Kunsthal Rotterdam
1 Oct 2016 – 15 Jan 2017

Having previously made its debut at the Vitra Design Museum, followed by the Guggenheim Bilbao and CCCB Barcelona, Kunsthal Rotterdam now hosts the impressive exhibition, Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design showcasing the works of over 120 artists and designers across fashion, art, product design and architecture. The artists here explore how design has fuelled economic and social change across the continent and also through its diaspora.

The breath of references in this exhibition is commendable, and curator of the Vitra Design museum, Amelie Klein in consultation with Okwui Enwezor, Director of Haus der Kunst, Munich and Director of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 spent two years prior to the premier in Weil am Rhein researching via interviews and think tanks in cities including Lagos, Dakar, Cape Town, Cairo and Nairobi.
The exhibition is grouped thematically expressing boldly works cutting across different media that address material culture and the everyday, echoing that such innovation is rooted in the post-colonial and beyond stereotypical images of war, crises and impoverishment. Historic works are paired with contemporary, thus creating a dialogue across generations that is positive and re-affirming of the self-confidence of makers evident across the African continent.

A striking body of work that you first encounter is Mikhail Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s investigation Ponte City from Yeoville Ridge, 2008 which focuses on the eponymous tower block built in Johannesburg in 1976 for white elites, but by the 1990s, it became a refuge for immigrants and a beacon of urban decay and illegal activities. These contact-sheet-like photographs depicting the lives of the community here shows each door and views from the window views from apartments and is installed floor to ceiling mimicking the appearance of an actual tower block. Next to these are The Docks Table Black, 2013, by South African ceramicist Andile Dyalvane, known for his progressive work as Imiso Ceramics, records the rapid environmental changes that are taking place in Woodstock, Cape Town, where his studio is located. It is a pixilated mash up of ceramic blocks that calls to mind futuristic vertical villages, or indeed Tetris formations brought to life. The work poignantly reflects the chequered, fragmented urban fabric of a neighbourhood that is undergoing rapid gentrification.

Architecture is represented prominently with heavyweights including the Berlin-based Burkina Faso-Berlin’s Kéré Architecture, London’s David Adjaye, alongside Amsterdam firm NLÉ Architects, led by Nigerian, Kunlé Adeyemi whose photographic renderings depicting architecture and water, postulate unlocking the potential of urban waterways as sites for new buildings. Print explosions in the pattern garments by Duro Oluwo share the same space as renowned Ghanaian sculptor El Anatusi, whose intricate hanging wall pieces made from thousands of folded crumpled discarded bottle tops and stitched together with copper wire, resembles laboriously woven fabrics. German-Ghanaian artist, Zohra Opoku on the other hand, seeks to bring awareness to traditions and controversies by exploring the changes that can take place at the individual, cultural and economic level as a result of imports of western second-hand clothes. Opoku considers how our clothes make up our traditions and culture? And if this is true, what happens to our identity when the clothes are changed? Her work Waxprint Prison, 2015, part of a larger textile series Who Is Wearing My T-Shirt questions how clothes relate to identity and colonial history.

Other stand out pieces include London-based, Nigerian designers Yinka Ilori’s upcycled chair, Let There be Light, 2013, and Expand Design’s »Splice«, 2012, and black and white timeless images such as J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s Onile Gogoro Or Akaba, 1975, and Malick Sidibé’s Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), 1963. It is refreshing to see contemporary interpretations of studio photography mastered by Ojeikere and Sidibé reinterpreted today by Omar Victor Diop’s Aminata, 2013 from his The Studio of Vanities series.

The exhibition ends, or perhaps is left open-ended with a display of eyewear sculptures by Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru, beckoning viewers, one might argue to take a leap away from the fixed and inflexible gaze that is too often directed at the African continent made up of 54 extremely diverse countries.

By Jareh Das