South Africa, Nigeria and Tunisia tackle Utopia at the inaugural
London Design Biennale

When unpacking the idea of Utopia we are encountered by numerous, varying articulations of the fantasy state defined 500 years ago by philosopher Thomas More. Forming part of the London Design Festival, the inaugural London Design Biennale functions as the international extension of the three-week long festival. The biennale is filled to the brim of over 30 countries’ installations interpreting the theme Utopia by Design.  Here we look at the intriguing parallels from the southern most tip of Africa, South Africa, straight up to Tunisia, the most northern tip of Africa, with a stop-over in Nigeria in the west, all coming together in London, where the concept was published some 500 years ago and where it is today interpreted by design.

Porky Hefer’s Otium and Acedia, represented by Southern Guild for South Africa, tells a story of playfulness and luxury, a tongue in cheek commentary on the perceived Utopia of our modern world. Perplexed by the sinister, colonial history of South Africa and the challenge of globalisation, mass-production, and the capitalist dystopia, Porky Hefer created a series of beasts with mouths wide open, serving as seats, offering a world unto their own, but only once you surrender yourself inside of the gaping mouth. The suspended structure has a lightness to it, swinging, holding you safely while you drift from side to side in the mouth of the lion, manta ray, piranha, crocodile or killer (lover) whale.

“Porky Hefer created a series of beasts with mouths wide open, serving as seats, offering a world unto their own, but only once you surrender yourself inside of the gaping mouth”

The multi-layered symbolism of Hefer’s work boils down to our tendency to find distraction, even apathy, in our cushioned luxuries that we place so neatly around us while the absurdities of our reality continue around us. At the same time, Hefer encourages us to go back to a state of playfulness and find joy in the unusual. This South African designer is one of the country’s “most liberated and free-thinking designer[s]” and is represented by the collectible design gallery, Southern Guild. The tactile and the joyful experience that Hefer aspires to will pivot us back towards nature - a trajectory to a utopia free of the panic, fear and control that marks the South African history in particular.

Next to Nigeria, heavy with oil, money and religious turmoil. The installation, Ulo, meaning home, speaks more directly to the destruction and extreme dystopia of a land rich with minerals and people, where Nigeria wastes billions worth of pounds in its destructive oil drilling economy, causing terrible living conditions, both environmental and health-related issues. Gozi Ochonogor, Shola Orekoya and Folakunle Oshun came together to create the installation that takes inspiration from the traditional home in the West African country and the way it is affected by the oil industry. Ulo is made up of a combination of pieces, from a home on stilts, elevated from the ground, where the oil seeps and into a future where oil is no longer part of the daily life, to an interactive light installation which pays attention to the gas flares connected to oil drilling and a survival raincoat which was inspired by the regular flash floods. This interpretation of Utopia by Design reverts back to the sense that reality and dystopia are interchangeable.

Finally to Tunisia, the nation that allowed for the floweringof the Arab Spring in 2010. The Pulse Diagram, created by architect Chacha Atallah and artist Haythem Zakaria, speaks to the beautiful, but fragile hope for our perceived utopias. The installation is constructed with 54 pylons linked by beams, which have been charred using the traditional Japanese method of scorching wood to extend its lifespan. In More’s Utopia, he imagines 54 cities, which are all symbolised by the 54 pylons in this installation. Inspired by the concept of the ‘mobile city’ proposed by architect Yona Friedman in the early 1960s, the installation by the architect-artist duo is designed to demonstrate the admiration for the mobile city, but also to highlight the fragile foundations upon which it is based.

All three countries join together at Somerset House alongside with many others for three weeks. It is just the tip of the iceberg that is the understanding of Utopia and yet we are able to understand it as a yearning for high spirits, a glimmer of hope through escape or protection. We see that the idea of Utopia is the constant search for a fleeting solution in a world that is defined in opposites and by the very indefinable, unachievable utopia, pushing us deeper into improving the realities we find ourselves in.

The London Design Biennale 2016, in partnership with Jaguar is at Somerset House until 27 September