues of the design field, including product design, furniture design, graphic design, typography, and constructed surfaces. While their practices span wide spectrums of art and design, their work shares a commonality in a particular design sensibility, one that can be traced back to a shared interest in process, experimentation, and presentation. Designing Africa investigates the blurred boundaries between the definition of artist and designer in contemporary art and the ways in which design is articulated through both a regional (African) paradigm and a more inclusive global conversation.

Contemporary design patterns in the 21st century have moved away from its traditional base in rational thought, practical function, and mass production, all tied to the logic of the Industrial Revolution under a modernism paradigm, to a practice that is more local, critical, and culturally engaged. As a product of digital technologies and Internet connectivity that have catapulted us to a vastly different cultural plateau, contemporary design has shifted to a post-industrial embrace of computer aided design and manufacture, automation, and an emphasis on information and code. Equally important in the contemporary design community is a newfound emphasis on critical design, a conceptual practice that comments on the status of design in relation to social, political, and economic issues and an awareness of the sensitivities of lived experience. Critical design questions commonly held assumptions about the status of design and culture at large, and it places design as a central site of critique. Combining elements of satire and humor, critical design forces the viewer to take an ethical position in relation to the work. Unlike the embrace of parody and pastiche that defined much of postmodern art, critical design does not stop at the level of irony but presumes that the audience has the agency of engaged thought. While process and implementation are still important in post-industrial and critical design, the goal is not necessarily to find a practical solution but to pose questions for the viewer to interrogate and interpret. In this way, contemporary design goes beyond its traditional association with scientific process and thought and begins to more closely align with the discourses of contemporary art practice. Many artists in this exhibition look further to the field of expanded design, appropriating references outside their traditional areas of expertise to create a cross- pollination of cultural influences.

Yet, equally central to this exhibition is not only the connection and overlap between design and art, but how these terms are negotiated in the context of labeling the work “African.” In fact, most often the term “African design” refers back to traditional crafting techniques, not innovative modes of expression. Of course, such stereotypical references to African design does not mean that it lacks other histories. Quite the contrary, African designers have a rich history in shaping the discourse and dialectic between western and African design strategies. Demas Nwoko, for example, a Nigerian artist, architect, and designer, combined cross cultural references as a social and political commentary at the time of Nigeria’s looming independence in the 1950s and 1960s. A founding member of the Zaria Art Society, which advocated a style coined “natural synthesis” that combined western and African ideologies, Nwoko is known for using modern and innovative techniques while referencing traditional African form. Yet, as the global design community today is influenced by new technologies, graphic tastes, and advances in specialised production, it becomes difficult to delineate what one might mean by labeling designers under the rubric of geographic identity. Rather than stray away from such ideological issues, the artists in this exhibition employ design as a form of social critique and a more critical and expressive form of exploration.

Ifeanyi Oganwu’s furniture design included in this exhibition reflect the intricacies of this debate. Double Agent Suite, a desk and chair combination developed after rigorous research using the latest technological developments in fabrication and digital production, takes on a distinctly futuristic aesthetic with sleek, curved lines, winged tips, and black surface reflection, more in line with references to a space-age imaginary or popular comics such as Bat Man than anything that could be described as traditionally African. While Oganwu grew up in Nigeria and was influenced by his upbringing as such, his practice is equally informed by his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago), Architectural Association (London), and Columbia University (New York), where he concentrated in architectural studies. Oganwu’s Full Circle, a bench designed as an amorphous form using advanced modeling processes, could be compared to the work of Zaha Hadid, with whom Oganwu previously worked for as an architectural assistant. Yet, it is this burden of classification that problematizes Oganwu’s placement within the context of the African design community. Rather than identify African art and design through a negative definition of what it is not, Designing Africa insists on expanding the referent of African art to include the practices that reflect the global design patterns of the 21st century.

Alafuro Sikoki’s Nigerianisms derive from a more direct and overt association with Nigerian culture. Using idiomatic expressions of Nigerian Pidgin, a local dialect that was formed through a combination of ethnic languages native to Nigeria and the English language, Sikoki turns these phrases into slogans that are paired with accompanying images on a colored, flattened picture plane. In Who Dash Monkey Banana, the popular expression that roughly translates to “who do you think you are fooling” is combined with a graphic outline of a peeled banana. You Do Me I Do You God No Go Vex, a phrase that is generally used to respond to a threat, is paired with a graphic of clouds and lightening bolt. Of course, as these expressions derive their meaning through linguistic metaphor and specific cultural context, the graphic elements do not explain the message or enhance its clarity. Instead, it becomes an icon for the expression, a visual reference that only adds to the work’s overall ambiguity. Such a strategy could be related to advertising, where the expression becomes memorable through the graphic treatment of layout and presentation. It also suggests an affinity to pop art, with its bold colors, cartoonish references, and direct textual dialogue.

ThanksThanksAfrica looks to the expanded design fields of new media and net-art as an avenue for social activism. ThanksThanksAfrica is a fictional artistic collective that exists primarily on Facebook, created in 2010 as an entity intended to support artistic, political, and social inquiry. While the project began with a specific focus on the relationship between the continent of Africa and China, it has since expanded to include the the global relationship between Africa and the “outside”. ThanksThanksAfrica produces work that is disseminated through the Internet and social media, most often posters that are a combination of appropriated mass media images and arbitrary text. Their ongoing series Tutorials in Interesting Times is posted on Facebook under the guise of providing a suggested educational lesson or pedagogic value. Instead, the messages are seemingly aloof and haphazardly organised. In Texting Texting, for example, the photograph of a Nigerian male youth is repeated among dots of white circles that penetrate the image, creating a graphic rhythm that breaks up the image’s documentary facade. As the letters of the phrase “Texting Texting” are arranged in a zig zag formation, the typography begins to allude to a suggested Chinese expression (Te X Ting Te X Ting). In a comical and theatrical manner, the posters in the Tutorials in Interesting Times series appropriate references from different cultures and blend them as a cohesive mesh of skewed identity. As their manifesto states: “We are each other’s another.” Their project calls into question larger issues concerning the notions of cultural plurality and the the formation of the other, and they use the medium of the Internet to broadcast their message on a global scale.

Chinenye Emelogu produces installations of constructed surfaces as a metaphor for social commentary. Human Hives is a project that was conceived for Nigeria’s National Art Competition in 2012, an annual competition that encourages the development of contemporary art and emerging talent throughout the country, of which Emelogu won First Place. The installation consists of an environment built by arranging circles of different sizes to assume a cell-like structure. Plastic blue shards have been carefully cut out and looped together to form overlapping coils that wrap around the architecture of the gallery space. Alluding to the analogy of the beehive, the project is intended to address the complex and dynamic issues of social structures within a Nigerian context, comparing urban and rural social structures. For Emelogu, the hive represents the nation itself, in terms of the geographical terrain and its socio-political, economic, and cultural existence. As Emelogu explains, “The concept relates to this theme by the visual narrative that defines it. When there is a disturbance within any social structure, the consequence will be disorder of the structure as a whole.” Overwhelming the viewer by its mammoth size (adjusting to fit the exhibition venue with each installation), Human Hives positions the individual in phenomenological space as insignificant in comparison to the larger unit.

Native Almaqri is a graphic artist who combines elements of graffiti, street art, and cartoons in a varied mixed media practice. A Nigerian artist who is currently based in Paris, Almaqri’s series in this exhibition includes works on paper, with simple splashes of paint that suggest an exercise in typographical design. In spelling out “Red” (albeit in black ink), Almaqri’s series is one of progression, where the “R” begins to form in successive sketches, gradually spelling out the rest of the word. As one of the most fundamental aspects of design, typography is generally understood as the technique of arranging type in order to make language visible. In Almaqri’s case, his work seems to suggest the processes of experimentation, arrangement, and potential execution rather than a finished product. In the manner that his work intersects between the domains of calligraphy and graffiti, two very different modes of typography that allude to different kinds of cultural heritage, Almaqri’s practice could be seen as using design as a form of social intervention.

With only a handful of design exhibitions that have taken place on the continent, Designing Africa aims to bring the discourse of contemporary design to the forefront of African art. As the arts and design community in Nigeria has evolved at an unprecedented speed over the last decade, it is our goal that Designing Africa will act as a catalyst for future investigation and experimentation in contemporary African design.
• Gergel is the curator of the African Artists’ Foundation, Lagos

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