AFTER a hiatus for renovations, the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Maboneng, Johannesburg, opened with an exhibition that unites the far north of the continent with us here in the south. The gallery’s latest exhibition D’Zair Art & Craft A Johannesburg brings together work from 13 contemporary Algerian designers in a fascinating showcase of how geography, politics and history influence aesthetics.
Algeria’s huge oil and gas reserves, as well as its close proximity to Europe, led to the country suffering years of intensive French colonialism followed by a vicious civil war for independence, in which hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. More recently, the country has faced a deepening economic crisis while their ailing president becomes increasingly absent, raising concerns about who is leading the country.
“Algeria is like an island,” says Amina Zoubir — artist and daughter of the curator Hellal Zoubir — speaking about how the culture of design has evolved in that country. Despite being Africa’s largest country, Algeria lacks the infrastructure and technology to facilitate machine prototyping and production. Yet its proximity to Europe, in particular its history and relationship with France, allows easy access to contemporary First World art and design. There is also a strong Arab influence that comes through in a number of the works.
“The title of the exhibition D’Zair Art & Craft A Johannesburg draws reference from the British arts and crafts movement of the 19th century. Led by creatives such as William Morris, this anti-industrial movement advocated traditional craftsmanship and simple decorative arts,” Zoubir writes in the exhibition catalogue. He goes on to say: “The multicultural exchange in the exhibit exemplifies design’s role in intersecting worlds of art and craft; worlds of Europe, Africa and the Middle East; worlds of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.”
For me, the exhibition evoked a sense of nostalgia. I was transported back to a time in my childhood when I would spend hours poring over books about “the future” and all the wonders it would bring, like robots and flying cars. Of course the reality of evolved technology, 30 years or so later, is that much more sophisticated, but also somewhat disconnected and cold.
In contrast, the largely visually contemporary works in this exhibition retain a sense of warmth that stems directly from the small flaws and artisanal nature of their creation. Works like Amine Bekebir’s Varda table and stool in lacquered forex and varnished finish; Said Issadi’s Mante chair in resin, hemp rope and foam; Hamida Benmansour’s Cascade chair; or even Jamel Matari’s coffee table in thermoforming black corion, all have a place in the most sophisticated, minimalist homes or offices, but unlike the sleek, heartless machine-produced designs of their developed-world peers, these works retain a quirky charm that lend them a warmth only a human hand could produce.
Other works, like Idir Messaoud’s Bee speakers in epoxy, resin and wood, deliberately and delightfully more playful and retro in inspiration. Pieces by the designer Yamo, such as his A La Folie chair in lacquered resin, likewise retain a fresh playfulness reminiscent of Miro. While works like Samir Hamiane’s ornate ceramic Quinquet lamp and Mohamed Ourrad’s traditionally woven baskets, POTY’1 and POTY’2, in copper and brass, are distinctly Middle Eastern in conception and creation.
When Zoubir began curating the exhibition his aim was to choose works that crossed borders and languages, and the pieces in the exhibition are chosen specifically with SA in mind. In certain instances, this has worked successfully. Pieces like Mourad Krinah’s American Sniper wallpaper, with a repeat print of the said sniper with a skeleton’s face speaks to an internationally understood perspective on the US’s involvement in the Middle East. But other works could have done well with an extensive written explanation to contextualise them. Works like Walid Bouchouchi’s P.L.O.T., which comprises a series of painted traffic cones with Arabic script, while bright and visually appealing, are rendered slightly confusing without an explanation of the political motive and context.
All in all, however, D’Zair Art & Craft A Johannesburg is a welcome introduction to a vibrant and inspiring North African design scene that brings a fresh perspective on all that African design can encompass.