The challenges of African design

Interview with Balthazar Faye, Cheick Diallo and Kossi Assou, by Virginie Andriamirado

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

According to one historical dictionary of the French language, in the seventeenth century the English word « design » meant « the sketch of an art work ». Having in contemporary language become « an industrial aesthetic applied to the creation of new forms, adapted to their function » (cf. Le Petit Robert), design is above all part of a creative approach. In this respect, it has lost none of its original meaning.
African design, which is both creative and innovative, and which is partially federated under the ADA (Association of African Designers), is a good example. It is no accident that it now finds its way into artistic events such as the Dakar Biennale, particularly as certain designers – such as Balthazar Faye and Kossi Assou – are visual artists too. In the name of creativity, therefore, we have chosen to open our visual arts column to this applied art this month. An inventory.
Three signatures, three designers from Senegal, Mali and Togo. The first two – Balthazar Faye and Cheick Diallo – live in France, whereas Kossi Assou lives in Lomé in Togo. All three participated in the « Cour africaine » (« African compound ») exhibition of contemporary furniture and objects held in Lille, France last November during the event « Afrique en creations ».
Each values his cultural heritage in his own particular way. Using local materials, these designers update local skills without becoming trapped in an exotic relation to the object. Quite on the contrary, they propose a new language that testifies to the vitality of African design, despite the entrepreneurs’ extreme caution and the cruel lack of production units. V.A.

Even though two of you live in France, do you consider that working in Africa as you did for « La cour africaine » is to accept the challenge of an African design?
Balthazar Faye: The challenge is to show that Africa can produce things other than its traditional craft work, that people are also capable of producing contemporary objects there. We worked with artisans for « La cour africaine » who are used to making certain types of objects, those you find on sale to tourists. The aim was to get them to produce something other than knick-knacks, whilst also adapting our work to the materials they are used to working with.
Kossi Assou: It was also about using local structures and skills and making it possible to mass-produce objects locally. Given that this mass-production is possible on the African continent, it is obviously possible in the West where the technology for this kind of production already exists. The challenge in Africa consists of proposing design products that can be reproduced locally according to local capacities.
What main difficulties did you face?
BF: The difficulties mainly lay in the way people perceived the objects we were going to make. This was normal, as the concepts we were proposing were new to the artisans. A period of adaptation was needed. Having said that, there were no mental blocks. People were very open to our proposals.
Cheick Diallo: African artisans have a different view of creation. There are codes of conduct between them, which stem from tradition, and which are endlessly reinforced by the griots. These remain a mystery to the uninitiated. You have to know to take them into account. When I first worked in Mali as a designer, I showed up with my sketchbooks. I quickly realised that my drawings were illegible to the craftsmen. So an alternative teaching method had to be developed to explain the object differently, using models, which meant that I had to be present all the time, otherwise errors were made. But in the end, everything worked out fine. The aim was to create a synergy of competences, to get several craftsmen to work on the same object, which they are absolutely not used to doing. It was new to them. It is a highly enriching direction worth exploring.
In certain countries, and in Mali in particular, there are traditional divisions between those who work with wood, iron or clay. Did that make things difficult for you?
CD: When I first started working with the Malian craftsmen, my job first of all consisted in dismantling these divisions, which was not without its difficulties. At first, everyone stayed in his own field. But synergies emerged when the craftsmen understood the interest of working together. It was a starting point that has continued to evolve in the right direction. A project’s interest tends to erase the traditional « authorisations » to work with such and such a material.
BF: It is true that groups are designated to make given types of object and to use given types of materials in the traditional societies. But I didn’t come up against this kind of problem in Senegal. The barriers tend to be more geographic, the different groups of craftsmen not working near to one another. It isn’t always easy to get a foundry worker to come to a cabinetmaker’s, for example. I therefore had to get them to be very precise so that each one’s final product would then fit in with the other’s work. They were not used to working in this way. They usually make products from start to finish, and are not use to mixing different materials. But these little practical problems did not stop us from obtaining results with the means available to us.
KA: There are several villages that specialise in pottery 300 km from Lomé. They shared the work out between them so that one made the small pots, another the bowls, whilst another made the big earthenware jars. If you ask the villagers who specialise in small pots to make the bowls, they will refuse. Everyone has to stay within the bounds of his speciality to preserve both technical competences and the socio-economic balance.
The problem that arises most frequently in Togo and Benin concerns the re-appropriation of objects and the notion of dimensions. For example, I got them to make a candleholder out of a metal piece that is used in the Fa voodoo cult. Thinking that this object was for voodoo purposes, the craftsmen were curious to know which Fa had requested this rare combination of objects. But I also sensed a great deal of interest beyond their astonishment.
As for dimensions, the craftsmen have standards they find hard to relinquish. Valérie Oka, a designer of Ivoirian origin who worked with us, found it hard to get over the concept of some of her large objects. But as soon as they understood her approach, there was no problem anymore. These minor mental blocks at the start of the project did not stop the work from evolving. Our craftsmen have undeniable qualities, but they limit themselves always to reproducing the same objects. And our work also consists in bringing them out of this system which hampers their creativity.
That is to say, it consists of giving the craftsmen a new approach to the object?
BF: It is about proposing a new language. There is a different notion of the finished aspect, for example. A finished product has to be smooth. When I got the craftsmen to work on unstructured objects whose « skin » I wanted to remain rough, they couldn’t understand why I wanted to leave it like that. It was only when they saw the assembled object that they changed their minds. They suddenly realised that an object that doesn’t seem like much at all can become something when it is put together in a certain way. A Dakar craftsman who didn’t understand my approach ended up asking me to train his son.
KA: Introducing a new language means getting people to accept that a CD rack, like the one Valérie Oka designed, or shelves, like those that I had made, be made out of rough wood that still has the bark on it. I remember a child’s chair by the Ivoirian designer Issa Diabaté: the craftsmen were amazed that it wasn’t varnished, that Issa let the metal gradually oxidize. In their mind, you had to remove the rust, varnish, and paint the metal. This approach threw them, upsetting their aesthetic markers.
CD: This destabilising concerns both the aspect of the materials and the object’s function. I worked on a silver saltcellar, so I called on the services of a jewellery-maker. Right up until the end of the operation, he didn’t know what this object was for, thinking that it was a broach for a while. He couldn’t believe it when I told him it was a saltcellar. He couldn’t get over having devoted so much time to an object destined to take just salt! A jewellery-maker who has a mental block about the objects’ function will not go beyond making jewellery. As the craftsmen are used to working by categories in Mali, they do not consider certain objects « worthy » of their category. African designers also have to lead the combat of getting master craftsmen to devote their talents to other products.
Are local entrepreneurs interested?
BF: They have their habits and it is not easy to change them. The entrepreneurs do not like to take too many risks by taking on new concepts. It is the designer’s role to convince them.
CD: Some are open to this as long as you explain the project and its stakes to them. Having said that, the companies who work with designers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Most of them tend to do the same thing. There is nothing to federate or favour creation. I now work with isolated craftsmen who I try to regroup in production units and craft federations so that they can work together. When a product requires three or four different craftsmen who aren’t based in the same neighbourhood, it is hard for them to produce large quantities. It is only possible to produce quantity and conserve the quality in production units.
BF: If the only problem was the distance between the workshops, we could resolve it by being precise, but, above all, there is a huge lack of equipment. Having said that, small-scale craft production gives objects an interesting finish. The treatment of their surface is different: moreover, people refer to the skin of the object. When an object is industrially produced, the approach isn’t the same anymore.
Is there a market for designer goods in Africa?
CD: The question when you work in Africa is to know whom you are working for. Who do you need to convince? Is it the West? When you look at the success of certain African products in the West, you realize that the Western market is already won over. The market that needs to be conquered is the domestic market, which imports « designer » goods rather than consuming its own products. There are raw materials and skills that are falling by the wayside. Africa needs its designers, and the designers need entrepreneurs to be able to launch the market. The first people who need convincing are the local decision-makers. When I work in Mali, my strategy consists of creating objects that Malians can identify with. It is important to choose strong images, traditional objects, recycling some of their traits to make new objects. That is already a first step. If we go one step at a time, we will manage to convince the decision-makers that it is important to place the accent on production units, to organize the crafts industry so that it can meet the demands of the market – whether domestic or international – better. Malian craftsmen want this in the sense that they want to improve their work and to take it in the right direction. But if Malians are not convinced by what they have in their country, they will never sell a thing abroad.
BF: The Senegalese context is different. There are people who design furniture, trying to give it a more contemporary image, but it is a copy more than anything else. There is a style of design of that name, but it is often of questionable taste. When I work in Africa, my approach is not to make things that only concern the African market. I want them to be accessible to everyone. In this respect, my approach differs from that of an African designer who makes low stools, because people do not sit low down everywhere. As Western seating culture has been exported all over the world, I design things that can be used everywhere if I want to address a maximum number of people. A universal language exists: let’s try to use it. What interests me is to try to create something authentic whilst detaching myself from a model as far as is possible. But at the same time I try not to do so in too brutal a way so that people can still read what came before it, not just in Africa but in the West too.
KA: The craftsmen have real skills and there is a huge potential market of over four million people. Things are proposed on this market, but they are not adapted, they are a bit old-fashioned. The designer’s role is to improve and adapt these objects to suit current requirements. When you go to Burkina, to the markets in Ouagadougou or Bobo Dioulasso, you see people making objects, such as snuffboxes and ashtrays, using an approach that could be qualified as hijacking, and at the same time, the skills are there. How can we improve these products?
Up until recently, people with high purchasing powers tended to buy « Western ». Do you detect a change in this situation?
KA: Things have been evolving for a while, even if there are fads, like in Senegal, which mean that people kit themselves out with Western-style chairs. The fact is that they do not necessarily use them in their day-to-day lives. That’s where the real heart of the problem lies! When it really comes to eating, people still use the low stools that you find more or less all over Africa. It’s the same in Benin, Ghana or Burkina Faso: whether it be in the urban or rural milieu, people buy padded chairs or armchairs to be fashionable because they have seen them on imported Western television programmes. Villagers buy such chairs, but they do not use them. They are quite simply decorative and above all a sign of material wealth. Deep down, they do not need this type of chair, which are not necessarily suited to their environment.
BF: When they buy these chairs, they buy an image. It’s the same as people buying Starck (Philippe Starck, the famous French designer) in Europe. The problem isn’t that consumers want « Western » armchairs, the problem is that they do not manage to sit in them. They don’t necessarily neglect their armchairs because they are used to low stools. It is because they have bought a badly made and thus uncomfortable object. And that’s where we should intervene.
CD: Even if things are evolving, the main interlocutor remains the Western market towards which everything converges. When Bernard Pivot* made a programme for France 2 in Mali, the Malians put big armchairs on the set. Pivot didn’t want them. He went to the market and chose bamboo chairs known as « paupers’ chairs », which are not always very well finished. As soon as these chairs were seen on a French television programme, it became the latest « in » thing in Bamako to have these famous paupers’ chairs. Simply because there was a kind of overseas, Western seal of approval that said: « these are good »…
BF: If the Malian president does the same thing, he also gives a seal of approval.
CD: Yes, but the problem is that unfortunately neither the Malian nor the Senegalese presidents do. When we launched the idea of national furniture in Senegal, it was to counter that.
How, on an international level, does your work fit into events that bring together international designers, such as the Saint Etienne International Design Biennale?
BF: It depends. I do not do exactly the same thing when I am in Africa and when I am in Europe. My approach is different, if only with regard to materials. I do not aim for a specific aesthetic. I start out from a function, from a form which inspires me.
The real essence of design involves other things that are not limited to design alone. The designer is generally there to be at the service of a structure. The work will take on the accents of a company, in relation to the company with which you work. If I work for a company that makes plush furniture, I have to respect that image. On the other hand, when I work alone and experiment, I am much freer. What I design will correspond to my language of the moment.
CD: It is not the designer’s role to specialize in a given geographic zone. When you are a designer, you are a designer full stop. Your inspiration can change from one project to another, but you shouldn’t restrict yourself to the category of African designer or anything else. We are called upon to work according to the circumstances and the project.
But is there an echo of Africa when you give your own language a free reign?
BF: Not the trace of Africa that people imagine, in the sense that I won’t work on a wall mask. Africa created canons then there was a rupture. But little by little, we have come back to these « initial canons », which we try to reproduce. It is not so much the aesthetic aspect of these canons that is interesting, but rather the conditions in which they were created. Today’s work consists of recreating the conditions that enable new canons to be created. People won’t perceive an object’s African character in little external signs, but in the whole process of creation that is behind the object. The aim isn’t to make an African object – at risk of fettering oneself – but to produce good work. I am African; I do not have to prove it because it transpires whatever I do!
CD: I do not want to play at being « the African », but it is important to me that when people see my work from Mali, they recognize that it was made there. It’s a choice; we can’t run away from the fact that we need an identity. In my work, I always make sure that the object I design, even when I’m working in the West, can be reproduced in Mali.
BF: Yes, but that is not a question of identity. The fact that the object can be reproduced in Mali does not give it its Malian identity.
CD: Not everything can be reproduced in Mali. There aren’t the structures adapted to certain objects. The identity is engraved in the manner of making the objects. A Malian Tuareg does not work in the same way as a Senegalese smith. It is truly a culture that comes to the foreground. It is thus a question of identity.
BF: It is not the designer’s job to give an object a geographic identity. It’s the craftsman’s job. If you have a table made in Mali and in France from the same design, one won’t be better than the other, but you will be able to tell which one was made in Mali and which one was made in France. There will be an identity in that respect. I see the identity aspect there: in the finish, in the choice of materials.
CD: The craftsmen bear a culture of which they are the guardians. They have skills that are expressed in the object’s finish, its craftsmanship. It is this craftsmanship that interests me. What can I drawn on in these cultures today to make a contemporary object?

*Translator’s note: a famous television presenter who hosts a cultural show on the French television channel France 2.///Article N° : 5547


Laisser un commentaire