Interim PADI Board Member, 2020
Director/Founder, Zimbabwe Institute
of Vigital Arts (ZIVA)
During PADI’s maiden Afrika Design Day in Johannesburg this past February, I was part of a panel that included Juliet Kavishe, Sam Nii Adjaidoo, and Peter Ekanem and moderated by Felix Ofori Dartey. We interrogated the concept of “Afrikan Design” and concluded that what Afrikan designers lack is “confidence” in their work. This is mainly caused by the widely held notion that design is a “Western” concept. There is a reason why this is so: up until recently, most design pedagogy was Western. Students from around the globe went to school and were taught European design and if they were to be regarded as “good” designers, why, they had to master the grid, know Swiss design, be adept at the Roman Alphabet and be admirers of the Bauhaus and Modernism. Those were the rules and if you ignored them, you flunked as a designer. Period.
Afrikan design was marginalized, attracting labels like “primitive”, “tribal”, “craft”, “Folklore”, etc. This is true for design from those parts of the world referred to as the. “developing world”. Students from advanced and older traditions of design like China and
Japan, had to re-learn design from a Western perspective if they were to pass or excel in the Western design classroom. The 21st Century has seen a retreat from that approach and seen the emergence of different voices in the design fields – a trans-disciplinary approach where there really are no discernable boundaries between the disciplines. The term of choice for that movement is “Decolonization”. That’s the buzzword du jour and it’s spreading like wild fire especially on college campuses across the globe. It is a good thing because it also stands for freedom from the yoke of political colonization, from which the masses from the developing world have suffered.
We are bombarded with Western standards of beauty and propaganda in every form of life –education, but mostly the media! We never see ourselves on TV (although to be fair, that is changing albeit very slowly with many countries encouraging the creation of local content – Nigeria is leading that charge with the much acclaimed “Nollywood”). We see a definite lack of confidence especially by our women who straighten their hair or wear the hair of dead Asian and Brazilian women (weaves), which is a multi billion dollar industry! Even women from countries that are characterized as “poor” – they will find the money to buy these weaves from mostly Asian (Chinese) shops. Yet, in the not-too-distant-past, Afrikan women used to wear their hair in natural styles and designs that were incredibly beautiful. There were distinct Afrikan hair styles, whose designs were distinctly Afrikan.
At the PADI celebration during my talk, I emphasized the importance of our Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) that are our wealth in terms of innovation, ingenuity, intellectual capital and creativity. That is our Intellectual Property (IP), therefore our inspiration and for us to reference as we work on our designs. The West has countless books that students of design can reference; our libraries are the old people in our families and communities who are the custodians of our IKS and IP – the gatekeepers and the living libraries. We also must lay to rest the myth that Afrika had no writing – Afrika invented writing! Afrika invented civilization! Ancient Egypt was ruled by Afrikans who are responsible for all these achievements. This knowledge spread southward to Nubia and much later to the other parts of Afrika. There are monuments in different parts of Afrika that are visible evidence of this. On top of this, Timbuktu gave humanity its first university and there were manuscripts that survived up to this day that attest to this feat, but unfortunately, many of them were burned and destroyed by Islamic extremists just mere years ago during the “Al Qaeda” murderous rampage in Mali and environs. Turns out, these were just war games engineered by the West to destabilize the region so they could go and loot the mineral wealth of that region. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Then there’s another huge area where we lost our confidence: religion. Before the arrival of Europeans on a mission to colonize Afrika, we had our own spirituality, we knew of the existence of a supreme being and had a name for him/her: Mwari, Mudhimu, Mulimu, etc, there’s no group in Afrika that doesn’t have a name for this being. So, in order to subjugate us, all those belief systems were deemed “savage” and “heathen” – Christianity was forced upon us in order to control and to brainwash us. We were dissuaded from playing our drums, having our ancestor worship ceremonies and so forth. Imagine how much those Afrikans must have felt to be stripped of everything, their identity and culture: is it any wonder that we lack any confidence today? It was ingrained in us that we were inferior, that our beliefs and practices were backward. The Afrikan psyche was destroyed but it is my firm belief that we can regain everything that was taken away from us. But, one has to be ready to do the work. And, there’s a lot of work to be done!
A huge part of the work that needs to be done is writing! We have to write books about Afrikan Design so as to provide the younger generations with resources that they can reference. Western Design has volumes written by them for them, now it’s time we write books for us, by us: FUBU. It’s imperative that if we are to speak of Afrikan Design, we also have to provide the resources to guide the youth. This is what I heard mostly from young designers from home and those in the diaspora, especially after my TED2013 Talk: “Professor, you talk of us looking within, but when we do, we don’t find anything.” I realized there and then that it is an urgent need to create those resources. I had mooted a book project that I tentatively titled, “The Afrikan Design Textbook” that had piqued the interest of a major UK publisher, Thames and Hudson, but unfortunately, one of the co-writers who had signed on to the project passed away unexpectedly. That put some brakes on the project, but it is a much-needed project. It has to be a book on DESIGN in Afrika, all the design disciplines have to be represented. The idea was to have three writer editors then have essays submitted by designers from the different disciplines. A truly collaborative effort – the African way. My very good friend, the Nigerian designer, Lemi Ghariokwu made a statement on his website blog: “I AM NOT BLACK, I AM AFRIKAN” which to me is the boldest statement of pride I’ve heard from an Afrikan artist in the public domain. He says:
“My name is Lemi Ghariokwu and I am not black. I am an Afrikan. I do not call Indians brown or the Chinese pale yellow or any color for that matter. Why then should I be seen as ‘A Black Man? I am not BLACK. Strip the color from the label. I do not believe in labels but if you must label me please call me Afrikan. The fact that my skin is dark is a blessing. It’s proof that I can endure tough situations and come out unscathed.
When the skin is stripped off, what color is the skeleton? Is it different from yours? I am a human being first, then I am Afrikan, born, bred and buttered in Lagos. I am proud of my culture. I am not ashamed to be seen as Afrikan because only I determine how you treat me. I have broken free from the slavery mentality. I tell you my name is Lemi Ghariokwu and you call me Lemi Ghariokwu. Now, I am telling you I am not black, I am Afrikan and you must address me accordingly.”
There was a debate very recently on the PADI whatsapp group about some Black people (Afrikan Americans) taking issue with being referred to as “Afrikans” preferring instead the label, Black Americans. They have every right to making that choice, just as much as Lemi has every right to his own preference. From my vantage point, Lemi is the better off for his choice – he has the whole continent of Afrika to garner inspiration from and as his work attests, he does that incredibly well! He is a true Afrikan designer with an amazing body of work that is unapologetically Afrikan. Lemi is best known for the album covers he designed for the King of Afro Beat, Fela Anakulapo Kuti. Fela’s music was also unapologetically Afrikan – biting social commentary and fearless attacks on government corruption – all sung in pidgin! Of course, he paid a heavy price as he suffered severe beatings and imprisonment for his militant stance, but he led the way for us woke Afrikans. He showed us that one can create their own genre of music and use their art to critique society and government corruption.
I give these examples to show what can happen when our artists have that unflinching confidence – they blaze new trails and become legends of their time. We used to have this confidence in pre-colonial times. Just look at the kingdoms of Afrika – the Ashante Kingdom, Nubia, the Baganda Kingdom, the Munhumutapa Kingdom that gave us the Great Zimbabwe, the Dogon, Timbuktu, Egypt… the list goes on. Those kingdoms were created by proud and confident Afrikans whose contributions still stand today as testimony to Afrika’s creative genius. We gave the world mathematics, astronomy, the first university, and civilization itself! The only way to attain and regain that confidence is SANKOFA. We have to go back to our glorious past so that we can build a great future.
A very good example of that journey to the past is Zina Saro-Wiwa, daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the slain environmental leader and poet of the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta, Nigeria. In place of a lecture that she was supposed to give in person at The Center for Afrikan Studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) this year, but couldn’t due to Covid, she made a film presentation instead: “Worrying The Mask: The Politics of Authenticity and Comtemporaneity in the Worlds of African Art (2020)”
It’s a beautifully shot, hour-long film in which she decides to leave the comfort of her Brooklyn home to visit her ancestral home – which she had left as a child. A successful journalist, this time she says she was simply looking for culture and she finds plenty; authentic, pure and hardly influenced or touched by the West. She zeroes in on one Promise Lagiri, a sculptor and carver of masks whom she likes a lot both as a person and as a superlative artist. “There’s a refinement and potency in his work, a sense of connection to something profound that is revealed in its lines and proportions. I consider this breed of contemporary traditional Ogoni art hugely important. It is the product of a fascinating history.” That history was preserved by Geography – the Ogoni live in the delta far from the coastal areas. “So, whilst other coastal people have experienced generations of Christianity and Western education, the Ogoni have maintained far more of our pre-colonial culture than many other peoples of the area and this is evident in the uniqueness and potency of our artistic production.” She explains further why she loves Lagiri’s work, “His sculptures are living embodiment of a connection to land and environment… they are a vivid part of our Art ecology encoding something powerful.” In this lecture she exudes pride and confidence in her culture and the history and artistic excellence of her people – an excellence that is purely African.
In conclusion, I offer another video to bolster my oft-held contention that Afrikans are naturally endowed with rhythm and they can use this rhythm in their work. We all know that you can create rhythm with the way you design: this could be typographic use in layouts, furniture layout in interiors, building layout in architecture, textile design in fashion, and so on and on. This rhythm is best illustrated in the clip FOLI. What you can do in music, dance or any other creative endeavor, you can translate to design. This way, our work will be imbued with Afrika and we will most definitely regain that confidence and resourcefulness in our work. Asé.