BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 23 APR 15
Featured in
Issue 171

International Style

Design, architecture and optimism in postcolonial Africa

BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 23 APR 15

Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan, by Heinz Fenchel and Thomas Leitersdorf architects, 1962–70; photographed by Iwan Baan in 2013

Amongst the photocopy bureaus, internet cafes, rubber-stamp makers and roadside booksellers jostling for custom along Tom Mboya Street, one of central Nairobi’s main avenues, is a music store named Melodica. The glass-fronted retail space, which neighbours Beauty Plus College (‘Your beauty is our duty ... Yes, we care!’), is announced with a sign spelling out the store’s name in red cursive lettering and the phrase ‘gramophone records’ below. Proprietor Abdul Karim’s shop traces its history back to a music production and distribution business founded by his father, P.L. Daudia, in 1968, and has been at its current address since 1971. Inside, half of Melodica’s floor space is devoted to musical instruments – keyboards, guitars, drums and tambourines – while the remainder of the shop is occupied by cassettes and CDs, many by Kenyan and Congolese musicians active in the city during sub-Saharan Africa’s optimistic independence years.

That optimism – which kicked off in 1957 with Ghana’s independence and faced its first serious test of resolve with the oil and financial crises of the 1970s – is the subject of two complementary exhibitions at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery in Weil am Rhein, in southern Germany. ‘Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design’ (until 13 September) surveys the work of more than 120 mostly contemporary artists, photographers, architects and designers. Of course, brightly coloured wax-print fabrics feature prominently, notably in Omar Victor Diop’s eye-catching photographs, as do artists whose practices transform the leftovers of urban consumer living. The show includes one of Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s sculptures, made of discarded screw-top caps from whiskey, gin and rum bottles, and a selection of Nairobi sculptor Cyrus Kabiru’s rough-hewn wearable eyewear pieces, which he calls ‘C-Stunners’, that he has been making since his early childhood.

‘I give the trash a second chance,’ says Kabiru, a 2013 TED Global Fellow, of his use of cast-off materials. The artist has honed a distinctive pitch, claiming: ‘We need to move from selling poverty to selling creativity.’ Kabiru’s statement capably summarizes curator Amelie Klein’s intention with her exhibition. While ‘Making Africa’ doffs its cap at older figures, such as the late Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez, whose fantastical, three-dimensional cityscapes first came to international attention in Jean-Hubert Martin’s watershed 1989 exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in Paris, this Vitra-sponsored showcase is chiefly about sub-Saharan Africa’s polyphonic present and aims to cast a spotlight on the continent’s tech-savvy youth culture. In Nairobi, this includes bands like the electronic ensemble Just a Band and pop trio KIU, who recorded the promotional video for their second single ‘Mwanake’ (2014) in Karim’s store.

In his catalogue essay for Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi’s 2013 retrospective at Tate Modern, art historian and curator Salah M. Hassan argues that: ‘The intersection of the visual arts and decolonization constitutes an important defining moment of modernism in Africa as a whole.’ I don’t doubt this, although I personally think that music – which is less elitist, more mobile and more perpetually shape-shifting than art – offers a better lens through which to chart the arc of modernism as a proletarian experience in postcolonial Africa. Cologne architect Manuel Herz prefers the lens of architecture. Herz, whose exhibition ‘The Architecture of Independence: African Modernism’ runs in parallel to ‘Making Africa’ at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery until 31 May, is interested in how various sub-Saharan African states ‘adapted and adopted a mode of architectural expression – modernism – and made it partially their own’. Herz’s project hones in on international-style architecture produced in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Zambia in the years immediately preceding and after these countries gained independence from colonial rule.

‘The Zambian National Assembly in Lusaka, the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Nairobi, the US Embassy in Accra or the Hôtel Ivoire in Abidjan do not appear among the main references when thinking about late-modernist buildings of the 1960s and 1970s,’ writes Herz in African Modernism (2015), the book accompanying his exhibition. ‘They should!’ he concludes. ‘They represent an architectural oeuvre of outstanding quality, which has been forgotten and ignored, until today.’ Karim’s store does not feature amongst the 50 or so buildings studiously documented by photographers Iwan Baan and Alexia Webster. There is, however, a direct link between Melodica, which is equal parts economic hub and modernist musical archive, and the cultural moment anatomized by Herz: many of the musicians associated with the store, including the Congolese rumba legends Franco and Tabu Ley, played at the nearby UFO-shaped nightclub on Koinange Street featured in Herz’s book.

Cheick Diallo, Fauteil Sansa bleu chairs, 2011, featured in the ‘Making Africa’ exhibition; Courtesy the artist

Elevated by a lone central column, the floating structure formed part of the modernist headquarters of the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) – a trim office block with alternately hooded windows. However, from the late 1960s until its demolition last year, KTDA’s annex structure – and there are more than a few of these architectural oddities illustrated in Herz’s book – was a popular nightclub. Known at various times as Arcadia, Bonanza, New Florida Nightclub, Sahara, Sal Davis Night Spot and latterly as Chai House, in its early days especially it played local benga music, Afro-Caribbean calypso and Congolese rumba – the sound­track of post-independence. The venue was designed by the local practice of Hughes and Polkinghorne. Dorothy Hughes, a transplanted British woman, trained at London’s Architectural Association, was East Africa’s first female architect. She is best known for her design of Nairobi’s Cathedral of the Holy Family (1960), a dazzling modernist icon with Carrara marble detailing and patterned stained-glass windows that, by day, flood the interior space with psychedelic colours.

The use of non-figurative glass decoration is similarly noticeable in the Zimbabwe-born, South Africa-trained architect Ian Reeler’s stone-clad Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Cross (1962) in Lusaka. Both churches predate Kenyan and Zambian independence and, like many of the buildings profiled by Herz, were fashioned in concrete, a progressive new building material linked to an ostensibly pan-global style. Architectural modernism was ‘never neutral’ insists Herz: ‘It mostly originated in the schools and offices of Europe and the us from where it was carried around
the globe through architectural (and economic) export.’ It was enthusiastically received in sub-Saharan Africa for a variety of reasons, notably the lack of indigenous architects.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s first school of architecture outside of South Africa was established in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1957. Much in the way Chinese, Portuguese and North Korean architects are updating urban Africa at present, a host of architects from France, Norway, Poland and the uk stepped into the postwar breach. They included Henri Chomette, a prolific French architect whose buildings were heralded as symbols of national unity by leaders such as Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Herz is aware of the contradictions of patronage. His essay begins with a discussion of V.S. Naipaul’s scathing rebuke, in his 1979 novel A Bend in the River, of the extent to which post-independence presidential ambition was often welded to an architectural programme. He is, however, also aware of the need to create a document against forgetting, and to show a ‘normalized’ view of urban Africa where office buildings, schools, universities, libraries, hospitals, conference centres, museum spaces and the odd eccentricity – a floating dancehall – are routinely used for everyday human endeavours.

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.