The Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design

Crafts Magazine, March/April 2011, Review

There was something inevitable about the Global Africa Project at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. Given MAD’s evangelical mission to shatter the boundaries between art, craft and design, the possibilities offered by Africa and its diaspora must have seemed irresistible. This latest show – a collaboration with the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art – is a dizzying survey of the work of more than 100 artists, designers and craftspeople from all corners of the globe. The museum had an abundance of material to draw on, from Missoni’s costumes for the opening of the 1990 World Cup (inspired by traditional African patterns), to Spanish furniture designer Patricia Urquiola’s stools fabricated by artisans in Botswana. Jewellery, ceramics, basketry, textiles, clothing, furniture, photography, art and architecture – it’s all here.

The main challenge was apparently setting the show’s limits. Curators Lowery Stoke Sims and Leslie King-Hammond have used a sweeping definition of “Africa”  – not everyone with work in the show is African or of African descent; not every piece draws explicitly on African visual culture. More than 200 objects are ordered according to five themes, said to reflect the concerns of the contemporary artists and craftsmen represented: ‘building communities’, ‘competing globally’, ‘sourcing locally’, ‘intersecting cultures’ and ‘branding content’. But the categories feel more like an afterthought imposed on, rather than emerging from, the material. The undoubtedly admirable ambition to capture “a moment of burgeoning activity in African expression” has made for a rambling incoherent show.

Still, if there isn’t a single unifying narrative, the individual pieces here tell all sorts of intriguing stories. Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg project is the tale of one man’s effort to use art to revitalise a neighbourhood. Twenty five years ago, Guyton began transforming the abandoned houses on his Detroit street into decorated sculptures. Using found objects and trash from vacant lots he’s built a giant outdoor art gallery and harnessed the creativity of his community.  Heidelberg’s DIY, find, fix-up and reuse aesthetic has echoes throughout the show, from Sengalese designer Ousmane M’Baye’s colourful panelled kitchen cabinet (made from oil drums) to Chakaia Booker’s rubber tyre sculpture, and the growing amateur tinkerer movement finding expression at Maker Faire Africa.

The work of the arts collective Alice Yard in Trinidad’s Port of Spain may be far more polished than Guyton’s (such as Marlon Darbeau’s Peera, a stool that’s also a tool box) but it still speaks of art and design as community endeavour. As do baskets from the Gahaya Links Weaving Association, a women’s coop in Rwanda where Hutus and Tutsis are united through making.

Fashion and style make frequent appearances. Most delightfully, in Daniele Tamagni’s photographs of the sapeurs of Congo. Posing like French dandies from the 1930s, dressed in sharply cut suits in bright block colours, their look topped off with breast pocket handkerchiefs, old fashioned pipes and mirrored sunglasses, the members of the Society for the Advancement of the People of Elegance look like refugees from another time stranded in the midst of a war-ravaged city. But though the style is coopted from Europe, the tradition has an essentially African significance. Their clothes are less a symbol of social status than a route to it.

Primarily, Stoke Sims and King-Hammond wanted to pique the interest of a New York audience in unfamiliar work. But while most of the packed gallery space is given over to lesser known creators, there are also pieces from far more established figures such as British Nigerian artist and Turner prize nominee Yinka Shonibere, and New York-based portrait-painter Kehinde Wiley. Artist Fred Wilson’s Iago’s Mirror is exquisitely crafted from black Murano glass and there’s a colourful fabric soundsuit by the marvellously inventive Nick Cave accompanied by a joyous video of his dancing furry figures. (Cave is a MAD favourite – another full body suit, made from sticks, featured in an earlier show, Dead or Alive.)

As MAD reflects now on the shortfalls of its show and how (should it repeat the exercise in a few years time as some have suggested) it could be done better, it will no doubt be relishing one significant accomplishment. In the three years since MAD’s controversial re-branding, the Global Africa Project has done more than any other show to win over sceptics to the view that the distinctions between craft, art and design maybe aren’t so important after all.