Portraying Africa: Questions about Identity, Design and Identity Design
As a designer who happens to be African, I am often confronted with the question of how to portray Africa and 'African-ness'. Most of us can now agree that Africa is about more than starving poor children and animals but, there still seems to be a narrow expectation of what African design will entail. Often it's bright colours, earthy textures and 'tribal' shapes or, better yet, the silhouette of the continent! While these elements can indeed result in elegant solutions, my personal mission is to expose people to fresh and unexpected ways of presenting Africa. So where do you start?
A few questions and debates come to mind:
- Should the design of a thing reflect where it originates? For example: if I'm designing a car and I happen to be in Kenya, does the outcome have to look and feel Kenyan?
- What constitutes African anyway? Is it to do with where something is made, who makes it, what it's about or something else altogether? Is a film about Russia, which has been made by an African, an African film?
In working with the Film Africa team to design the festival's visual identity, the Asilia team and I explored these lines of enquiry.
Making it African
An African film festival in a European country had to have a visual identity that hinted at the geographic context that unites the selection of films. But how to portray this in a new way? The words of Zimbabwe-born designer Chaz Maviyane-Davies come to mind:
“It’s about breaking down and finding the inherited, mythically infused iconography and then rebuilding it in order to fit the feeling and nature of where we are now. The tone, rhythm and depth of our identity is special and can be used to talk to each other today. And we have to use that visual language to slowly try to bring some of our personality and presence into the design arena.”
As much as a good graphic designer should be able to produce work that expresses the personality of the client, I do agree with Maviyane-Davies that there is still room for the designer to also bring something of themselves to it. Whether that is to do with their origin and cultural influences or to do with other idiosyncrasies.
The challenge with the festival was how to draw upon recognisable film iconography, give it an African twist and also speak of the vibrant cosmopolitan city that would host it. How to ensure that the communications convey a certain energy that will intrigue, engage and excite Africans and non-Africans alike.
Making it complicated
The next challenge was articulating this African-ness. Creating the visual identity for a festival that covers an entire continent means choosing symbols to represent 54 diverse countries and thousands of different cultures. From the deserts of North Africa to rainforests in the Congo; from thriving metropoles like Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg to tiny rural dwellings in mountains, savannahs and islands; from Islam and Christianity to indigenous religions; thousands of languages in the mix. In short, this was not a small feat!
Fortunately, our idea for the Film Africa logo presented an opportunity for us to draw upon inspiration from various art and craft traditions from across Africa, experimenting with putting various disparate elements together to create something totally new. An exercise - in contrast, integration and transformation – that reflects many of the stories that will be seen on screen during the festival.
In fact, in the same way that my personal mission is to portray Africa, through creativity, in a different light – the selection of films at this year's Film Africa festival seems set to do just that. I'm particularly looking forward to the films that will challenge presumptions about the things that Africans in different environments and circumstances (including those outside the continent) are concerned with. Portraying a continent, people and communities that are, in many ways, just like people and communities elsewhere in the world and at the same time, showing just how diverse and complex Africa, Africans and our experiences are.
Lulu Kitololo is co-founder of Asilia, who work with Film Africa to deliver all elements of our online and print design. Visit them here: http://www.weareasilia.com/