‘African design‘ and ‘African designer’ are terms widely used throughout the global craft & design industry to refer to objects, and designers, makers, and artisans from Africa. They are also terms subject to much debate about whether they should be used or not. When I wrote my book, Contemporary Design Africa I faced the challenge of how to refer to design from Africa, was I to collectively call it African design and refer to those involved as ‘African designers’, terms that means different things to different people? I posed this question to everyone I interviewed and the responses were mixed, to say the least.
Some designers embraced the terms, while others were strongly opposed, with one going so far as to say they no longer wanted to be included because they had a problem with the terms, and the effect they have on a collective view of Africa’s creativity. Through my publication, I had to make sense of the differing opinions.
The terms ‘African design‘ and ‘African designer’ have seen creatives immediately placed into a predefined box with all the clichés and stereotypes that come along with it. This makes the terms problematic for the reason that it overshadows the creative’s work and stops them from being fully seen as equal to their global counterparts. And is one of the main reasons for designer/makers shunning them. So, I can understand and appreciate the reasons for the objections.
People want to be judged on their own merits and not on some preconceived misconceptions. But as design from Africa continues to challenge the stereotypes the world can no longer keep putting African designers into a box.
Over the past few years the industry has experienced the change of greater recognition and acknowledgement of individual designers and artisans, and that the terms African designer and African design collectively standing for innovation, ingenuity, craftsmanship, sophistication, diversity, sustainability, heart & soul. And as we continue to witness more names emerging from the different countries we also see more references to individual countries so for example a Ghanaian designer, Senegalese designer, Ugandan design, Zimbabwean design and so forth. Interestingly, one thing I have observed is that acceptance or opposition to the terms ‘African design’ and ‘African designer’ tends to depend on where the creative is based. Designers & makers within the continent are more likely to embrace the collective African design term alongside being referred to a designer/maker from a specific country than those who live and practice outside the continent. I am keen to point out that this viewpoint does not apply to every creative based on the continent or not.
At the end of the day, it is about balance and context on how and when the terms are used. The term ‘African design’ & ‘African designer’ will still apply in certain circumstances such as when collectively referring to a group of designers from different African countries. Indeed, I continue to use the terms on my platforms.
Ultimately, it is up to each individual designer/maker/artisan to decide their title and for us as observers, curators, customers, and collectors to respect their wishes.
What are your thoughts on this debate? Is it a valid issue or merely a distraction? I’s love to know your thoughts, do share in the comments.