“Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design” is one of the largest exhibitions ever to reside temporarily at the Blanton Museum of Art.
It unpacks a dizzying array of more than 200 objects made by more than 120 artists from 22 countries in the widest conceivable range of patterns from the world’s second-largest continent.
One piece early in the show, in fact, demonstrates how much of the rest of the world could fit into the outline of an African map. Forget, if you can, your standard Mercator projection maps, which, in order to stretch a globe conceptually onto a flat surface, exaggerate the size of countries near the poles — Russia, Greenland, Canada and others — and reduce the scale of Africa.
This gargantuan exhibition, which continues at the University of Texas through Jan. 6, is also unusually horizontal.
Most art at the Blanton hangs from walls. Since “Making Africa” includes furniture, decor, apparel and other three-dimensional objects, it is staged around clusters of shelves, recalling a high-end retail outlet. The contrast between the sophistication of the spatial arrangements — which also convey subtle relationships among the objects — and the rawness of some of the street art and photography can be jarring at times.
The show is also extremely electronic. Visitors continually face screens or ingeniously designed listening devices. Indeed, the exhibition, which originated at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum and Spain’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, came with its own traveling installation technicians, and one can see why.
“Making Africa” is also extraordinarily thick. While much emphasis is placed on the continent’s shifting identities, activism and consciousness — especially the perennial rejection or embrace of colonialism’s remnants — what remains in the mind’s eye days after a tour are the intense colors, dense designs and inventively manipulated, often recycled materials.
Perhaps because it reflects the way that design insinuates itself into every part of life, “Making Africa” has already attracted a steady stream of visitors.
“Design shows are always popular for us,” says Blanton managing curator Claire Howard. “Austin is a creative, young city. People relate to designed objects when given the opportunity. ‘Birth of the Cool’ was probably our most popular of all time.”
What is clear the moment one walks into the downstairs galleries at the Blanton: An increasingly urbanized and electronically connected Africa is going to surprise the visitor at every turn.
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We learn about the gentrification in African cities, resource management and the use of sustainable materials, and informal economies through a series of websites, videos and apps. DIY series such as “My Africa Is” and “Slum TV” give people in relatively hidden communities, rather than outsiders, the means to document their lives.
Twists on Western art, traditional ideas of masculinity, sexual identity and countless subcultural variations abound. Where else can one glimpse images of the hipster elite of Dakar, Senegal, or the trend of Afro-Futurism, or a youth culture where partying is a political act? Colonialism pops up again and again, revealed, for instance, in samples of wittingly revived Dutch wax fabric, which closely resembles batik.
In a darkened corner of the museum, one can view short films, including one on Gambia’s space program and another that appears to be Kenya’s first sci-fi film.
Light boxes on one full wall show every door, window and television of a history-making high rise. Across from these sleek boxes are rough works made by street crafters whose art was never intended to be seen in a formal space such as a museum.
So richly layered is “Making Africa” that you’ll want to turn around and see it all again.