Africa, the new design frontier


By Dr Michelina Andreucci

AFRICA, the second largest of the five continents, hosts a large diversity of ethnicities, cultures and languages.
It boasts a completed civilisation which literally dates back to the dawn of history; a history rich in colouring, design and innovation.
Greek historian, traveller and philosopher, Herodotus (circa 485 – 425BC), also known as the ‘father of history’, described Africa as: ‘The land of surprise’ referring to the unique geographical characteristics, the monumental magnificence and skilled craftsmanship in building, designing, weaponry, tool making for industry and domestic purposes.
The Sahara Desert divides the continent unequally into North Africa, one of the earliest centres of civilisation, in close contact with Europe and Western Asia and Africa south of the Sahara, which was colonised in the 18th and 19th Centuries mainly by European powers and now comprises independent sovereign nations.
Africa’s design achievements, although remarkable, are often overlooked and underestimated.
For instance, Zimbabwe has the potential to create, forge and make new forays into the world of design from furniture, fashion, industrial-scientific products and machinery, to the packaging of indigenous foods and fruits, including canning and preservation.
Present industrial crafts practised traditionally in Zimbabwe include weaving of sleeping mats, sieves and grain mats; wood carving of spoons and wooden domestic pieces.
From the beginning of time, African artistic creativity was inspired by the vibrant forms and textures of Africa’s unique landscapes, botanical, wildlife and cultural treasures; such as the Zimbabwe Bird taken from the original form of one of the granite outcrops at Great Zimbabwe.
New African designers from as early as the mid-1950s have resisted the design herd-instinct psychology to follow Western design domination and have forged their unique indigenous African pathways.
From Cape to Cairo, there are many examples of new industrial design products, architectural design, atelier, manufacturing and packaging.
Industrial design is an activity that encompasses the design of serial or industrial products.
In general, it can be differentiated into two types of products; consumer goods and capital goods.
The development of design in Africa began with the gradual transition of skills from the father-to-son ‘humhizha’ design practice of our ancestors at Munhumutapa, where all design dares, from conceptualisation, alternative strategies, design decisions, material selection, making and evaluation rested in the minds of the craft-designers, to the realisation that design can have an impact on economic performance.
However, for Zimbabwe, there are lessons still to be learnt in the fields of design standards and presentation that need to be improved upon and applied.
From Nigerian style to Ghanaian fashion, from Ankara to Johannesburg and Cape Town; African kitenge, women’s dresses, African prints, African men’s fashion, jewellery, baskets, pottery and ceramics designs have become the rage in the world of design.
Using new forms, natural materials, rich colours and textures, designers from Africa are pioneering new frontiers of creative expression.
Their bold ideas are defining a captivating new aesthetic that captures the style and soul of contemporary Africa; imaginative, energetic, cosmopolitan, expressive, sensual, proud and principled industrial arts.
One of Zimbabwe’s design feats is the mbira.
Its image was first found in pre-historic cave paintings on the Zimbabwean Plateau in circa 1688.
It is also known as the Sanza, Mbila, Kalimba and Likembe in other African countries.
As we commemorate the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) now African Union (AU), inaugurated on May 25 1963, we also celebrate the inventive indigenous designers of Africa who are challenging and changing pre-conceived perspectives of African design, while re-interpreting their heritage through new insights to suit the contemporary world.
The constraints imposed on African people by colonisation and the later day economic and academic constraints and lack of raw material, has surprisingly led to innovative and creative breakthroughs and effective industrial design solutions that now promote sustainability and new technical and product design innovations that have become the hallmark of emerging design from Africa.
A leading example of African innovation can be seen in the annual design Indabas held in South Africa since 1995, where a host of African design innovations are exhibited and promoted to a worldwide market.
The African design philosophy of identifying multiple uses in products have led to the beginning of a new era of recycle, re-use and revamp.
In an immense open-air factory in Ghana, over 200 000 craftsmen recycle discarded car parts into new home-grown vehicles.
An award-winning Kenyan engineer and businessman developed the Mwanga Bora solar light that is helping to create a sustainable economy in East Africa’s rural areas of Kenya.
In Harare’s Siya So, Magaba, in Mbare, kuDurawall in Epworth and many other informal industrial manufacturing sites in peri-urban centres of Zimbabwe, many industrial design products testify to our innovation and the potential of African unique design as practical, functional and artistic; a testament to the skills, innovation and dedicated skill of its creators.
These innovations reflect untapped Zimbabwean talent and ordinary people’s capacity to think, adapt and improvise in order to create ingenious designs.
Ancient industrial barter trade was largely facilitated by an exchange of design ideas, exemplary in the reign of the Munhumutapas, who had instituted several traditional schools of design education that led to the perfection of the Zimbabwe Birds that went through several phases.
This period also saw the invention of most of our agro-industrial tools such as makano, mapadza and mapfumo.
Although Africa neither participated in the renaissance of the 15th Century, nor in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century, Zimbabwe has a design pedigree that stretches back to early Stone and Iron Age industries.
However, the importance of design in contemporary Zimbabwean institutions has not been appreciated or adopted.
African nations such as Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, Morocco, Ghana, Mali and Uganda have emerged as effective design users, owing to the fact that they have adopted effective schools of industrial design in their tertiary institutions.
How many educational institutions take industrial design seriously enough to have a design sector in their curriculum today?
In the era of global competitiveness in which we live, nothing can make its way onto the market without creative design backed by creative thinking and extensive research.
The fact that Africa did not realise the importance of design sooner is certainly one of the reasons why today many of our economies are stagnant.
The beauty and vitality of African and African-inspired design is a font of vibrant, exciting design inspiration and ingenious contextual solution to design challenges today.
Zimbabwe should embrace it!
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian Researcher, Industrial Design Consultant and Specialist Hospitality Interior Decorator. She is a published author in her field.
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