As a media partner for Design Indaba 2018, Nataal dissects three days of talks that rally for creative thinking turning into affirmative doing


As guests entered Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre for Design Indaba 2018, they were welcomed by a rainbow-painted, sky-scraping play frame. Complete with swings, stairs and a huge sign declaring ‘Embrace the Unknown’, this marvellously joyful structure, the work of designer Morag Myerscough, not only formed the centrepiece of the festival’s multi-disciplinary wonderland but also helped set the tone for the event. We were here to immerse ourselves in a three day ‘do-tank’ – that’s Design Indaba speak for ensuring that by bringing world class talents of every persuasion together to talk about how to ‘create a better world through creativity’, this leads to some real-world outcomes and actions. Now in its 23rd year, effecting change is something Design Indaba is pretty slick at and this edition was no exception.


First on the conference stage was Zimbabwean filmmaker Sunu Gonera, who posed the question ‘What is Afrofuturism?’ and ruminated on the importance of weaving pre-colonial history, new identities and fantasy into positive African narratives. Ultimately he answered the question best by showing his award-winning One Source campaign for Absolut. Featuring Khuli Chana, Osborne Macharia and Trevor Stuurman, the work summons up African super heroes who blaze through gritty cityscapes to claim their freedoms. “Africa ain’t no jungle, and it’s time we showed it,” Gonera said. “The joy of Africa is all around you so you don’t have to hide it.”

Many more African stories followed throughout Design Indaba. Dr William Mapham presented Vula, an app that connects doctors and patients in rural areas around South Africa to specialist consultants to help conditions related to orthopaedics, HIV and oncology among others. “Our vision is for every health worker to have access to specialist advice and our current response rate is 15 minutes,” Mapham said. Leroy Mwasanu, a young designer from Kenya, spoke of how he encourages social entrepreneurship in teenagers through blogs, technology summer camps and the peer-to-peer trading platform, “We need to be our best saviour – let’s break some rules.”

“The joy of Africa is all around you so you don’t have to hide it”

Fellow Silicon Savannah success story, Mark Kamau of BRCK, identified himself an Afro-centric, human-centred UX designer. “I call it scratching at fleas. If you’re not solving problems that effect human lives, then what about those lion-sized problems?” he said. “Design is the most powerful tool to transform Africa.” Kamau showed how BRCK - a solar-powered devise used to provide 4G internet in remote areas – has been super powered into Kio Kit – a digital classroom comprising a BRCK and 40 tablets with headphones. “Our hardware has to be fit for purpose and Kio Kits are Africa-proof... Our continent cannot afford decontextualised design. The stakes are simply too high.”

Egyptian fashion designer Amna Elshandaweely told of how her country’s revolution empowered her to give up a corporate job and start her tribalwear brand that speaks to pan Africans. Her collections have touched on racism against dark-skinned people in north African society, defined her take on Afropunk, spoken to the women of Siwa who are forbidden to leave the home from the age of seven, and featured graffiti artists from around the continent. “Like Tupac said, maybe I won’t make the change but I want to spark the brains of other people. Through art we are able to change the world,” she urged.

South African powerhouse Lebo Mashile wore many hats at Design Indaba, as a presenter, a speaker and performer with a preview of her powerful new play, Saartjie versus Venus, based on the life of Sarah Baartman. The acclaimed poet spoke of the significance her art form holds in her county. “Here poetry is a tool of resistance and activism, it has a resonance for our people that does not compare to anywhere else in the world,” she said. “The politics of living in the body I do, in the place that I do, is an essential part of what I do. That’s why the next poem always comes back to race, to gender, to politics. In South Africa we eat those things for breakfast. We elect a rapists and then kick them out,” she added to cheers. This being the week that Jacob Zuma finally conceded presidential power to Cyril Ramaphosa certainly added a palpable energy to proceedings.

Edel Rodriguez also uses his art form to speak up against corrupt politicians. The Cuban-American art director and illustrator has made headlines for his series of satirical posters and magazine covers pegging US right wing extremism to Donald Trump’s unmistakably orange countenance. Portraying him as everything from a KKK member to a poo head emoji, Rodriguez’s images have gone viral and become a physical weapon of protest as banners on marches across the world.

Ku Leuven graduate Iwo Barkowicz approaches architecture as a tool for social reform. He proposed a development model in Havana that would answer the housing shortage, caused by tourism, abandoned buildings and gentrification, by building dual-purpose units that house both residential flats and hotel rooms. Drawing on the existing practice of casa particular (renting rooms to visitors), the scheme would rebuild the city sympathetically while creating income.

“Design is the most powerful tool to transform Africa”

Architect Alejandro Aravena of Elemental has dedicated much of his career to social housing and spoke of his large-scale project in Constitución in his native Chile, which was struck by an earthquake and tsunami that devastated 80 per cent of the city. Tasked with reconstruction, he first asked, “Do we build fast or do we build good?” After dealing with immediate concerns of water distribution and temporary shelter, he turned to the population through a series of open forums. “I believe in participatory design – in having an adult conversation as equals to establish priorities and channel resources. You won’t get the answers but you will get the questions.” His answer to guarding against future disaster included a mitigation forest, cultural centre and social housing that allowed the families given the homes to part build them themselves in order to add space and value.

Abstract thinking and a gonzo journalism approach to design fuels the work of Azusa Murakomi and Alexander Groves at London-based Studio Swine. The pair go on adventures and allow their first person experiences to inform their sustainable, often vernacular-inspired pieces. In São Paulo they made a series of stools from aluminium cans for street traders to use. In Cornwall they gathered the residue from plastic bags washed up on the beach to make furniture for fishermen. And in China they found the source of the human hair trade and used this fast-growing, renewable resource to make sculptural pieces that have travelled the globe. “We go out in the real world and let curiosity guide us. Ones destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things,” they said.

Inventor Nri Oxman certainly doesn’t let protocol stand in her way when experimenting with ways to bring nature and biology into the future of design. “Design is a form of nature-ing – we use light, air, water and life to shape the things in our physical reality,” Oxman said. She’s developed a biometric software system that 3D prints glass into solar forms, and biodegradable buildings that react to rain and sun. She’s also created fibrebots that learn from silk worms to weave fabric structures. And she’s made death masks that become life masks, the act of breathing mapping algorisms.

ECAL graduate Ini Archibong also delves into nature for his furniture designs, but for him it is of the fantastical kind. Inspired by his religious upbringing, Greek mythology and the books of CS Lewis, he explained how he escapes into his dreams and the unknown – what he calls “the secret garden” – to magic up mindful, spiritual objects imbued with hope. “I want to use my skills to benefit everyone and everything,” he said. “Always believe in the power of self and take on the mantle of being a hero.”

“Always believe in the power of self and take on the mantle of being a hero”

As the talks came to a close, anticipation was high for the grand finale. Design Indaba has a reputation for special surprises, such as last year’s Arch for the Arch project, which honoured Archbishop Desmond Tutu with two new architectural structures in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was more than apt then that this edition paid tribute to Hugh Masekela, who dearly departed on 23 January 2018, aged 78.

Firstly, guitarist J’Something performed Heaven In You, a track they made together last year. Then Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo announced the unveiling of The Hugh Masekela Gallery at Zeitz MOCAA, saying: “I believe it is fitting that a cultural icon such as Hugh Masekela is honoured by yet another cultural icon such as Zeitz MOCAA, which has rapidly garnered global renown and several awards for architecture since its launch.” Naidoo was integral to the development of the newly opened museum – Africa’s first major not-for-profit museum dedicated to contemporary African art (read our story here) – by connecting Thomas Heatherwick to the project. The designer also spoke at Design Indaba about how he went about transforming the disused grain silo on Cape Town’s Waterfront into a “a museum with a heart”.

Next the musician’s nephew and sister, poet, educator and activist Barbara Masekela, both made moving speeches. “His greatest gift in mourning for him is that he gathered family wherever he went,” Barbara said. “We knew he was famous, that people loved him, but after he left us we learnt that he was loved more than we could ever imagine, not least among his family at Design Indaba…. We miss him very much but he’s created a universal family for us. He’s very much alive everyday for us, his family, and we know he is for you too.”

Finally Masekela’s band, accompanied by Tshepo Tshola, brought Design Indaba home with the anthem Thuma Mina. And at that very moment, the heavens opened to bless the city. With Cape Town facing severe drought and the very real threat of Day Zero, it was as if Masekela’s music conjured up some much-needed rain. Here’s to you, Bra Hugh.

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Published on 03/03/2018