Do African Things Look The Same?

Many years ago I was introduced via friends to a contemporary dancer. I think his name was S’bu. Anyway, he was about to go on a tour of Europe with the dance troupe he belonged to. I expressed enthusiasm at this prospect and he only shook his head wearily. ‘’I have a Master’s degree in contemporary dance yet the only way we can obtain funding to perform in Europe is by putting on ‘African’ dance shows. ’, he further explained ‘’I would love to just be a contemporary dancer but then I would not find either the grants or the audiences. I am stuck doing gumbooti dancing in order to make a living. ’

To a certain extent this cycle exists in the sphere of African design. Let me explain.

Whenever I go to South Africa and visit my parents I go to Durban beachfront and there, with their wares spread out on the pavement are groups of vendors selling souvenirs and ‘African’ knick-knacks. You can pick up row upon row of identical ‘African’ carvings, ‘tribal’ objects and paintings of African sunsets, all done in an identical ‘African’ style. I can guarantee that similar objects are for sale to tourists up and down the coasts and big cities of sub-Saharan African. Some of them are beautifully made and other items are, like in all tourist destinations, mass produced cheaply for sale at low cost to tourists in a hurry to take home an ‘African’ souvenir.

My theory is that often, people want to buy something that looks noticeably ‘African’ according to what they think that should be, and so the demand for a certain aesthetic is what then drives production of masks, drums, or wooden giraffes. If you have ever been through an airport in Kenya or further south then you will probably have seen someone at an airport hauling their 5ft tall wooden giraffe souvenir around!

African design and creativity is as diverse as you will find anywhere. Try to banish the notions that you have in your head of what looks ‘African’, this will only limit your ability to marvel in the astonishing array of skills displayed by artisans and creatives across the continent. I would like to propose that we open our minds and eyes to appreciating that just as Spanish culture is noticeably distinct from Russian culture, so are for example, Namibian and Ethiopian very different cultures, with identifiably different aesthetics, and design traditions.

At the weekend I was delighted to receive a copy I had ordered of a new book, Contemporary Design Africa by Tapiwa Matsinde (published by Thames & Hudson). It is a visual feast for lovers of great design and makes a beautiful addition to any coffee table or well-stocked bookshelf. Tapiwa Matsinde explores the ideas we have about what looks ‘African’ and goes on to introduce a host of creatives, artists and designers referencing traditional skills but in a modern way.

zenzulu-magazine cover
NB: the front cover features a wire basket by ZenZulu, one of the suppliers stocked by KuDu.
I hope that by connecting directly with producers across the African Continent, sourcing the finest products I can for KuDu it will demonstrate the diversity and freshness of the African design landscape.


iGumboot dancing is a style that emerged in South Africa when miners wearing wellington boots (also known as gumboots) used sounds made by stamping their feet to a certain rhythm to communicate with those further away, it was often accompanied by singing.



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