The Global Africa Project. By Naomi Beckwith, Judith Bettelheim, Christopher Cozier,
Leslie King Hammond, Julie Lasky, José Julian Mapily, and Keith Recker. (Prestel:
Museum of Art and Design, 2010. 264 pp.).
The Global Africa Project written by Leslie King-Hammond and Lowery Stokes Sims is a book that provides an archival index for The Global Africa Project, an exhibition curated at The Museum of Art and Design in New York. In addition to providing an index on various works featured in the exhibition it also discusses the significance behind the show and the cultural, conceptual, and aesthetic importance of African diasporic design and the role it plays in society. The text specifically focuses on African based or Afocentric design and aesthetic and its relevance in our global world. The primary framework for the book is based on the exhibition, but it transcends the exhibition, exploring the links between Black artists and creatives across time and space.
The Global Africa project is an exhibition featuring artists and designers across that African diaspora that all intentionally or unintentionally relate to the theme of Afrocentrism or Africa as a framework of thought. The exhibition opened at the Museum of Art and Design featured on November 17, 2010 featured works from artists like, Nick Cave, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas and more. The show curated by Hammond and Sims is carefully curated to display parallels of design and aesthetics amongst artist working within the African diaspora.
Although the text and exhibition highlights a vast selection of African descended artists and designers there has been issues with representation of Black designers throughout history. Whitfield affirms this notion by discussing his experiences and observations in the design world. While attending New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in the late 1990’s Whitfield noticed that he was one of few African American designers. In addition, all of the designers participated in a discussion centered on Afrocentrism and the design marketplace; this conversation was closed and cut off from the rest of the fair providing a lack of community and inclusion around the discussion (62).
Whitfield, Hammond, and Sims discuss Africa not only as a continent, but also as a psychic space. Whitfield states: “Throughout my life, Africa has been more than a place. It has been a defining factor in my psyche, not always conscious but definitely influential, sometimes inspirational, sometimes troubling, for better or worse, a point of reference in my understanding of the culture I occupy” (62). In this quote Whitfield analyzed the way Africa functions as a physical space but also as a concept and idea, and how it relates to his body. Furthermore, Whitfield draws parallels between racial tensions in America to colonization and apartheid in the continent of Africa in the mid fifties. The lack of representation and resources for designers and the links between the African diaspora in terms of art, design but also conflicts and issues are important for a holistic understanding of the text.
Afrocentrism can be defined as an ideology that centers the Black body, in design that could relate to the quality, texture, color, medium and numerous other visual and conceptual aspects that exist in said works. The Global Africa Project showcases various works from artists working in a variety of mediums and concepts in an attempt to break down how these pieces function in a design sense, but also show the correlation between design aesthetics and concepts across countries and cultures. Kehinde Wiley (figure 1) is a painter that successfully merges art and design by utilizing decorative pattern and realistic portraiture. On the other hand, Zwelethu Mthethwa is a photographer that captures portraits of individuals with newspaper and pattern backgrounds to showcase the symbolic and spiritual purposes. Mthethwa captures her subjects in their home and connects this practice of interior design with Africans and African Americans. The subject matter in the foreground and pattern in the background technique is used in both of these pieces to create an environment that centralizes the figure around intricate designs. Wiley and Mthethwa are not the only Black artist working in this way, Ebony G. Patterson, a Jamaican painter and installation artist also uses complex patterns and textiles in her work. Although these artists come from completely different backgrounds there is still a commonality between their practice.
When analyzing the way Afrocentrism functions in design it is also important to analyze the ways logos have been used throughout history and contemporary culture. Adinkra symbols are visual symbols from the Ashanti ethnic group in Ghana, West Africa. These symbols can be back to as early 1818 found printed on cloth. These symbols carry profound meaning such as Sankofa, which is a bird looking back, which translates to: “Go back and get it”. In the present day Adinkra symbols are tattooed all over the bodies of members of the African Diaspora and there are films (such as Sankofa) that are made centralized around these visual symbols. Artist like Rachid Koraichi create work that explore the spiritual weight behind symbols in African Diasporic culture. Jordanian artist Wijdan states: “(Koraichi) focuses on the spiritual representation of objects and beings not on their material qualities.” Contemporary popular examples of branding include the Jonson Johnson, Prince, and Wu Tang Clan’s logo (18).
The Global Africa Project briefly covers architecture as another element of design that deserves more critical attention. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is a museum of African American art, history, and culture in Baltimore, Maryland. The conceptual vision for the architectural design of the museum is one meant to represent that pride, struggle and accomplishments of Maryland’s African American people. The building is dynamic with sharp angles and highly contrasting colors from the Maryland state flag (111). This text was written before the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was created but it is still important to expand on architecture and the similarities between the NMAAHC and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. The NMAAHC is a dynamic museum that also uses sharp angles and points; but instead of using color to represent the spirit of Black Americans it uses a very intricate interlaced pattern (similar to the backgrounds in Kehinde Wiley’s work). The architectural design of Black based cultural institutions is explored briefly in the text but it is still something that needs to be studied and developed.
The Global Africa Project is a book that explores the African aesthetic of visual art and design. The text critically analyzes work created by African descended people around the world; including graphic design, textiles, basket weavings, and even hair. It carefully and successfully finds links between artist such as the connection between Kim Schmahamann and Tony Whitfield’s work in how they both use texts, signs, and symbols to convey meanings (16). The parallels and conceptual study of Afrocentric or African centered work could be studied and explored for ages; because of this fact The Global Africa Project missed opportunities to dive in deeper into the nuanced and expansiveness of this work. For example Wu Tang Clan collaborated with artist Lina Viktor, as both are artists that utilize black and gold in their work (collaboration pictured in figure 3).
While acknowledging this connection one could also note that Yinka Shonibare and A$AP Rocky also use strong black and gold colors as an aesthetic choice. To dive in deeper Nina Simone, the famous singer, musician and activist, have an album titled “Black Gold”. In addition, Gold as a material, recourse jewel, and symbol has been important throughout history (For example: the Ashanti region in Ghana is well known for having gold as a natural recourse). This quick analysis extends the argument made in the text about the Wu-Tang Clan to the general understanding of how these color choices correlate with other artists, culture and history. It also acknowledges that the artist themselves understand the parallels between their work. The issue with the lack of depth in the text has less to do with the text itself and more to do with the lack of studies, books, and resources that generally cover Black art and design in depth.
The Global Africa Project is such a significant book in that it’s the beginning of studying, contextualizing, and understanding the way African diasporic visual art and design connects to one another. Both the exhibition and the text are powerful recourses in not only understanding African art but also how visual art and design move across time, space and culture.