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The Content of Design « MAD Blog
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The Content of Design

On Monday February 1, 2010 I ventured into the Javits Center here in New York City in the midst of the International Gift Fair. I was on a mission. I was meeting with Oumar Cisse (AKA Peace Corps Baba) from Mopti, Mali. I had learned about him and his work through Kristina Van Dyke, Curator for Collections and Research at the Menil Collection in Houston. We met at a dinner in New York for the new graduates of the Center for Curatorial Leadership Program. She was wearing a stunning shell necklace…you know the kind that you just want to rip off someone’s neck for yourself…..Sorry, lost myself for a moment there(!) . Even as a curator I rarely experience such visceral desire for things as I am surrounded everyday by scads of beautiful objects or images of them. This was a vision of mathematical sequencing in white shells which created an “upper-chest-plate” of extra-ordinary beauty.

Necklace by Oumar Cissé (AKA Peace Corps Baba). Collection of Kristina Van Dyke.

Kristina later emailed me to alert to the fact that Peace Corps Baba was exhibiting at the Javits Center along with fellow artists as part of the Africa Now! collection, a “collaboration of African enterprises, working in partnership with USAID’s West Africa Trade Hub and the Competitiveness and Trade Expansion Program (COMPETE) and Pangea Artisan Market & Café.”

Talking to Peace Corps Baba is like having a mini-course in African design theory in the space of a few minutes. What I came away from our meeting with was the fact that design in Africa very often has a specific cultural ethos behind it that both affirms and transcends the presumption of an “African aesthetic” (or rather African aesthetics). I had a similar insight during a recent conversation with my long-time friend, sculptor and designer Billy Omabegho, with whom I’ve recently re-connected here in New York City after his long-sojourn in his native Nigeria with his wife Ruth Omabegho. Billy has designed several pieces of furniture that take their form and applied design elements from traditional African ones. In Billy’s case we are talking about various chairs designs, and this fact provides then a reference point for their design and our comprehension of that design. And often contemporary African designers take these motifs and models from a variety of cultures within Africa so that there is a certain “global” perspective even within the continent.

Billy Omabegho, 'Table,' 1996.

Bide Table, Nigeria, Collection Billy and Ruth Omabegho.

This also is the case with the jewelry that Ruth Omabegho makes. She composes them from different metal or bead elements from different parts of Africa, or she casts shapes that refer to traditional designs and is meticulous is making us aware of the origins of all the components of her work. This allows us to suppose that some kind of collective occult aesthetic energy exists in these pieces.

Ruth Omabegho, 'Necklace #6193 B,' 2008.

In the previous blog post on this site, the Togo-born designer Kossi Aguessy, when asked by Tiana Evans about the “African-ness” of his design, replied: “I sincerely can’t define it. I know that it’s there every time I pick up a pencil, but I can’t point to any one thing about my work. Maybe it’s my acceptance and consideration of it that is significant.” And that is an apt description of how cultural aesthetics functions with the creators of much of the work we’re considering for The Global Africa Project.

Photos: Oumar Cissé necklace: Kristina Van Dyke
Billy Omabego and Ruth Omabegho: Gary Breckheimer

 

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  • bob Zellner

    I love the art and the persons of Ruth and Billy Omabegho.

    A fan and friend from Southampton.
    Bob Zellner

  • Irene T. Whalen

    I have known Oumar Cisse for a long time and have
    featured his works at my Zawadi Gallery in Washington, D.C. My customers love his beautiful
    pieces and look forward to seeing him whenever he
    comes to the states. I am very happy to see that he
    is getting due recognition for his talent.


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