What does it mean to make a continent? Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design approached this question through the works of over 120 artists and designers. This exhibition was developed by Vitra Design Museum in Germany and made its US appearance at the High Museum. The show's curators selected an estimated 280 works, including photography, film, sculpture, fashion, apps, and infographics, to highlight the energetic creativity behind Africa's growing economies and technological innovations. Their goal of dispelling stereotypes by multiplying available stories, however, was impeded by the exhibition's very structure and language.
The title Making Africa prompts serious questions. Who is doing the making and for whom is Africa being made? The show's tone, set by the opening wall text, suggested an optimistic narrative in which the artists are working toward making a technologically, socially, and politically progressive Africa for themselves as well as for a global audience. The first work encountered by the viewer emphasized this message. Cyrus Kabiru's C-Stunners (2012) (Fig. 1) are eyeglasses sculpted from recycled materials that, if worn, would frame one's view of the world in unexpected ways. At the High Museum, Kabiru's glasses became the mascot for the show's message. The text introducing the exhibition's first section, “Prologue,” suggested that the glasses “provide a compelling metaphor for the shift in perspective that is urgently needed today”—a shift that Making Africa hoped to instill in its viewers. However, unlike the view offered by the glasses, the exhibition's perspective was prompted not by viewers or artists, but rather by the single, overarching vision of Africa selected by the curators.
The show was curated by Vitra Design Museum's Amelie Klein, with the help of Advising Curator Okwui Enwezor, director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. It highlighted Enwezor's voice, which appeared among the interviews (Fig. 2) in the “Prologue” section. Enwezor has a long resume when it comes to curating large-scale shows, including the 2015 Venice Biennale All the World's Futures—a theme echoed in Making Africa's final section, “Origin and Future.” Here, an enlarged quote from Enwezor spanned the wall opposite from where viewers entered the space, beginning, “To think about a future is to think about one's possibilities in the world …” While his reputation for successfully challenging the canon in the art world lends a certain weight to the show, one has to ask whether this latest instantiation of Enwezor's vision is the same as offering “a new story, one perhaps not yet known,” as promised by the show's introductory text. But perhaps this assessment is unfair to Klein, who traveled to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Dakar, and Nairobi to interview more than sixty people involved in design in an effort to ensure the exhibition's privileging of individuals' voices. A noticeable concentration from the four cities visited was echoed in both interviewed voices and the artists included in the exhibition, the majority of whom had ties to Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, leaving all other African countries with either minor or no representation in this supposed act of “making Africa.”
The curators divided the exhibition into four parts: “Prologue,” “I and We,” “Space and Object,” and “Origin and Future.” The broad section titles allowed for the comparison of diverse approaches across a wide variety of media. However, rather than amplify individuals' voices, the almost encyclopedic amassing of works was often overwhelming. This effect first strikes in the “Prologue” section. Beyond the opening gallery with Kabiru's glasses, the second room (Fig. 3) included works like Anton Kannemeyer's satirical comic Greetings from South Africa (2014), Nikolaj Cyon's upside down map of Africa, Alkebu-Lan 1260 AH (2011), Kudzanai Chiurai's prints parodying representations of power, Popular Mechanics I, II, and III (2010), and a collage of the front pages of websites based in Africa. The works were arranged around brightly colored plexiglass meant to prompt literal shifts in one's perception when looking through them. Divided from the initial opening gallery in space and color, the room offered no guidance for viewers about how to understand the relation among the works. At first glance, it was unclear what an alternate map of Africa had to do with a comic book or a slew of websites. As in many areas of the exhibition, viewers had to rely on themselves to piece together the story.
The sense of being visually overwhelmed persisted in the next section, I and We (Fig. 4) where the curators explored ways in which artists assert individual and group identities. The works, arranged on several platforms running the center of the room, included photographs by Zanele Muholi; a fashion blog by Malibongwe Tyilo, an online music repository by Brian Shimkovitz, and a mobile app by Pledge51; short films by Jamal Nxedlana and FOKN Bois; shoes by Leanie van der Vyver, and a suit by Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman; and a comic book series by Marguerite Abouet. Strangely, some works highlighted on the exhibition's website and in other press materials, notably Seydou Keïta's and Malick Sidibé's photographs, were present only in the form of didactic materials printed on detached boards projecting up from the central platform (Fig. 5). This choice seemed particularly odd given these foundational photographers' meticulous printing practices. Displaying such a large contemporary engagement with the past. The image of Africa they produced was a specifically urban one, highlighted in works like Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Water-house's photographic documentation of the windows, doors, and TV sets in Johannesburg's residential skyscraper Ponte City (2008–2010) (Fig. 7). These sections emphasized a highly modern or even futuristic Africa, as exemplified by Selly Raby Kane's Alien Cartoon collection (2013/2014) which reimagines Dakar's urban fashion for a science-fiction inspired age. While it was exciting to see viewers engage with so many works produced in Africa's urban centers, these sections notably left out narratives about spaces and futures outside of cities like Johannesburg or Dakar—narratives that also contribute to Making Africa.
Taken together, these four sections sought to enlighten viewers about the important role design plays in the making of daily life in Africa. Overall Making Africa represents an important effort to replace stereotypical images of Africa with one of an active, range of works visually enacted the dynamism of the continent's artistic production. It also had the effect of obscuring specific details. Labels provided minimal information, and anyone who wanted to know more about a work had to either pick up a newsprint brochure containing the descriptive information at the show's entrance (Fig. 6) or visit the exhibition's website. The onus was on viewers to clumsily shuffle through the newsprint or to look up the artists on their phones. And yet, both were necessary to fully grapple with, for example, the “political dimension inherent in all these works” hinted at by the section's introduction without much elaboration.
The subsequent sections, “Space and Object” and “Origin and Future,” operated similarly, exploring broad themes like reclamation of urban spaces, reuse and reappropriation of materials, and driven, creative continent of individuals. To see so many works of contemporary African art and design in a single space is an achievement, one that gives hope that more shows might look toward engaging with the works of artists linked to the continent of Africa. Nonetheless, the over-ambitious claim of “making” a continent falls short of actually dismissing the idea that Africa should add up to one neat picture. Truly giving agency to the wide range of voices encompassed in the show might have meant putting less emphasis on “making Africa,” a subjectless and vague proposition, and more emphasis on those individuals doing the making. The exhibition was accompanied by the newsprint brochure and website as well as a catalogue edited by Mateo Kries and Amelie Klein (Vitra Design Museum, 2015, 344 pp., 350 ill.). Making Africa was also exhibited at four European venues, Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, and Kunsthal Rotterdam; as well as two other museums in the United States, the Albuquerque Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas.