Guest curator, Tapiwa Matsinde
Guest curator, Tapiwa Matsinde
Image: Supplied

With the 2017 Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair opening in Johannesburg today, we asked to author and this year’s guest curator Tapiwa Matsinde about her involvement with Well Made in Africa and about the wealth of design talent across the continent.

Well Made in Africa aims to showcase the work of 5 African brands across the design spectrum, selected for their combination of “heritage skills and high end contemporary design.” Making up the 5, Tongoro, Adele Dejak, Saba Studio, Dounia Home and Afrominima range in focus from furniture design to fashion. Representing Nigeria, Lamu, Kenya, Morocco and Senegal these designers are “paying homage to the skill of making things by hand and in doing so are recognising how craft is at the heart of true luxury,” explains Tapiwa.

What does well made in Africa mean to you? That we have the means within our continent to produce world-class products that meet a global standard of sophistication and quality.

What were your search criteria for its exhibitors? The search centered around finding designers of African heritage who demonstrated an active commitment to producing their products on the continent. In addition, the exhibitor’s products and collections had to meet the HmC’s objectives of showcasing high-end artisanal design, thereby upholding the banner of Well Made In Africa. And they had to have the capacity to provide the necessary stock to retail during the Fair.

What is one of the most common misperceptions about contemporary African design? That design from Africa can be defined by one look and feel. Africa is a diverse continent, home to individual countries each with their own modern, and traditional cultures and designers from across the continent and in the diaspora are translating this into products that cannot be summed up by a single common aesthetic. Also, despite the work being produced meeting a global standard of sophistication and quality, African design still has to battle through a mainstream stigma of African products being seen as of poor quality.

As Africans, do we have a shared design language? When it comes to design there are commonalities in terms of product shapes and the types of skills used that form the basis of design in Africa and have done so for centuries, i.e pots, stools, beading, woodcarving, basket-weaving amongst others. The commonalities begin to diverge where the use of these skills differs from region to region and country to country, enabling us to identify the different cultures, how products are used and other social markers. So when it comes to the ways in which these skills are being applied and adapted to create the design we see today, the highlighted commonalities still exist, but the regional and individual country differences are apparent.

How much exposure have the 5 exhibitors previously had to the SA market? Of the 5 I think that Adele Dejak will probably be a more familiar name to the South African market as the brand has been active in building an African-wide retail presence. Tongoro and Saba Studio have garnered local press coverage in recent months, but in terms of their products being available to purchase as far as I am aware this will be the first time, as it will also be for both Dounia Home and Afrominima.

And what makes African design stand apart from the rest of the world? The incorporation of artisanal skills is one defining factor; the handmade aesthetic gives the work personality and a soulfulness that can rarely be achieved with machine produced work. Another defining factor is that designers in Africa currently experience a much higher level of creative freedom than their western counterparts in that they do not tend to be subjected to the demands of boards of directors and other decision-makers who can water-down designs. This freedom means that design in Africa tends to be more organic in the forms and has a strong artistic quality about it. Also the resourcefulness when it comes to working with the available, often discarded, materials one has to hand has attracted global attention for the ways in which in the designer-makers imagination and hands transform them into objects of beauty and value.

What do you hope visitors to Well Made in Africa will take away with them? An appreciation for the time and care taken to produce exceptional hand made products, the beauty and sophistication that results, and gaining an insight into some of the people and stories behind the products.

The Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair takes place on the rooftop of Hyde Park Corner, Johannesburg between Friday 13 and Sunday 15 October. Visit sanlamhmc.co.za for more info.

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