Twenty years ago when I began working in West Africa the world was aware of the strong ethnic design sensibilities in Africa, particularly through traditional masks and textiles. Kuba cloth from former Zaire, Mudcloth from Mali and Kente cloth from Ghana are only a few of the many textile styles commonly seen and used as a basis for contemporary design patterns.
A century earlier Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Modigliani were all influenced by African traditional designs. By the late 1980’s some African clothing designers were making headway in internationally and gaining recognition, such as Malian Chris Seydou and Nigerien Alphadi.
In the past decade Africa has come into the international design world with a force at once sublime and bold. African designers have transformed ethnic chic, a movement lauded in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, into an ethnic modernism that is on par with design movements across the globe.
Each year I am amazed at the new design developments on the continent, particularly in West Africa where age-old cultural sensibilities meld diametrically with the contemporary. The work of Cheick Diallo is particularly poignant. He uses materials and production methodologies that Malians have used for years to create their own furniture, but he uses them without resorting to clichés of what “Africa” or “ethnic” conjures up.
Instead, remaining true to hand-made traditions in Mali and the other countries where he works, he unabashedly bounds into the contemporary design world with profoundly creative designs that do not need the African or the ethnic label, but which are so truly both that he cares not to create a cliché out of what is primal and real.
For example, indigenously tanned leather is a strong West African tradition, as are tie-died textiles. For decades, leather workers have been tie-dying hides and using the tie-dyed leather in bags, shoes and belts. Traditional metalworkers are still very prominent throughout West Africa as very little is prefabricated, and doors, windows and fences are still made from hand-cut and welded metal in small artisanal shops.
Working with leather and metal artisans in Bamako, Diallo created one of his recent collections of welded metal furniture pieces covered in tie-dyed leather. This collection, as well as all work in wood, clay, metal, bronze or recycled materials, has astounded designers, decorators and architects by the sheer boldness of the design concepts. Truly Africa and truly modern, with no excuses, modifiers or clichés. Simply fabulous design using traditional methodologies and materials.
was one of the first designers to transform the traditional woven plastic chairs, common in most West African homes and villages, into a contemporary design statement. This work has been recognized in design capitals such as Milan, Paris and Tokyo, and has been the springboard for numerous contemporary trends both within and outside of Africa. Each year he grows the concept with greater creative power and freedom.
Likewise, Aida Duplessis of Yeleen Design
has taken traditional spinning and weaving to extraordinary new dimensions. Duplessis weaves with a traditional herb in her textiles that has been used in Mali for centuries, a twig, similar to vetivert, that is traditionally coiled and dropped into half-buried earthenware urns of drinking water to freshen the taste. They are used in magnificent carpets as well as in subtle, luscious pillows.
She imports linen from around the world that women in Malian villages spin into sublime knobby threads on traditional drop spindles; a twig with a ball of dried mud on one end. I visit her workshop four or five times a year. I can scarcely contain my excitement each time I enter and see the new collections. About a year ago I walked into the store room to discover some of the most lush textile I have ever experienced – supremely clean, soft, white cotton woven in its raw state on a traditional loom, un-spun and hand-fluffed, made into cloudlike pillows that ached to be touched, to be absorbed into the skin. Truly sensual while being raw, organically true, without pretension and completely elegant. This is a truly African designer, a designer to the first degree, African without question, beyond all clichés of ethnic and chic.
Duplessis uses a variety of elements for the warp or weft. On another visit she had just completed her “sampler” woven on the warp of transparent fishing string. Nearly invisible but with a definite sheen, she wove strongly textural vetivert and other texture-rich threads in uneven and loose waves across the translucent warp. The result was astounding—rugged and muscular on a base of what could be considered angel hair, shining whispers of support.
Duplisses is devoted to her traditions while equally devoted to knowing world traditions and contemporary trends. A few years ago she trekked through Nepal, straight from 100-degree Fahrenheit Mali, looking at vetivert sources and traditions.
Like Diallo, her work reflects the power of both her heritage and her vision.
You can find her collections at ABC Carpets in New York. She also shows at Maison et Objet in Paris.
Senegalese textile designer Aissa Dione
has a large workshop with 30 traditional large looms on which she creates some of the most sensuous African prints on the continent. One entire 20-foot wall of her office is lined with swatch books, each one filled with exquisite examples of her ever expanding collections. Some of her most sublime works are African prints subdued by using white on white, then beige on white, then black on white, then black on black. Perusing her samples tossed wildly onto deep shelves is like opening a window onto the dawn to midnight colors of the desert. Intense subtleties that make the breath tremble with infinite variations on every theme.
Dione also rounds out her color palate with splashes of brights, but her brights never border on garish, always repose into color with purpose but without noise.
Growing her business, Dione has recently upgraded her workshop to international standards by adding industrial mechanized looms to be able to create home textiles by the bolt for large wholesale orders, while retaining her signature motifs and color schemes. Aissa’s collections are featured with many wholesale décor design houses for use by corporate decorators and furniture manufacturers.
These three designers were showcased in the AfricaNow! booth at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York in May. At this most prestigious trade show of contemporary home décor and design hundreds of designers, decorators and architects praised their work, and repeatedly we heard “this is some of the most creative work in the show…..”
The AfricanNow! expo was titled “Woven Concepts” because all use traditional weaving techniques in their work, but what was even more important is that they also weave together traditions, cultural techniques and contemporary trends—eco-consciousness, social responsibility, respect for tradition and cutting edge creativity.
As eco-consciousness has finally blossomed into more than a trend, Africans are well ahead of the curve. Coming from primarily agro-economies with little industrial production, recylced has been a way of life for generations. Hand-made, though not a “trend” has been and remaines a strong selling incentive is virtually a way of life in Africa, even for the most sophisticated producers and designers. What these designers have done is to retain these elements and cross them with contemporary creativity.
Designers such as these three are leaders in the continual movement of growing the African position in contemporary design. They transform not only the perceptions of design in their countries, but also in the international community.