What is the Future of African Design? Aaron Kohn, Director of the Johannesburg’s Museum of African Design, Weighs In
Aaron Kohn assumed the role of director of the Museum of African Design (MOAD) back in 2013, just one year after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in African Studies. Kohn founded African Lookbook in 2012 as a distributor within the United States for up and coming African designers, before moving to Johannesburg and diving into the development of MOAD. On the occasion of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Kohn shared with us a bit about the museum’s (young) history, the rejuvenation of Johannesburg and the Maboneng Precinct, and the constantly evolving study and presentation of African Art.
Artsy: The Museum of African Design opened in Johannesburg one year ago to the month. What have been some of the highlights from this last year’s exhibitions and programs? And can you talk about current and upcoming shows?
Aaron Kohn: “Native Nostalgia” was our second exhibition (November 2013 through February 2014), and it was a milestone for MOAD, because we brought artists’ and designers’ work from across the continent to South Africa for the first time. Much of what is being produced on the continent goes straight to galleries and exhibitions in Europe and North America; it’s practically easier to follow what transpires in African art from London, Paris, or New York, than from any city in Africa.
Our upcoming exhibition, “Temporary but Permanent: Projects,” highlights one of the great multi-disciplined events on the continent: the Douala Biennale in Cameroon, known as Doual’art. As a commission for the Tate, Stephen Hobbs and Marcus Neustetter facilitated and then recorded a fashion show in one of the poorer quarters of Douala. Using “real” Cameroonians and average hair stylists and tailors—no models or haute couture—a street became a runway, and the intervention transformed a whole neighbourhood. Doual’art is all about public interventions, and as urbanization in African cities becomes explosive, the ideas around common space, architecture, and urban planning develop more relevance.
Artsy: MOAD is located in the newly developed Maboneng Precinct, South Africa’s first neighborhood dedicated to art and design. Could you speak a bit about the area’s culture and inspirations, as well as its mission within the larger community? Who have been the main drivers of this development?
AK: The Maboneng Precinct has become an example to the world of what the future of South Africa—only 20 years after democracy—can look like. After 1994, downtown Johannesburg became a “no-go” zone because of violence and abandonment. South Africa’s cities became abandoned, while suburban enclaves flourished behind security walls and electric fences. In 2007, a number of people started thinking about how to live in the city again, and as in many gentrified areas, the first to jump on board were artists; namely William Kentridge and his printers at David Krut Studio. Since then, galleries, studios, the Goethe Institut, Columbia University, restaurants, and luxury apartments have popped up in the neighbourhood. The Sunday fancy food market at Arts on Main is a must-see for tourists and a destination for suburbanites. As Columbia’s Studio X, David Adjaye and his students, and countless others come to visit, hopefully there can be discourse about how re-appropriating old buildings and using a found environment can succeed.
Artsy: MOAD’s building was once a mining-related factory and, more recently, a garage for car repairs. In what ways does the structure’s history play into the museum’s own design and character?
AK: David Adjaye opened the museum in October of 2013 and noted that a factory is the perfect place for a design museum, as things have to be designed to be made (and vice versa!). Most notably, MOAD’s tall ceilings and lack of white walls has forced curators to rethink the idea of an exhibition. It seems fitting to have space to walk around 3D objects and erect three-story structures, as it is a design museum, but it has the tendency to make most things feel small. What’s fun is that the space really requires us to create a different experience for every project. We’ve also held a roller disco, 1,000+ people openings, movie shoots, and concerts. People have come through the doors and been exposed to our exhibitions for lots of different reasons.
Artsy: As Africa’s first museum dedicated to design, what do you see as the future of both MOAD and design in general on the continent?
AK: The concept of a design field/industry in Africa is relatively new, in a naive way. For example, African art was considered ethnography, until the 1920s. In that decade, the Brooklyn Museum decided to call their collection of African ethnographic objects from the Rockefeller family, “Art.” Of course, nothing really had changed, but the way [researchers studied] the objects changed, and [the objects] were presented and understood differently. Design may be the next step in the same progression. It requires us to begin anew with research. Our exhibitions don’t often come from galleries or collectors. Instead, we often have to contact designers or companies and conduct interviews and do a lot of the research that would normally already exist. We are in the midst of creating a platform on which to archive all of this research (and support more).
Artsy: What aspects of the 1:54 fair are you most excited about?
AK: It’s really awesome to see 1:54 continue to gain momentum after its first year. The more opportunities that exist to exhibit and sell, the more artists and designers make it onto the global stages; the more buying gets done, the more new work gets created. A great aspect of 1:54, of course, is [that it is located in] London, and so there will be a great group of attendees. The Forum of talks and discussions (the “education wing”) is featuring some really great people from around the world who will be exciting to have in conversation with one another.