THE DANGER OF THE SINGLE STORY
Jan 5th 2016
I want to share with you the introduction to ”Contemporary Design Africa” by Tapiwa Matsinde, who so well describes how African design has been perceived in the past and what is it, and should be, today.
Introduction to ”Contemporary Design Africa”
In a 2009 TEDGlobal talk, acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke of the danger of ’the single story’: how if we repeatedly see or hear only one narrative about a person or place, we risk ’harboring a critical misunderstanding’.
Frequently mistaken for a country, and far more often the subject of negative than of positive news reports, the African continent has become a prime example of the effect ’the single story’ can have on shaping perceptions. What happens in one region or country (particularly if it is somethings frightening or bad) is assumed to apply to the whole. This is despite the contingent being a place where countless intricately layered stories abound – of good and bad, wisdom and warnings, joy and sorrow – all of them tightly woven into the very fabric of society.
For far too long, design and creativity from Africa have also been defined by a ’single story’. Perceptions of Africa’s design have been shaped by romanticized views of an untamed continent shrouded in mystery and wonder. Imagery such as wooden statues, masks, animal prints, tribal markings, safari chic, ebony and ivory, and earth tones in assumed to sum up the aesthetic of and entire continent. In reality, the creative output of Africa has long been hugely diverse, shaped by multiple layers of culture and tradition, colonial legacies, and migrations from villages to cities to entirely new countries. It cannot be represented by a single aesthetic.
From recognizable heritage influences to abstract renderings, Africa’s design today is a vibrant collection of individual expressions translated into compelling visual narratives that are making a mark on the global design industry. In the process, they reflect a creative African landscape that is full of possibilities; designers and makers are beginning to take advantage of these possibilities. From art and design to fashion and music, a creative reawakening is happening – a reawakening that is long overdue, given the continent’s acknowledged influence on Modernism in Western visual ark, and ongoing contribution to global creative inspirations. Yet despite this, Africa’s designers themselves, with a handful of exceptions, remain almost invisible on the international stage.
This is changing, however, as design inspired by the continent is finally starting to shed the stereotypical connotations that surround it, and showing itself to be so much more. To continue to label design produced or inspired by Africa as ’primitive’, ’tribal’ and ’exotic’ – fickle caricatures that fade in and out of style – is to do its creators a disservice. A generation of Africa’s designers are translating their view of Africa’s design into beautifully crafted products, and creating an aesthetic that is as diverse as the countries and cultures that make up the continent.
With a primary focus on interiors, this not entirely exhaustive book brings together the work of outstanding designers, makers and organizations based on the continent and beyond, whose work captures the sophistication, vitality, diversity and soulfulness that are shaping the African identities of the 21st century.