As the guest curator for this year’s Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair and founder of Atelier Fifty-Five, Tapiwa Matsinde specializes in highlighting the work of people who are shaping Africa’s design industries
What does African contemporary design look like and why is it important to think about it within the context of Africa as opposed to just “contemporary design”?
African contemporary design simply refers to design from Africa that is of the moment separating it from the traditional design of the past. The design that we see emerging from the continent is collectively characterised by its innovation, ingenuity, craftsmanship, sophistication, vibrancy, diversity, sustainability, heart & soul; and its non-conformity to what we think design should look like. In terms of thinking about design within the context of the continent there are several reasons for this, not least being that we live in a world that makes sense of things by using categorisation to put them into context. Referring to contemporary design on its own is not enough as we could be referring to anyone and anything and that is why we see references to say, British designers or Japanese designers and so forth. The distinction being that these categorisations point to countries rather than continents. By referring to Africa we are grouping the designers and work by a place and this was important at time when the number of designers we knew about was small making it necessary to refer to Africa as a whole to better understand it but as more designers from the different countries emerge and their local industries become more prominent we are starting to see more references to the individual countries for example Senegalese design, Kenyan design, Ghanaian design and so forth. South African and Moroccan design are exceptions to this as design from both countries tends to be referred to by country as a reflection of how much more advanced their design industries are when compared to the rest of the continent.
Can you tell us about Atelier Fifty-Five, what is the philosophy behind the platform and what are you trying to achieve with it?
Atelier Fifty-Five is a digital platform that I created to shine the spotlight on the products and services from designers, artisans and organisations shaping contemporary African design. The platform started out in 2010 as a place for me to document my findings with regards to what I was seeing and excited by my discoveries I wanted to share and and bring attention to the work. People started reading and sending me messages expressing amazement and pride of what they themselves were seeing encouraging me to keep going. And Atelier Fifty-Five now attracts a diverse range of visitors from students doing research, designers looking for inspiration to retailers looking for products to stock in their stores.
You are the guest curator at this year’s Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, what does your work in this role entail?
Well Made In Africa is a section within the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair that gives designers from the rest of the African continent, and those in the diaspora, who are committed to producing their products in Africa an opportunity to showcase their work and gain exposure to the South African retail market. As the Guest Curator I was responsible for selecting the 5 designers whose work will be showcased within the section. I had to ensure that the selected designers and their work met the objectives not only of the Well Made In Africa section but also those of the fair itself in promoting and celebrating high-end artisanal production.
You have chosen an interesting selection of artists and designers from the continent for the fair. Tell us about you first encounter with their different works, what excites you about them and what can we expect from their offering?
Updating my platform, Atelier Fifty-Five means that I spend a lot of time researching to keep up to date with the developments in the industry, and the new and existing designers and their work. So search engines, social media, word-of-mouth and attending exhibitions and industry related events are just some of the ways in which I do this. As such in varying stages over the years it was online searches in the case of Adele Dejak, Dounia Home and Saba Studio; and introductions to Tongoro and Afrominima that first brought the selected designers to my attention. And I have since got to know them and their work. They are an exciting group of designers in that they are each committed to producing on the continent and thereby showing the world that Africa is more than capable of producing sophisticated world-class design. Their product offerings are also helping to preserve heritage skills of making things by hand, by showing how they can be modernised and therefore have a role in the design industry.
What are some of the main changes you’ve seen in the field of design curation over time?
Observing from a western point of view, curation in general not just design is becoming more inclusive. In the past exhibits from regions such as Africa, Asia and Oceania would often be grouped into one category or not be given much of a spotlight barr the stereotypical perspectives. Now we see more curators representing different regions and areas of specialism bringing their expertise and insight to the global dialogue and this is important to understanding what is curated from the perspective of where the content originated.
You also have some experience in publishing, can you tell us about your book Contemporary Design Africa. How has publishing helped your perspective with the work you are currently doing?
Contemporary Design Africa is a survey of functional product design from just over fifty-five designer/makers from Africa and in the diaspora who collectively are shaping the contemporary aesthetics of African design. It works towards shattering the stereotypes of a homogenous continent defined by one style or way of doing things by highlighting the diversity, the varying techniques and approaches to product design. Publishing my book put me into contact with a whole range of people who are contributing in the development of the industry from the designer/makers themselves, some of the artisans they work with, and industry professionals from gallerists to retailers. The whole experience has been invaluable as it helped me to understand Africa’s contemporary design scene from different perspectives, local and international and has given me an invaluable foundation of knowledge and insight that I am continually building on and sharing my expertise with others to bring African designers and their work to different audiences.
Can you give us some insight into a project you are developing at the moment?
I am currently involved in a project which examines upcycling and sustainable design, highlighting our relationship with rubbish, discarded material and how it can be used to create objects of value. It is in the form of a ten-year travelling exhibition and features designers from around the world, including three designers and one collective representing sub-Saharan Africa whom I selected to participate.
Find out more atelierfiftyfive.com
Here are some of the exciting artisan projects you will see at the showcase.
Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair will be taking place from the 13 15 October 2017 at the Hyde Park Corner Rooftop sanlamhmc.co.za