My top three picks from Cape Town’s (disappointing) Design Indaba expo

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By Francis Moran

Design IndabaCape Town’s annual Design Indaba conference and expo, which ran here last week, bills itself as “the leading voice on African design, creativity and innovation.”

The conference part, at a hefty R3,000 (C$320) per day for three days, is well beyond the reach of all but the deepest-pocketed around here and was sold out by the time I learned of it a month ago, so I can’t speak to how representative its program of speakers might have been of the rest this vast continent beyond the host country’s borders.

I was limited to attending the accompanying design expo. Even so, I hit the Cape Town International Conference Centre on the city’s waterfront full of great expectations.

It turned out to be about as good as a Christmas craft show back home. A really good Christmas craft show, granted, and one showcasing designers and products that were new to me. But a Christmas craft show nonetheless. And one that failed to deliver much pan-continental flavour as it was dominated not just by South African vendors but by local Cape Town vendors.

Beyond all the jewelry, pottery, ceramics, turned wood and designer threads, however, there were a few booths that really caught my eye.

Turning students’ handwriting into fund-raising fonts

Fonts for the FutureFonts for the Future is an audacious and imaginative project that has taken the handwriting of 200 students from a high school in the Johannesburg-area township of Soweto and turned them into fonts. The full set of 200 fonts can be purchased and downloaded, while an accompanying coffee-table book on the project is also available for sale.

The money raised will support the efforts of One School at a Time, an organisation tackling what it calls South Africa’s “second apartheid,” the divide between the educated and the uneducated. “If the fight for freedom of oppression was the plight of South Africans over the past 50 years, then the fight for the next 50 years should be to free the minds of our youth through a functional education system,” OSAAT says on its website.

My wife and I will be supporting this project by buying the fonts and using one of them for the new website of the guesthouse we are buying here in Cape Town.

Dreams for Africa chair

Dreams for Africa chairI was attracted to the Dreams for Africa Chair because of its similarities to two Canadian projects that I love. One was the Canada Tree that Prince Edward Island artist Tyler Aspin created around the turn of the century, incorporating more than 600 individual wooden objects into an artwork that he hoped would tour Canada, raise funds and inspire Canadians. The other is Six String Nation Guitar, a project by broadcaster Jowi Taylor that saw him build 64 bits of material into a guitar that he then toured around the country, amassing more than 15,000 pictures of people both ordinary and famous playing or interacting with the guitar.

In much the same vein, the Dreams for Africa Chair took patches of beadwork by 160 artists and sewed them together as a covering for a traditional beaded chair. The organisers, an outfit called Woza Moya Dreams for Africa that raises funds for the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust in Kwazulu-Natal, then invited groups such as hotels, businesses, churches and others to host the chair, photograph it being hosted at their premises, and donate to the cause. The chair toured South Africa and farther afield, making it to New York in 2010. The following year, it won the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa design competition at Design Indaba itself.

‘Les Petites Pierres’ an example of what I came to see at the Indaba

DaKemistryOne booth that caught my eye early on as I walked the floor of Indaba gave me hope that the expo was genuinely going to be a showcase for the work of artists from across the continent. Sadly, Les Petites Pierres turned out to be exceptional not just for the work on display and for the concept behind it but also because it was one of very few exhibitors from beyond South Africa’s borders. It shared a small, token space with a handful of designers from other countries such as Angola, Kenya and Egypt.

Les Petites Pierres, or Little Bricks, is an artists’ collective based in Dakar, Senegal. Housed in an artist’s home, the collective brings together creatives from across many disciplines, operates pop-up stores to showcase their work, and encourages the growth or a creative economy in Senegal.

I walked the whole floor of Design Indaba in probably under an hour. I would have enjoyed myself a whole lot more — and stayed much longer — if the expo had come anywhere near meeting Indaba’s promise of being a leading African voice.

(Images: Design Indaba announcement poster, link; Page from Fonts for the Future book, link; Dreams for Africa Chair © Woza Moya Dreams For Africa, reprinted with permission, link; The DaKemistry interactive orchestra, a project of Les Petites Pierres, link.)

/// COMMENTS

2 Comments »
  • Jo Head

    March 25, 2015 9:09 am

    I share your disappointment with the Expo – it was barely reflective of the ambition of the organisers and not at all reflective of the excitement, passion and creativity that I have come to love. I thought I was going to the Expo and booked the conference in error – the biggest & best mistake I have ever made. I feel inspired to see how I can help to deliver the Expo objective and to open the gateway. I enquired as to the export process through the CCDI ( Cape Craft and Design Institute ) whose role it is to promote export – they asked me what I meant by process. Their database (when you can access it) is even more disappointing than the Expo. Is there an opportunity to collaborate?

  • Francis Moran

    March 25, 2015 10:29 am

    Hi, Jo.

    Thanks for the comment.

    I had hoped to attend the conference but it was sold out. Maybe next year.

    Not sure if your collaboration comment was directed at me or CCDI. If me, please drop me an email at francis@francis-moran.com and tell me more about what you have in mind.

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