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An Anthropophagic Manifesto for Africa:
Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design
Nelson Mota

“The future belongs to Africa,” claims the Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor, “because it seems to have happened everywhere else.” This cunning statement combines hope and forbearance, reflecting the challenges postcolonial Africa is facing in the context of post–Cold War geopolitics. These days Africa attracts an increasing number of investors, artists, and scholars. They see it as fertile soil for profit making, creative experimentation, and frugal innovation. However, as Enwezor complains, over the last decades Africa has been described as the place where people survive on less than one dollar per day. This relentless insistence on Africa’s poor performance in statistical accounts of its wealth casts a gloomy shadow over the whole continent. “Do Africans ever get a raise? Can it be please a dollar-fifty? Is there no inflation?” asks Enwezor. And rightly so. There is some sense of urgency in shifting the one-dollar-per-day narrative to something more hopeful.

There are two aspects that deserve further intellectual scrutiny to underpin the possibility of an African Renaissance. First, we need to reconceptualize the creative potential of informality. In a world where cities will play an increasing role as the backdrop for our collective existence, we have to think about informality as a new way of life, as Nezar Al-Sayed put it.1 Second, we need to harness the productive potential embedded in the invisible infrastructures that activate vernacular social and spatial practices. As AbdouMaliq Simone contends, we need to look at people as infrastructure rather than the tangible systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables.2

These two aspects have achieved a great deal of prominence in the way Africa has been portrayed in recent high-profile conferences, publications, and exhibitions. The famous Design Indaba festival (http://www.designindaba.com/), organized since 1995 in Cape Town (South Africa), is arguably the most notable venue for African artistic creativity, in general, and for designers in particular. Design Indaba bluntly rejects a parochial approach in its program and activities.3 However, while it is focused on global design, Design Indaba is a major showcase for African creativity, featuring the work of leading artists, public intellectuals, opinion makers, and industry experts.

In the late 1990s, at the same time Design Indaba was organizing its first festivals in South Africa, Rem Koolhaas and a group of students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design went to West Africa to try and unveil the secrets of the African metropolis. In their study of Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, the group supervised by Koolhaas examined what they called “the most radical urbanism extant today.” While Lagos is “a pressure cooker of scarcity, extreme wealth, land pressure, religious fervor, and population explosion,” Koolhaas wrote in 2000, it “has cultivated an urbanism that is resilient, material-intensive, decentralized, and congested. … But it is one that works.”4 Two decades after the first “landing” on Lagos, Koolhaas and Kunlé Adeyemi, another participant in the Harvard project, reflect on the breakneck speed of Lagos’s recent urban transformation and suggest that it should give us hope for the future of cities. Even though the transformations are so overwhelming in Lagos and in other metropolises of the global urban South, Koolhaas and Adeyemi recommend: Do not panic!5

On the opposite coast of Africa, another well-known educational institution, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Zürich), started in the mid-2000s an academic collaboration with the so-called Building College at Addis Ababa University.6 This collaboration would accelerate the transfer of knowledge from both parts. The results of the first “urban laboratories” coordinated by Marc Angélil and Dirk Hebel were published in Cities of Change: Addis Ababa and showed the need to explore alternative approaches to the current exploitation of urban territories in developing countries such as Ethiopia.7 Over the last decade these kinds of partnerships between academic institutions from the global North and their counterparts from the global South have been gaining momentum and contributing to the emergence of new pedagogical methods in architectural education.8

Some of these academic partnerships created tangible outcomes. The figure of the “design-build” studio became a popular pedagogical approach to the exchange of knowledge between North and South. Popularized by the famous Rural Studio program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University, this pedagogical approach was particularly praised by schools from German-speaking countries. A selection of notable examples was shown in the exhibition Afritecture: Building Social Change, curated by Andres Lepik and Anne Schmidt with Simone Bader. This exhibition, held at the Architekturmuseum der TU München in the autumn of 2013, highlighted the work of twenty-nine teams and offices working in ten different sub-Saharian countries. Most of the buildings shown were small-scale developments, initiated by educational institutions or NGOs.9 While Afritecture revealed interesting contributions to help us rethink the knowledge transfer between vernacular social and spatial practices and contemporary architectural approaches, it fell short in dealing with the “great number.” Indeed, coping with the sheer magnitude of the figures associated with the urbanization process currently unfolding in Africa remains one of the greatest challenges to the design disciplines in general, and architecture in particular.

The growing interest of cultural institutions from the global North in African design was once again visible in the exhibition Africa: Architecture, Culture and Identity. The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, one of the most prestigious Danish cultural venues, organized this exhibition, which was held in the summer of 2015. In the exhibition’s opening speech, the Ghanaian architect and president of ArchiAfrica, Joe Osae-Addo, highlighted an important paradigm shift happening today. “For the first time in my living memory,” Osae-Addo asserted, “there are African artists, architects, musicians and other creatives, who can engage at the higher level and have the work to back it up.” In the exhibition’s catalog, the Cameroonian historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe stresses the importance of this paradigm shift. “Like it or not,” Mbembe argues, “there no longer exists a center to which we can oppose a periphery.” And he goes further asserting that “to become a protagonist in the birth of this new world history, planetary but decentred, Africa needs to rewrite itself.”10

These events, pedagogical initiatives, books, and exhibitions have highlighted Africa’s multiplicity. They have contributed many illustrations to Africa’s signature feature: its social and cultural polytheism, as Mbembe put it. It is against this intellectual background that African design is presented and discussed in Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design, an exhibition produced by the Vitra Design Museum and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and curated by Amelie Klein under the direction of Mateo Kries and Marc Zehntner. The curators have outlined an ambitious goal for the exhibition. They aim at encouraging contemporary artistic production that goes beyond the clichés associated with African design, usually based on a spectrum of concerns around recycling, traditional craft, or humanitarian design. To accomplish this aim, the 134 artworks and interviews displayed in Making Africa emphasize the importance of two key conceptual approaches in African design: accommodating the informal and making the invisible visible.

The exhibition has been on the road for some time now. It first appeared at the Vitra Design Museum, in Weil am Rhein, Germany (March 14–September 13, 2015). Then it moved farther south to Spain, appearing at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (October 30, 2015–February 21, 2016) and then at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (March 22–July 31, 2016). The most recent venue for the exhibition was the Kunsthal in Rotterdam (October 1, 2016–January 15, 2017). The exhibition’s website (http://makingafrica.net/) lists future venues.

The exhibition is organized in four sections: “Prologue,” “I and We,” “Space and Object,” and “Origin and Future.” In “Prologue,” the curatorial team tries to undermine the prevailing commonplaces about Africa, about design, and especially about African design. The clarification of this mission statement is smartly outsourced by the curators to a generous number of public intellectuals engaged with the African creative sector in different capacities. Through recorded interviews broadcast in the first room of the Rotterdam show and projected around the wearable eyewear sculptures of Cyrus Kabiru, practitioners and theorists living in Africa or in the diaspora keenly insist on dismantling the set of prejudices and stereotypes constructed around African design. While this goal is partially accomplished, there is an inevitable return to and insistence on issues such as racism and postcolonial aggression that still pervade most of the oral and visual discourse displayed in this section. Africa’s colonial past is, naturally, omnipresent. In “Prologue,” there is a conspicuous presence of works and talks that discuss Africa’s future against its colonial past, in some cases revolving around the question, “what if European colonization never happened?” This is the case, for example, with Nikolaj Cyon’s Alkebu-Lan 1260 AH (Figure 1). Fictional pasts and futures frequently emerge in stark contrast to a fetishist view of the present.

Oswald Castro’s Anthropophagic Manifesto seems to be hovering over in Making Africa. In one of the interviews featured in “Prologue,” the exhibition’s advising curator, Okwini Enwezor, claims that we need to find new terminologies and new strategies to communicate the qualities of African design.

On the one hand, Enwezor believes that accommodating aspirations and fostering collaborations should be used to help designers create a new toolbox for everyday users. On the other hand, he argues that the search for authenticity should be challenged. Instead, he suggests cultural consumption as an anthropophagist act, an active way of “ingesting something that may be seen at first as incompatible with one’s cultural milieu. … An active way of breaking down and reinvesting the power of the consumer with a new potency.”14 Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design brings together compelling examples of a design ethos that resonates with Enwezor’s position. The narrative created by the assemblage of such diverse forms of cultural production as those featured in the exhibition can be seen as an Anthropophagic Manifesto for Africa. The exhibition also shows that there is no shortage of talent in Africa and in the African diaspora to make this manifesto a trigger to inscribe African contemporary design as part and parcel of a continuous negotiation of local cultures and universal civilization, as Paul Ricoeur would put it.15


Interview with Okwui Enwezor
Nezar Al-Sayyad, “Urban Informality as a ‘New’ Way of Life,” in Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia, ed. Ananya Roy and Nezar Al-Sayyad (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004), 7–30.
AbdouMaliq Simone, “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg,” Public Culture 16, no. 3 (2004): 407–29.
Debika Ray, “Highlights: Design Indaba,” Icon Magazine, February 23, 2016, https://www.iconeye.com/opinion/review/item/12407-highlights-design-indaba.
Rem Koolhaas et al., Mutations (Barcelona: Actar, 2000), 718.
Chris Michael, “‘Lagos Shows How a City Can Recover from a Deep, Deep Pit’: Rem Koolhaas Talks to Kunlé Adeyemi,” The Guardian, February 26, 2016, sec. Cities, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/26/lagos-rem-koolhaas-kunle-….
Since 2010, the Building College at Addis Ababa University was renamed. It is now called EiABC, the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development.
Marc Angélil and Dirk Hebel, eds., Cities of Change: Addis Ababa : Transformation Strategies for Urban Territories in the 21st Century (Basel: Birkhauser, 2010).
Some of these examples were discussed recently in the issue of journal Oase dedicated to the theme “Crossing Boundaries: Transcultural Practices in Architecture and Urbanism.” See, e.g., Klaske Havik and Nelson Mota, “Designing for Simultaneity: Negotiating Domestic, Social and Productive Practices in Addis Ababa,” OASE—Journal for Architecture, no. 95 (2015): 91–96.
Andres Lepik, ed., Afritecture: Building Social Change (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2013).
Achille Mbembe, “Planetary Africa,” in Africa—Architecture, Culture, Identity, ed. Michael Juul Holm and Mette Marie Kallehauge (Humlebæk: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2015), 258.
“The Modern Look: A Designer Finds Fashion Ruin It,” Life, September 23, 1946.
Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, eds., Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities (Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2012).
Oswald de Andrade and Leslie Bary, “Cannibalist Manifesto,” Latin American Literary Review 19, no. 38 (1991): 38–47.
Interview with Okwui Enwezor, in Mateo Kries and Amelie Klein, eds., Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design (Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, 2015).
Paul Ricoeur, “Universal Civilization and National Cultures,” in History and Truth, trans. Charles A. Kelbley (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 271–84.

How to Cite this Article: Mota, Nelson. “An Anthropophagic Manifesto for Africa,” review of Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design, curated by Amelie Klein under the direction of Mateo Kries and Marc Zehntner. The Kuntsthal, Rotterdam, Netherlands, October 1, 2016 – January 15, 2017. JAE Online. May 6, 2017. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/reviews-exhibits/anthropophagic-manifesto-africa#/.