Tapiwa Matsinde, a graphic designer and brand consultant, launched her blog Atelier Fifty-Five, one of our favourite resources on African design, as a personal project to gather inspiring work she came across. But after a few years doing so, she saw potential for a book — and so did Thames & Hudson, which published Contemporary Design Africa this year. We sat down with Tapiwa to learn more about her journey putting together the book and discoveries she made along the way.
Why is your book different from others out there?
It’s the first to bring together what’s happening across Africa and also some of the diaspora in terms of design emerging from the continent. There were books on contemporary african architecture, art, and fashion, and I just felt there was a gap for one on design.
You focus more in your book on textiles than the other disciplines covered (basketry, ceramics, furniture, lighting and decor). Why is that?
Textiles tend to have a higher profile across the continent because they were engrained into pretty much every African culture that exists. People wear fabrics to express belonging and status, and they are still very invested in their textiles today. Now the other disciplines are emerging alongside it and are being taken more seriously, but I do think that textiles currently have a stronger role.
What did you learn about textiles when researching the book?
What drew me were the different ways textiles are developing. It’s kind of split into two groups. You get artists like Mariem Besbes (above, from Tunisia), Aïssa Dione and Aboubakar Fofana (below, from Mali), who are really going back to the traditional roots of organic textile process and working to modernise that. They’re sort of rediscovering lost traditions. I call them the revivalists.
Then there’s a new group of textile designers, who look to their heritage but they’re modernising it using things like digital printing. They are creating textiles that have an Africanness about them without specifically saying that they are African textiles. People like Banke Kuku, Julie Kouamo (below left, from Cameroon), Eva Sonaike and Shine Shine (below right, from South Africa) — they’re really pushing that, seeing how far they can take it with modern technology. What’s interesting is that they’re based in the West, and also South Africa, which has one of the most developed design industries on the continent.
How do you explain the geographic divide?
I think it’s exposure to the different techniques; you work with what you’ve got. In the West, you’ve got more exposure to what’s happening technology wise a lot quicker, especially if you’re in formal training. On the continent, you can probably see traditional techniques are disappearing, and you have that ability to seek out people from within your community who have that knowledge.
Tell me about some of the traditional techniques that are being rediscovered.
I found the indigo-dying process quite interesting. I’d always loved indigo, but speaking to Aboubakar Fofana (pictured below) about the process was fascinating. Plant Ieaves actually create that very deep blue, and the process to dye a piece of cloth can take anywhere from six to eight months. And then you still have to create the product.
In Ethiopia, there’s a very longstanding cotton-weaving tradition that is in danger of dying out because of people preferring the modern over the older. Now that’s being revived; Sabahar, for instance, is reinventing it with silk weaving.
In your book, you say that a creative reawakening is happening in Africa. What do you attribute that to?
In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a whole outpouring of creativity across Africa. It’s like a light suddenly came on. It’s not just happening in design: we can see it in film, in music, in architecture — there’s this energy, everyone’s really exploring. It’s not really surprising. I think it’s partly linked to how we’ve become connected in a digital world. Although Africa still has a ways to go, mobile technology is making a difference. You find out what other people are doing; and when you get people promoting your work, it motivates you. There’s a real buzz.
Are African designers gaining more attention on an international level?
It’s changing slowly. Some of the designers who are in the book are working with organisations to promote themselves and do exhibitions abroad. But at the moment, Africa still needs to prove that what is happening is more than just a passing trend, as people still have certain expectations about what African design should be, like masks or wooden objects, when that’s just one side of it. The designers featured in the book are trying their upmost to reach out. But unless people are buying and collectors are interested in collecting, it will be very difficult for them.
Image credits (top – bottom): Contemporary Design Africa Book Cover Image – © Thames & Hudson; courtesy of Tapiwa Matsinde; www.mariembesbes.com; Aboubakar Fofana © David Ross for Amaridian; www.juliekouamo.com; Shine Shine O’Baby orange cushion © Peter H. Maltbie for Shine Shine; www.ateliercourbet.com/aboubakar-fofana
Tapiwa was interviewed by Caroline Kinneberg for Toghal