Making Africa: A Continent
of Contemporary Design is
breaking new ground at the
Vitra Design Museum


A revolution is happening at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, thanks to its current exhibition Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design. The landmark show explores how design is both fuelling economic and political progress on the continent and shaping global societies.

Museum director Mateo Kries was keen to avoid clichéd assumptions that design from Africa must be discussed “in the context recycling, humanitarian design, or the transfer of traditional folklore into contemporary products.” Nor was it the aim to try to “represent a single African design language”. Instead, the show incites debate around the current rapid change and development happening across Africa as trailblazers use design to confront the complex realities of their daily lives and material culture in innovative ways.

Work by over 120 artists spanning furniture, art, photography, architecture, typography, new media, fashion and film are on display. Making Africa’s interdisciplinary, multi-layered tableaus reflect the collaborative, adaptable approach taken by African makers whose processes defy genres by bridging analogue and digital, informal and industrial, art and design, with a confidence unshackled by accepted conventions. “We want to show that there are new collective experiences, new realities, new themes visible in all of these different disciplines,” says Kries. “Design can improve our lives, reflect on our culture and speculate on our futures and nowhere is that shown better than on the African continent today.”

Curator Amelie Klein started the project in 2011 and took six extensive trips to African cities to meet experts and practitioners. “What we were looking for was essentially an attitude about taking whatever resource is available and making something. There is a political dimension to making in a time when the entire world is flooded with mass produced, cheap products. The 21st century needs utopian design.” 


“Design can improve our lives,
reflect on our culture and speculate on our futures and nowhere is that shown better than on the African continent today”


She found it in abundance across the continent.  Highlights of the exhibition include buildings by Francis Kere and Kunle Adeyemi, furniture by Cheick Diallo and Amadou Fatoumata Ba, photography by Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou and Omar Victor Diop, clothing by Duro Olowu and Oumou Sy, sculplture by El Anatsui and Gonçalo Mabunda, film by Robin Rhode and Wangechi Mutu, technology by M-Pesa and Ushahidi and maps by Nikolaj Cyon and Kai Krause.

Influential Moroccan designer Hicham Lahlou contributed Dar, a tea and coffee set with modernist lines reminiscent of Hassan Tower at the Grand Mosque in Rabat. It transforms the ancient Arabic ritual of serving tea into an architectural statement. “A flavour of Morocco’s deep heritage always comes through in my work,” explains Lahlou whose practice includes interior, urban and industrial design. He’s also the founder of the Femade, the Africa Design Award and Africa Design Days. “I’ve been coming to Vitra since I was a student over 20 years ago so to now be exhibiting here alongside my other brothers and sisters from Africa is very emotional. It’s a historic moment to bring together so many different faces of African design and an opportunity to change perceptions.”


South African creative Porky Hefer is renowned for his human nests, which are woven from natural materials emulating the technique of the weaver bird. One such piece, Humanest Swing, hangs invitingly from Vitra’s high ceiling. “Birds use whatever is readily available to them and makes a new nest every season. So for me, nesting has been a journey in learning about materials and temporary architecture,” Hefer says, who is currently working on his first building, a lodge in Namibia made from thatched grasses. “There are so many terrible buildings lying around because no one thought about their longevity. Why not make something that lasts the time it is meant to and then it disappears back into the landscape? It’s about a sense of place, and embracing vernacular architecture. I believe in the Bauhaus principle that we have to work across silos in order to learn from each process and combine them into something spiritual. Design is a collective sub-conscious and it all began in Africa. We used to be on the fringes but the Vitra exhibition shows me that’s no longer the case. Africa needs to teach and people need to listen.”

Young London-based Nigerian designer Yinka Illori focuses on upcycling found furniture. Drawing by traditional parables and using Dutch wax prints, each piece tells its own story. At Vitra he shows Let There Be Light, an Ercol chair turned into an inspirational work of art. “This piece is saying that whatever you’re going through now, your light will shine one day. My work is a comment on social status and hierarchy. And as a Nigerian in the diaspora, it’s also my way of saying I’m African and proud.”

Okwui Enwezor, director of Haus der Kunst in Munich and director of the 2015 Venice Biennale, is the consulting curator for Making Africa. It was his suggestion to contextualise the focus on contemporary designers by juxtaposing their work with that of their post-colonial era predecessors such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. “Making a connection to the immediate historical period shows links in terms of what one could call the politics of form, a kind of post western design that has carried on. This essential appropriation of the past and making it contemporary is what makes this exhibition incredibly energising to witness,” Enwezor says. “Making Africa is a confluence of many forces in once space. I hope the public who sees it can draw lessons on how to curate Africa, how to feel Africa and about the incredible richness of what these coming generations are producing.”

Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design runs until 13 September at Vitra Design Museum. It moves to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from 30 October 2015 to 21 February 2016 and then continues to Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona from 21 March to 31 July 2016. There is also an accompanying book.

Words Helen Jennings
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