The continent of Africa is large and diverse—its landmass could swallow up whole other continents, like Europe or Australia, several times over, actually, and within its landscapes both urban and pastoral, more than 2,000 languages are spoken. Like the continent itself—perhaps necessarily so—Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design is massive. The exhibition, organized by Germany's Vitra Design Museum, along with Spain's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, opened at the Albuquerque Museum of Art last weekend, the second stop on its US tour after premiering stateside in Atlanta.
The sprawling exhibition welcomes visitors with a metaphorical eye-opener, the work of Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru. In these pieces, flanked by video of curators and thinkers addressing our need to upend Eurocentric narratives around Africa, are upcycled, wearable eye sculptures, dubbed C-Stunners. Made of reclaimed wire, tin cans and other objects, the pieces have the effect of scene-setting costumery from a cyberpunk film.
That, by way of introduction, folds us into the cutting-edge, expansive take on design brought to bear in this collection of more than 120 distinct pieces spread across multiple, beautifully staged rooms. Emphasizing the consciousness-
Hitherto visiting Making Africa, I had never seen website design treated as a piece of art. In the context of the gallery, though, it was so obvious that Taali M's website is exactly that. A Congolese, Chadian and Egyptian pop artist, Taali M's website, designed by Pierre-Christophe Gam, provides a foil to her music through brilliant color and symbolism both ancient and modern. It's this broad, inclusive eye on the design that shapes our lives that allows the exhibition to avoid much generalization while giving visitors a very expansive eye on artistic developments across the 54 countries in Africa.
There's a hybrid here of the ultra-modern and the ramshackle, all conceptually smart. One piece evincing the latter theme is “Ponte City” by photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse. This study of a formerly luxurious Johannesburg apartment complex—Ponte City—and its decline post-apartheid is a towering documentation of every window, every door and every television screen in the 54-story structure. The small photographs are lined up like film strips across several 12-foot lightboxes that mimic the structure of skyscrapers. Every small still is particular, but taken as a whole, each unique portal—whether door or window or screen—shares much in common, underscoring again, the particular within a broader landscape.
Standouts for me were the many inquiries into fashion included in the exhibition, celebrating the self-definition allowed by this mode of creative expression, but also the numerous subtexts it carries. Leanie van der Vyver's “Scary Beautiful” delivers powerful, wearable commentary in the form of high heels that reverse the shoe's typical shape, with the toe elevated to insane heights. These heels control the wearer's posture to the extreme, begging the question of the difference between beauty and domination, the ugly and misshapen versus the stylish. There is also Zohra Opoku's print in another section of the show, “Waxprint Prison,” which comes from a larger body of work, Who is Wearing My T-shirt. Opoku's work investigates the cultural heritage of textiles, and how they “function like a language themselves.” In this series, African wax fabrics are explored in their context as imports—African-made textiles actually make up a small percentage of the market—through powerful, layered photography.
These pieces speak to just inches of the depth and variety that Making Africa as a whole brings to the Albuquerque Museum's galleries. It's hard to summarize the breadth of work throughout multiple defining sections, but what is immediately apparent to anyone who spends even moments here is that this is the work that is designing the future. There is so much contained in the questions that greet visitors to the exhibition: “What is design? What is Africa? And what is African design?”
The Albuquerque Museum of Art is open 9am to 5pm Tuesday through Sunday. Admission for adults starts at $3. Visitors can also pop in for special events happening in conjunction with the Making Africa exhibition like Burque Noir, a celebration of the artistic contributions of African American community members. This year's iteration of Burque Noir is held on Thursday, Feb. 15, from 6pm to 8:30pm. Galleries are open, and there are several performances, along with food and drink from Slate Street Cafe. For this event, admission is free.
Discover more special events and ways to connect with the scale of Making Africa, which is on display until May 6, at albuquerquemuseum.org.