22.06.2012 - 24.06.2012
Dwell on Design
L.A. Convention Center
1201 South Figueroa Street
Layered Identities - Fusing cultural heritage into individual creativity
An exhibition by the British European Design Group, London, UK as part of its three-year African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora Initiative.
Stand Design: Karin-Beate Phillips, Gary March
In a world of global work opportunities, transportation and communication, many people choose to leave their birthplaces and their present homes to relocate themselves to new countries, cultures and environments. Yet, wherever they go for whatever personal reason they take a knowledge of the culture and identity of themselves and their ancestry with them. And they will most likely pass this on to their children and grandchildren to make of it what they like. Even if they marry into a foreign culture and identity, the children are likely to inherit both - those of the mother and those of the father - ranging from language to history, from religion to the more general aspects of moral principles, legal structures and social behaviour codes and patterns. .
But what would their identities and cultural heritage be, if they had little or no knowledge of their actual origins?
With regard to human creativity, this situation covers a whole spectrum of related issues. Foremost among them the question, whether or not something like a ‘genetic footprint’, a hidden DNA in natural creativity actually exists? And if so, can this be suppressed, modified or even totally overlaid by environment, education and socio-economic conditions and pressures?
To find at least some clues if not an answer to this, I initiated the three year ‘African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora’ Programme in 2010. Having worked for more than four decades in the creative industries worldwide, I have long been aware of what I can only describe as a genetic ‘red thread’ in visual aesthetics and thought processes, which seems to be more prevalent in certain regions and among certain races of the globe than in others.
Obviously colour, material and shape preferences also largely depend on the availability of raw materials, tools and manufacturing expertise as well as specific daily needs, especially when it comes to functional objects. But none of this explains conclusively, how it is possible that a British born and British university trained designer of African or African-Caribbean descent comes up with almost identical choices in colour, pattern and shape as the rural craftsman or –woman in a remote corner of an African or Caribbean country, who have never been to any Western world country, do not understand any of our languages and have no means of accessing modern communication technologies.
It is a truly fascinating question, why a British artist/designer of African-Caribbean origin creates a very distinct pattern in a very specific colour, the equivalent of which has been used for centuries by a West African people, whose ancestors were once seafaring fishermen and used these signs as methods of navigation. And although the actual significance of these patterns has long been forgotten even by their own people as colonial frontiers have barred their access to the sea and despite the fact that the pattern is not a generally well known ethnic design in the Western World, it has miraculously found its way into the design language of someone, who has never been to these parts of Africa and never met any of these craftsmen.
This raises another question, i.e. if and to what extent modern life and a western world higher academic education can influence, shape, manipulate or – in the worst case scenario - even destroy indigenous creativity based on individual origins and turn it into what is commonly described as ‘global interface’ devoid of any cultural identity and heritage.
The general answer is that it can and does in many cases, where the western approach to art and design is so overpowering that the final design solution or work of art could have come from anyone anywhere. This may not be because the individual artist or designer actually ‘feels’ like this. Rather the perception of what is required to succeed in the marketplace or is appropriate in a certain interpretation of a cultural environment have resulted in the ‘creative adjustment’ to those perceived requirements.
Yet, if the same artists and designers are freed from these environmental restrictions and allowed to design, interpret and shape in accordance with their instincts, some of the aesthetic forces originating from backgrounds long forgotten seem to take over to result in the most inspired manifestations of originality fusing the resources and choices of modern life with the authenticity of indigenous creativity.
In the case of the present exhibition the extraordinary strength of the immediate visual impact and emotional depth of the individual pieces bear witness to the intense power and directness of black creativity – with or without academic training – even when the basic materials for these stunning works of art are parts of discarded furniture, breeze blocks from the construction industry, tree trunks destined for pulping, abandoned forklift palettes picked up during a trade show, waste chicken feathers, deconstructed fabrics and a black fringe from a flea market in London. Every one of the exhibited pieces is a vivid proof that centuries of material and educational deprivation in their homelands or in the diaspora have not been able to weaken the indigenous creative strength so apparent in the different expressions of art and functional objects of the peoples of the African continent.