Art exhibitions are curated, both in the work they feature and the viewer’s path through the physical space. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and someone has decided what the visitor sees at each point along the way. Until fairly recently, music worked that way too, with an album’s tracks playing in a predetermined order. But when digital music came along, a newly randomizable experience presented itself. Why not apply a similar approach to art exhibitions as well?
The Colours of Africa, an online digital exhibition of work by 60 African artists from the continent’s 54 countries, is based upon the idea of a kaleidoscope where each artist’s contribution is represented by a facet of color. In its non-linear, non-hierarchical structure, no one comes first or last. Creatives from a wide range of disciplines (architecture, painting, ceramics, writing, engineering, and the performing arts) were invited to select a color and create an original piece of art that would represent their country as well as express on a personal level what it means to be African.
The interface’s randomized navigation tool gives each visitor a unique path through the art and gives all the contributors an equal chance to be seen. There is a pleasing element of surprise for the viewer as they click around the color wheel, exploring the art in a playful and serendipitous way.
The project was designed by typographer/designer Noel Pretorius and his partner, digital strategist Elin Sjöberg, in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and Design Indaba. “The concept came from the idea of seeing the world through a number of different lenses or viewpoints and how these stories together create a larger tale of the multifaceted continent of Africa,” Sjöberg said.
The project began in 2020, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. “We used the idea of the randomized kaleidoscope to break away from the strictly linear existence we all experienced during the pandemic,” Pretorius said. “You’d get up in the morning, get a cup of coffee, get onto Zoom…it was a very linear way of being. We were looking for a way to do something in the digital world that was inspired by physical art, yet would provide a new experience every time.”
The interface’s visual appeal is enhanced by the letterforms of Movement, Pretorius’ African dance-inspired variable typeface that mirrors the triangular shapes of the kaleidoscope’s rays.
Google Arts and Culture reached out to partner with Design Indaba as a way to include African art in its online collection of work from large institutions around the world. Design Indaba’s Ravi Naidoo and Priyah Pillay in turn reached out to Pretorius, who’d spoken at the 2019 Design Indaba conference. Their collaboration was inspired by his 2008 project Them-and-Us, which paired 20 European and 20 African visual artists, designers, illustrators and photographers to address the broad themes of tolerance and intolerance.
“Them-and-Us was a labor of love,” Pretorius said. “Where that project came short was that although we wanted to curate work from all over Africa, it was so hard to reach artists in remote areas that most of the contributors ended up being from South Africa.”
This required the team to get creative. “For Colours, Ravi and the team at Design Indaba had already done the hard work of sourcing amazing talent from the entire continent!” Pretorius continued. “It was more or less two years from start to finish. Additionally, each artist was paid $500, so everyone who contributed was commissioned.”
To find artists in smaller countries where Design Indaba didn’t already have a footprint, such as Guinea-Bissou, they interviewed creatives who already had a history with the organizations and asked them for new leads. Many of these artists are entirely self-taught, as their countries don’t have art institutions or design schools.
“Colours of Africa is deeply rooted in exalting African design and creativity, and finding artists across the continent who exemplify these qualities was paramount to the selection process,” Pillay said on curating the exhibit. The Design Indaba team made sure the show’s perspectives covered a wide range of the gender spectrum and were careful not to edit any individual point of view.
“We offered creative guidance, but did not censor or steer the artists’ messages,” she continued. “Choosing narratives aligned to the intent of the project was an important part of the selection process. We also paid close attention to diversity and inclusivity, making sure we gave underrepresented groups a fair chance to participate.”
“To be African today is to have a very particular position in a world in which your culture and your identity is undermined, undervalued and considered to be unimportant,” Gabonese photographer Yannis Davy Guibinga said in a statement for the show’s site. “Being African is knowing that, despite the world’s misconceptions, you have a deep understanding of your story, your heritage, the wealth of your culture and the strength and pride of your ancestors.”
Pillay agreed. “Truthfully, I do think Africa is often overlooked as a creative powerhouse,” she said. “It’s been a slow burn for art and design but things are definitely heating up. We are not reliant on outsiders telling our stories; we have the means and platforms to share them in first person with the world. African artists are trending on Spotify globally, we have fashion designers featured at international fashion weeks, we have directors staking their claim at the Academy Awards, and the list goes on.”
The innovative design and inclusive structure of Colours of Africa presents the art world with a complex, eye-opening experience of what it means to be African, shaped directly by the artists who live there. The project radiates a feeling of love and pride in heritage as it illuminates a range of vivid cultural narratives.