Dear Africa – Where is our Maison et Objet?

In the design world, the new year is marked by a second Christmas better known as trade show season. The designer’s calendar is quickly choked the first few months of the year, beginning with the iconic trade show Maison et Objet in France. AAKS, Chrissa  Amwa, Mimi Shodeinde, and Danye Decoration are among the brands that will be attending. January alone is a dizzying tug on one’s wanderlust and wallet with a plethora of lifestyle and décor focused events all over the world. Heimtextil in Frankfurt. IMM in Cologne. The Interior Design Show in Toronto. Homi in Rho, Italy. We have not even touched on all the trade shows in North America such as the Highpoint Market in North Carolina. I am getting inundated with newsletters announcing designers’ participation here, there and everywhere, and inevitably the perennial question bubbles to the surface: where is Africa’s trade show?

 

I attended M&O in January 2017 and was overwhelmed by the halls of endless design. The soit disant Eclectic Hall, did perturbed me at the time given that its connotation of otherness seemed ill-placed as it merely grouped all non-Western design rather than unite a particular design aesthetic (i.e. minimalist, bohemian) under one umbrella. What was most intriguing to me were the booths selling African products manned by non-Africans including As’art, Madam Stoltz, and EA Deco. Eva Sonaike was the only African designer I could find exhibiting her own designs that year. Surely, the silver haired man in the green corduroys was not going to explain Rwandan basket weaving to me? Based on my experience at M&O, when I visited Wakanda a year later, I could not help but commiserate with Killmonger during his interaction with the museum curator in the film.

maison et objet, trade fair, exhibition, booth
Scenes from M&O Paris, January 2017 including Household Hardware’s booth.

I felt this way again as I followed – albeit from afar this time as my frequent flyer miles would not oblige – the Salone de Mobile in Milan in 2018. The excitement in advance of the event hinged on two aspects: the launch of Nigerian-American designer Ini Archibong’s collection with Se and the exhibition curated by the well revered incubator of young design talent Marva Griffin. She had launched an exhibition dedicated to the “continents of the Southern hemisphere” which intended to showcase the talent of emerging designers from Africa and Latin America. While the combination of two such diverse continents and cultures into a single exhibition might be viewed as playing into a reductionist thinking of African design, the curator for the Africa section Hicham Lahlou (a renowned Moroccan designer himself) ensured a diversity of culture and nationalities. The exhibit featured afrofuturist carpenter Jomo Tariku (Ethiopia), metal contortionist Lani Adeoye (Nigeria) and Memia TakTak (Tunisia), the 2014 winner of the Africa Design Awards. Yet, that lingering of otherness persisted.

Flyer for one of the exhibiting African designers, Jomo Furniture at SaloneSatellite, Milan, April 2018

Video installation for Africa’s designers at one of the most prestigious furniture trade shows in the world, Salon del Mobile, Milan, April 2018

It was unclear whether these emerging designers were officially part of the prestigious SaloneSatellite (as for example many of the installation designers were above the SaloneSatellite cut off age of 35). The exhibition was also relegated to the back corners of the Salone and surprisingly theirs was a video installation. This was explained as being necessary to “to avoid creating overlaps and hierarchies with the pieces being showcased by the SaloneSatellite protagonists”. The exhibition was set up in a museum type form with the designers speaking to their influences and works with audio accessible through headsets. While understanding the underlying drive of the artist is a critical component of a product’s makeup the primary appeal of a trade show is to make connections with people – whether manufacturers, retailers or just design enthusiasts. It is to connect with the six senses to the art. Thus, the installation lacked the magnetism of having something new and interesting to touch and sit on, turn on. The immersive and experiential draw of the entire Salone somehow did not reach the African installation. To what extent this is positively or negatively impactful is yet to be seen. Yet it raises some important questions.

So does Africa need its own trade show?

The value of a trade show varies for anyone. However, it could be argued that the African continent needs its own products, its own curators and its own platforms for furniture and product design. A trade show is an event held to bring members of an industry together to display, demonstrate and discuss their latest products and services. Generally, trade shows are not open to the public and can only be attended by wholesale buyers, corporate representatives and members of the press. In other words, they cater to B2B. As an example, the African continent has about a dozen fashion weeks however, these are oft seen more as a badge of social status rather than venues for tangible business transactions. Moreover, product design shows are less known on the continent, and are often conflated with contemporary art shows. This may inadvertently devalue the functional usage of the designer’s works above the design being observable for beauty’s sake alone. Ultimately, the continent struggles to create established distribution networks which allow furniture design businesses, in particular to scale. All historical distribution networks point straight to colonial capitals hence the continued legacy of showing works abroad rather than at home. Just the other day, I was forwarded an email that was soliciting buyers to apply for a free trip to Garvi Gurjari-2019, an international Buyer-Seller Meet for handloom & handicraft in India from Feb 4-7, 2019. I secretly wished it had been some industrious regional government in Ghana that had put out a similar call. To be fair, similar strides being made in Africa. Egypt in conjunction with the magazine New African Woman curated a show under the hashtag #shedesigns during the Africa 2018 Forum in December in Sharm El-Sheikh which grouped over 50 fempreneurs to help them expand to new markets. Hopefully, a trend that will continue with other African municipalities.

Vanessa Agyemang’s booth for her homeware brand Copper Dust at #shedesigns, a newly launched trade show on the sidelines of Egypt’s Africa Forum in December 2018.

The South African outlier

South Africa has its Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair and Decorex South Africa and 100% South African Design and even recently launched Design Joburg in 2017 – all fantastic, credible and well attended furniture and product design shows. Yet, many have found the events in SA to be too insular and devoid of ethnic diversity to properly categorize them as a true representations of African design. Within the last two years, this undertone has reverberated so much so that the trade show organizers have personified their quest to address pan-Africanism through guest curators such as Selly Raby Kane for Design Indaba and Tapiwa Matsinde for SMC. In fact, the South African design industry remains self-sustaining and attractive. DMG Events, a leading international e vents company, recently purchased the rights to five South Africa based exhibitions from media giant Hypenica – although these shows focus more on the construction industry than furnishings and finishes.

Incidentally, Design Indaba – the design conference that unites the world in glorious Cape Town for a week of immersive discourse and networking every February summarily eliminated its trade show in 2016. Luckily, to fill this gap, Reed Exhibitions, the producers of Decorex launched a new trade show called the International Sourcing Fair (ISF) in Johannesburg in August 2018.

Brands featured at Sanlam HMC 2018 pop up retail trade show included Ardmore, Tongoro, Saba Studios, Ashanti Design and more.

No Vogue Africa They Say

A heated debate raged among fashion enthusiasts following the participation of Naomi Campbell in the Arise Fashion Week in Nigeria. After being seduced by the beauty and rapacious potential of the country, she made a statement encouraging Vogue to set up a satellite brand for the Africa as it had for the Middle East. Those who opposed the idea cited the myriad of local magazines, asking the supporters of the fictional Africa version of Conde Nast’s iconic publication to turn their eyes towards home. Perhaps the same message is applicable to all design.

There are many Africa-based shows dedicated to design blooming out of the dark. The Interior Designer’s Association of Nigeria (IDAN) spearheads Made by Design, the association’s annual home and hospitality trade exhibition. Some individual design professionals are taking matters into their own hands like British-Ghanaian textile designer Chrissa Amuah. She founded Africa by Design in 2017, a commercial platform that showcases a traveling collection of works from designers from across Sub-Saharan Africa including Mimi Shodeinde and Audrey Forson. The exhibition has already landed in Ghana, the United Arab Emirates and participated in the London Design Fair. The biennial event Dak’art attracts thousands of art and design enthusiasts to Senegal. Wish Africa, a social enterprise launched by Nigerian Lola Emeruwa to promote African lifestyle is launching a traveling expo in London in June 2019 before heading to the continent.

An emerging designer from Africa may find themselves getting a significantly higher return from Africa-based events because the event organizers are younger, not part of the ‘art ecosystem’ and simply more attentive to artist needs simply because the artist’s success is directly tied to success of the event. Think Tokini Peterside, founder of ArtXLagos. Indeed, despite their occasional lack of resources versus the established trade shows, the sheer hunger and grit of the African people behind many of these events, continues to say to the traditional design capitals of Milan and London – we are coming for you.

That being said many of these events on the continent are new,  and therefore the fruits and sustainability remain to be seen. For an outsider looking to attend these shows, efforts may seem disintegrated. I remember the mental gymnastics it took to decide whether to attend Design Indaba or 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair in Marrakesh taking place just a few days after each other on opposite corners of the continent last year. (I ended up attending neither). But of real importance, is the extent to which shows on the continent are able to mobilize foreign buyers to actually book their airfare. Going a step further, the extent of S.A.L.E.S., and which of the event models coming to the fore actually puts a dent in the starving artist dystopia. There is limited transparency on the ROI of any trade show, let alone the few that take place on African soil. Many designers with mentions in Elle Décor or Wallpaper Magazine remain bootstrap business, looking desperately for active and reliable buyers to justify their cost of participation. There is an incredible shroud of silence over the design event space.

Probably the most difficult factor hindering Africans from being visible at international trade shows is expense. But the solution may not be as simple as creating trade events to the continent. Floor space at the new ISF trade show in South Africa was priced at around $350 per square meter. For a design exhibition that took place in Lagos, several furniture designers simply could not bear the cost of airfare, transporting their works and hotel needed to participate. For one luxury designer, a shipper billed over $11,000 to move 750kg from Dakar to Lagos. Another designer had to pay UPS over $2,000 to ship two armchairs one way to Nigeria from the US. In this regard, perhaps last year’s signature of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfTRA) will help support the creative industries in addition to our usual cocoa and pineapples.  Until regulations on logistics and imports are changed, these costs of participation mean the barriers to entry are still too high and many genius but cash-strapped designers are de facto barred from exhibiting anywhere outside of their home country. Bringing the events closer to home and joining forces might create more bang for the buck but there is a lack of enabling environment. Nonetheless, there is an argument for amalgamating various independent exhibitions into a single impactful trade show for this part of the world.

We also need to note that producers of design events are also not always very empathetic to the cause, pushing many of the expenses onto the designers while making profits for themselves. In fact, many eventually become better known and get more publicity than the artists they allege to serve. A booth in an exhibition can cost upwards of $1,500. New Kenyan furniture brand Saba Furniture had to launch a crowdfunding campaign to support its ambition to RSVP yes to the invitation to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York. Similarly, the designers participating in the Africa installation of Salone de Mobile were not sponsored, although an inaugural show like African Culture and Design Festival (ACDF) and veterans Sanlam HmC are able to sponsor a select number of participants. On the continent, there is a better understanding of the need to accommodate and serve the designers on a more tactical level.

Design Pavilion, ACDF, November 2017

The issue is not so much that exhibitions and events are not happening on the continent, it is that they are not always strategic – loved for their entertainment or passive artistic value rather than a source of business momentum. I could list a compendium of design and art oriented events that exist but these tend not to be widely known or publicized to other African countries or regions. While holding events is helpful to attract people to a city, the lack of coordination between the various events (and lack of cross pollination in terms of sponsorships, media coverage, talent management and transportation) means lost branding opportunities for the host city and the event producers. Accra learned this lesson slowly and is promoting more collaboration for maximum impact. For example, the signature Chalewote Street Art Festival. While it received minimal government support until its 8th edition last year, it reached out to established patrons of the arts to organize fringe events during the week of the festival to present a wholistic experience of the city’s art culture.

So while I am developing my travel calendar for 2019, I am hoping it can be filled with more Addis Abeba, Lome and Douala this year than Paris or New York. One of my new year goals is to more events and design shows on African soil. I also intend to organize and curate one as it is easier to report on the events than organize them and I need to get my hands dirty. While I begin to brew a new design project alongside Mighty Empire for 3Q19 I recognize that participating in foreign trade shows is important – you have to go where there is demand and one needs to expose your product to new audiences. I try to remember, in the end, it is not about some Nkrumahist philosophy but it is about money. Nonetheless, the idealist in me wishes we recognized design as a business and create more spaces for wholesale sales activity, and draw the foreigners to us on home turf.  I long for the days we went to the biannual home and furniture show in Tunis where I discovered magnificent brands like Rock the Kasbah which  I adore. I dream of an exhibition hall full of Africa’s best product designers for the home and hospitality sector. I know it will come and when it does I hope it is I speaking about my products to the silver haired man in the green corduroys.

 

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3 comments

  1. I am curious about two things-home expos are growing in increasing popularity across the continent. I for one have seen numerous ads for the same whilst living both in Nairobi and Accra. They are generally well attended and patronized so I am curious about the ‘demand’ side of things or in other words is the African aesthetic in furniture and decor truly mass market in appeal across the African middle class? I have my doubts.

  2. I read the article, Maison et Objet in France everything you mention from the display or lack of seeing the actual products to viewing on a monitor was absolutely ridiculous! Unfortunately, your story is our story and yes, this is a capitalist world which we live in! Yes, creating your/our diaspora is the way to go!

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