ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Americans sometimes think of Africa as a single tribal, backward country of tremendous poverty and stunning landscapes.
This land mass of 54 countries and 2,000 languages boasts double the number of cellphones registered in the U.S., at 650 million.
Africa boasts a new generation of artists, technicians and otherwise creative thinkers whose innovative output suggests solutions for both themselves and the rest of the world.
“Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design” showcases these designers in an exhibition of 200 works opening at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, Feb. 3.
After its premiere at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the exhibition moved to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, then to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona before crossing the ocean to Atlanta’s High Museum and then to Albuquerque in a first-ever comprehensive overview of African design. The works span video, websites, fashion, furniture, photography and more.
“Africa is responding to the past but living in the present and looking to the future,” museum curator Andrew Connors said. “We were thrilled with this exhibit, because it is not an African tribal theme. ”
The startling steampunk eyeglasses of Kenya’s Cyrus Kabiru combine found objects (wire, metal and plastic) with contemporary design. Most feature grills instead of lenses. He calls them “C-Stunners.”
The artist created the spectacles with objects found on the street on the way to his studio. The series was inspired by his father, who fell out of love with his own glasses after receiving a beating from his parents for breaking them.
“In putting them on, it changes your view or perspective in what you see,” exhibition designer Stephen Hutchins said.
The artist’s childhood home faced a garbage heap where all of Nairobi’s waste was dumped.
In Kabiru’s hands, cast-aside bolts, wires, spoons and bottle tops gain a new lease on life as vital components of whimsical pieces of art.
More than 35 computer monitors will show videos of digital art, web design, artist interviews and digital games.
Pierre-Christophe Gam designed the website for Afro pop singer Taali M.
“He created this whole idealized African kingdom where she is the queen,” Connors said.
The website translates Taali M’s music – combining late ’80s pop rock, ska and ragga with traditional chants and rhythms from Africa – into a strong visual experience.
Mikhael Subostzky captured the underbelly of urbanization with his photograph of a deteriorating Johannesburg skyscraper. Shattered windows scar the structure like open sores.
“He photographs them in a way that almost looks like a ruin,” Connors said. “We tear buildings down and pretend we didn’t do this horrible urban renewal.”
Some parts of Africa have never known telephone lines. But a group of innovators has turned the prevalence of cellphones into a new form of e-commerce.
“In Kenya, a group of technical specialists have developed a program called M-pesa,” Connors said. The acronym joins the word ‘mobile’ with the Swahili word for money. Banks don’t exist in some of the country’s remote areas; the people are too poor to open an account. The program offers a form of money exchange that has climbed to 25 percent of Kenya’s gross national product.
“That income goes back into the community,” Connors said.
“These are all opportunities for us to reconsider our self-styled dominance in world creativity,” he said. “When you have four times the population in Africa, you’re probably going to have four times the creativity and innovation.”