African Crafts

Over the years, history has influenced African art in many ways which has in turn helped to shape the continents cultural landscape. Art has increasingly become the medium through which artists use to express their views and concerns either collectively or individually. 

According to the South African Minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana, African artists ‘are at the forefront of an intellectual movement that asserts a new Africa through their bold acts of creativity.’ She spoke at the launch of the Pan African Craft Exhibition 2010 (PACE 2010) at the Gauteng Craft and Design Centre at the Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton Johannesburg. The exhibition presented a new vision of the African continent.

The arts and culture department through CreateAfrica Trading commissioned curators Adam Levin and Andile Magengelele to search the continent for unique hand-made designs. They described the process as a ‘journey of discovery.’  Basing their selection on identity, shape, texture and creativity rather than ethnicity there was no room for clichés. In addition, each of the artwork had to have the ‘wow’ factor.  Two months later, after the crafts were received and placed complimentary to each other, the exhibition became a reality.

PACE2010 was a bold fusion of tradition and modernity and is every essence African without overstating that fact. One can be sure that the more than eighty unique hand-made crafts are less likely to be replicated since they were made by artists who care more about quality rather than quantity. The pieces were sourced from Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria and Swaziland.

To put together such an exhibition required trust and a good understanding of African art by the curators. Using their network of contacts, the curators were able to identify places they could source the artwork. ‘It was a logistical nightmare’ says Levin considering the short time they had to pull it off. He and Magengelele had to travel to Ghana to source works from the West African region. When they returned to South Africa and the artwork started arriving, they were occasionally met by disappointment. Any item that didn’t balance in the space was left out, giving room for a wide variety of visually appealing design pieces.  Some of the artwork was either borrowed or loaned to the curators by generous artists and galleries while some of it was purchased. ‘The idea was not to fill up the exhibition space but rather provide depth and insight into African design and craft.”

While in Ghana, they visited Tekura Design workshop owned by Kweku and Josephine Forson. Their contemporary, sleek, textured Ashanti stools and vessels featured mainly in the exhibition. Their black motionless ‘Walking Table’ was placed on top of ‘The Hunted’ rug collaboratively done by South African artist Conrad Botes and Paco Rugs.  

House of Fire ‘Black Napoleon’ chair by Shadrack Masuku from Swaziland commanded attention. The roughly cut chair had a figure of a man dressed like Napoleon Bonaparte pointing with an outstretched arm at the back. His other piece titled ‘Kind of Blue’ is of a sad looking woman painted in blue; holding out a red-colored bulb on one hand and supporting her face with the other. According to Masuku, who comes from a family of artists, she represents his ‘auntie who is saddened by what the future holds for her children’. Many though thought that he made some reference to American jazz musician Miles Davis studio album with the same title.

Ghanaian Kpando Women’s Pottery group exhibited curvy and organic ceramic vases juxtaposed with Malian furniture designer Chiek Dialo’s red Nafi Chair  and Malian master dyer Aboubakar Fonana’s natural ‘Indigo Linen.’  Fonana is known for creating his indigo textiles from handspun cotton and linen, which is then hand-dyed in various shades using Japanese shibori techniques that he learnt in Kyoto.  In wanting to preserve his cultural heritage and the health of the planet, Fonana chooses to use natural materials.  Levin admits that he was a little disappointed in the Fonana’s ‘Indigo’ since he expected something better. Dialo chair was woven with a red nylon rope over a steel frame making it perfect for the harsh Malian climate.

Ghanaian master weaver Nana Kwaku Duah II multicolored Kente cloth served as a complimentary background for the rosewood religious miniature figures from Mozambique and Adrian Hugo’s ‘Blue Lamp’. Rosewood has a natural red hue, which matched the one of the colours on the Kente cloth.  Okechuku’s ‘Giant Necklace’ from Nigeria was a spontaneous choice for the curators. The over twelve-kilogram necklace, Levin says, symbolizes the excess of adornment evident in most West African countries.  ‘The Lovers Drum’ and the ‘Eye Stool’ both from Ghana are some of the curators’ favorites. The traditional Djembe drum is inscribed with a love letter that reads, “You are as sweet to me as toffee. I beg. I love you more than Harmattan pawpaw”.

All these interesting crafts were housed in a series of well-lit futuristic white pods designed by Nicholas de Klerk. The space was clutter free giving the crafts breathing space. 

PACE2010 served to develop new audiences for African crafts and to increase an understanding of African art since it is not well documented.  The timing was also perfect since it coincided with the 2010 FIFA World Cup and it is hoped that the exhibition will give viewers a new vision of Africa and silence the afro-pessimists.


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