The single story of African design

A new book highlights African innovation, challenging dominant perceptions of the continent.

Tapiwa Matsinde’s book, Contemporary Design Africa, challenges perceptions of African creativity by focusing on design and innovation on the continent. Tapiwa Matsinde is a British-Zimbabwean designer, creative business consultant, blogger and writer. Her book is attempting to push back against the single story” of African art. The aim of the book is to challenge the standard imagery of “wooden statues, masks, animal prints, tribal markings, safari chic, ebony and ivory, and earth tones,” revealing a fluid, dynamic and unpredictable creative economy, in places as diverse as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali. Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s popular TED talk, Matsinde’s volume celebrates novel approaches to design throughout the continent.

Through photographs and text, Contemporary Design Africa considers a selection of intricate, colourful and sustainably produced decorative objects. Matsinde focuses especially on basketry, ceramics, metalwork, woodcarving, weaving and textiles, fashioned from materials such as beads, raffia, shells, embroidered textiles, leather, ivory, metals and bamboo, among others. Aside from extolling the objects, Matsinde emphasizes the originality and imagination of African artisans. To cite one example, she considers textiles by Henoc Maketo of Design Maketo, which draw inspiration from the multi-layered motifs and effervescent colour palettes of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Maketo specializes in screen-printing and uses old and new print techniques to produce his designs. In 2011 he won the prestigious New Design Britain, Fabrics Award at Interiors Birmingham.

Design Maketo.

Similarly the Cape Town based textile company, Shine Shine, produces funky and playful designs for a youthful audience. Shine Shine was founded in 2007 by Tracy Rushmere. The distinct aesthetic is the result of the partnership between Rushmere and South African graphic designer Heidi Chisholm. The textiles are inspired by anything from barbershop signs found across the continent to religious cloths. The premise of the collaboration was to create designs that celebrated African artisanship. Shine Shine’s products range from clothing to interior accessories. The designs appeal to the transnational hipster aesthetic.

Conventionally, African craftspeople have remained anonymous to international audience members; Matsinde’s book joins others who have been working to ameliorate this situation. One only has to think of the work of Bongiwe (Bongi) Dhlomo. Her piece entitled “Artist Unknown: At the End of the Day” is a critique on the continual dismissal of African artists in the international art market and gallery space. African artisanship has been relegated to the periphery of mainstream art production, which has led to its seeming non-existence in the international art market (although work by Africans certainly looks large in the international curio trade). One only has to go to an art museum to locate the absence of African artists. Expanding the framework suggests there are more possibilities for African art and artists. Matsinde’s volume recognizes that African artists are adept at providing decorative objects that are functional, beautiful and timely. Matsinde does this in part by focusing instead on nations, materials and contexts to help her audience understand the relationship of these forms to their ‘traditional’ forebears. 

Shine Shine.

Through novel applications of ‘traditional’ styles Matsinde drives home the implicit point that African art and design has always changed, developed and grown anew.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.