Seeing is Believing
Bilbao. The museum with a city attached. And what a museum! The moated mountain of metal that is the Guggenheim. Looking (hyphen optional) shipshape. It’s approached by foot along Abandoibarra (the riverside walk) under Louise Bourgeois’s arachnid sculpture Maman that resembles for all the world – Starck on steroids – an inflated Juicy Salif Lemon Squeezer. Art or design?
While the museum’s regenerating ‘effect’, a left bank titanium quarter, inspired a rash of grimly unsuccessful cultural projects (nobody mention Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music), imitators failed to register the added ingredients to Bilbao’s mix. Not one but a multiplicity of super-architect projects (Calatrava, Foster, Hadid, Starck, Stern plus Isozaki’s two fingered 22 storey cloud bothering salute), a 15th century historic quarter, dramatic scenery, sunshine (mostly), great cuisine and good looking locals all complement the world’s most photographed museum. It’s hard to disagree with Victor Hugo, “Everyone who has visited the Basque Country longs to return; it is a blessed land.”
‘Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design’ is the latest exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao. It’s curated by Petra Joos at the Guggenheim and Amelie Klein of Vitra Design Museum. The exhibition seeks to illustrate how design is steering change in Africa and presents the main protagonists of this new design epoch. Its context is globalisation through technology, especially the internet. “A part of this development is a new and open understanding of what design is,” explains Mateo Kries, Director of Vitra Design Museum. “It’s no longer limited to the creation of furniture, products, typography or fashion, but is very closely interwoven with the fields of photography, art, architecture and even urbanism.” He believes while this change is happening around the world today, it most clearly manifests itself in Africa.
Mateo’s counterpart Juan Ignacio Vidarte at the Guggenheim concurs, “It is in the intersection of innumerable creative fields… that design holds a position as the focal point for multidisciplinary work. ‘Making Africa’ successfully portrays the image of a continent that is beginning to move at this very moment.” ‘C-Stunners, 2012’, eyewear sculptures by the Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru in the show’s Prologue section, are a metaphor for what’s to come. Who’s examining who? “We’re mutually examining ourselves,” responds Amelie. “The exhibition isn’t a totalising vision. Rather, a supplementary vision. Not an exhaustive dialogue – a starting point for our thoughts. One possible way, another way, of looking at the continent.” The exhibition cleverly conveys the diversity and complexity of Africa. After all, this is a landmass with a population of one billion.
Western misconceptions are diminished. Laughter replaces misery. “Something I got obsessed with is people dancing to Pharrell William’s video ‘Happy’!” smiles Amelie. “I really watched those videos, I dunno, for nights and nights in a row! There are dozens from Africa. Yet in our Westernised minds the continent is always struggling.” She selected the work of young South African photographer Jody Brand which depicts not only African street style but party life and in doing so, reflects a changing society. Jody’s images show there’s much more than struggle to Africa.
Like Mateo, Amelie believes “the continent is at the forefront of global technological change”. She continues, “Modernism was the result of change in Europe 100 years ago. What will we see coming out of this change?” The politics of representation are never far away. Who’s allowed to speak about Africa? The curators engaged in an intense three year long preparation to qualify. Their exhibition includes 75 recorded interviews with artists and designers. “In reality of course,” concedes Amelie, “there are millions and billions of different Africas. How can we speak about one Africa? From Cairo to Cape Town, there’s a lot in that!”
‘Making Africa’ attempts to answer many questions but the curators want visitors to go away asking new questions. And preferably seeing Africa in a new way or ways. “You will see art in this design show,” warns Amelie, “but I’ve used every single piece to make comment on design. That’s the thread that keeps everything together. I can make an argument for every single object on a key design issue.” One such issue is social and political commentary. Leanie van der Vyver’s ‘Scary Beautiful, 2012’ is a design statement – or is it art? – on cruelty in women’s fashion. Think ribcage crushing corsets or neck elongating braces. Leanie worked with shoe designer René van der Berg to create a pair of impossibly tall reversed high heels. Despite limiting the wearer’s mobility and controlling her silhouette to the extreme, the shoes are actually wearable. Seguing her fashion interest into design work, Leanie asks the viewer to look anew at (not so) everyday apparel and what it represents.
The 120 contributing young makers and thinkers are a savvy and politically astute lot. They are a critical generation not afraid to speak out, freer, perhaps, of the burden of colonialism. ‘Making Africa’ doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the continent. South African artist Lucinda Mudge isn’t one to pull punches. Her hard hitting vases display home truths. “I use headlines from local crime story reports,” she says. ‘I Will Kill You and Then I Will Eat You’ is emblazoned on the side of one of her vases. The other side, slogan free, is beautifully decorated in gold. Violence and beauty. One artist, duality of voice. Nothing is simply black or white. It’s a comment on not looking, on looking the other way. There’s more than one way to view a situation, a design, an artwork, she’s saying. And a continent.
The Basque Country is famous for its nationalistic stance, but hosting ‘Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design’ demonstrates its global outlook. The exhibition explores what’s beyond modernism, while liberating visitors from Western myopia. Africa. The continent with a vision attached.