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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Vibrant Africans dazzle across Europe

When an exhibition of African art and design travels from the Hayward Gallery to the Pompidou Centre, and African designers win coveted space at Milan's Salone del Mobile, and Selfridges devotes a window display to Afro-chic, you know you are witnessing a trend.

In London, the rising influence of Africa, not only in the worlds of art and fashion but also in interior design, has manifested itself in a series of events billed as Africa 05.

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By Rachel Spence Published: May 28 2005 03:00 found on Financial Times  

Its centerpiece was the Hayward show, Africa Remix, which featured 73 artists from 25 countries across the continent, plus African artists now living in Europe and North America. Now at the Pompidou, the show had a scope and diversity that left critics reeling but enchanted, and well-aware - if they weren't before - that there are no facile generalizations to be made about the "dark continent".

The African aesthetic is, arguably, more multi-faceted than its European counterpart. And, as shown at Africa Remix, it blurs the boundaries between art and design. Undeniably functional, for example, is the work of Malian Cheick Diallo, whose chairs and tables, woven from brightly colored nylon fishing thread, draw the eye with their shimmering, sinuous energy.

"We wanted to include furniture in the show because that split between disciplines is an unnatural distinction made primarily by western academic institutions," says Roger Malbert, the show's curator.

Objet trouvée is a powerful source of inspiration for Diallo and others. Take the work of the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. His wall-hangings - one of which made it to Selfridges - glow with the timeless hues of ancient mosaics and, from a distance, have the aspect of densely woven textiles. On closer inspection, they turn out to be made from bottle tops.

"The use of found objects is attractive because it confers history on works. It creates contradiction and a point of reflection," says Elizabeth Laloushek, artistic director of the October Gallery, which stocks Anatsui's work. His goal is to subvert the idea that Africa's poverty is inextricably linked to its design. "He uses European whisky bottles so he's recycling waste back to its own culture when he shows his work here," says Laloushek.

Many other African designers recycle out of necessity. "Some would love to have the materials and technology accessible to the west but they have no choice," says Taslim Martin, a designer born in London to a Nigerian father and St Lucian mother, who has traveled extensively in west Africa.

Martin is one of eight contributors of African origin - four born in the UK and four from Africa - taking part in Mixed Belongings, a Crafts Council exhibition. Among the works are Deptford-based Shirley-Ann Dixon's ethereal, semi-transparent textiles; spectacular, scorched canvases from South African Sandile Zulu, who is also at the October gallery; baskets woven from palm-leaf strands into picture stories by Botswana weaver Gabatsholwe Ntwe; and graceful vessels adorned with Arabic calligraphy from Tunisian ceramicist Khaled ben Slimane.

As with the Africa Remix show, such eclecticism defies trite stereotypes. "My African heritage gives me greater ­creative freedom," says Martin. "Beyond that I would say there is no consensus on what makes work stylistically African."

His pieces include an aluminium stool, inspired equally by traditional West African forms and the high-end bodywork techniques of car manufacturers such as Ferrari.

Another piece, Interlocutor, consists of an interlocking tile panel made from Corian, a quintessentially western material. "The only African element here is the piece's name which provokes a conversation about whether or not it's African," Martin says. "And it can be heard as interlocketer which reminds people both of its form and of my mixed heritage."

For many African designers there is a strong link between their contemporary work and traditional African crafts and this evolution will be on full display at another London event, the HALI fair of carpets, textiles and tribal art, next month. Eighty dealers from around the world will show antique pieces ranging from an early 20th­century Ethiopian chair to tribal masks, kilims and tapestries.

Among them will be textile and rug specialist Alan Marcuson, whose Kuba Mabyeen mats, woven from split raffia and wrapped with bamboo by Congo craftsmen in the mid-20th century, work either as floor-coverings or wall-screens thanks to their satisfyingly heavy weave and austere geometrics.

Marcuson concedes that the rise of contemporary African design means that one can now buy similar items from mainstream stores. But his client base, which includes many interior designers, remains solid.

"We're appealing to discriminating buyers who appreciate the subtlety and authenticity of earlier textiles," he says. "These were handmade by people who would then use them themselves. That provenance gives them quite a different feel from things made directly for [the western] market."

Outside the UK, continental Europe is now also rapidly welcoming the wave of sub-Saharan designers (North African work has long been in vogue). During the Salone week in Milan, the travelling exhibition Design Made in Africa was granted space at the Triennale, the Italian equivalent of London's Design Museum. Featuring work from 29 contributors from all over the continent, including Diallo, the exhibition can be seen at the Design Academy in Eindhoven from May 24 to June 8.

Among the highlights are nests of tables and chairs from Senegalese Babacar Niang that stretch zebra leather, encrusted with monitor lizard, over wrought iron, creating a sublime silhouette, simultaneously frail yet intensely powerful. Equally stunning are Dominique Petot's chairs and divans, braided from nylon fishing line with sides that arc outwards in extravagantly fluid curves.

Niang, Petot, Diallo, El Anatsui and several other African designers are stocked by Milanese gallerist Rossana Orlandi, who counts Rosita Missoni among her clients and says that buyers of her African works range from architects and interior designers to writers and theatrical personalities.

"We are seeing a turn away from western minimalism," she says. But it is not total rejection. "The beauty of these pieces is that they also work well within a minimalist interior. They are strong and true and people have a need for that at the moment."

Another good source for African design is the Trois A gallery in the Marais district of Paris, where customers including Naomi Campbell and Peter Gabriel look for primarily west African pieces.

Leading lights here include Niang and the remarkable Senegalese talent Baay Xaay Sene - also at Orlandi - whose sculptural furniture soldered from petrol cans and stained with deep, dense colour has enticed Christian Lacroix, among others. BXS, as he is usually known, died last year but his brother is continuing his work.

Inevitably, when buying African work, tricky issues of exoticisation rear their head. Can a western eye ever appreciate the work's value beyond being a counterpoint to the European aesthetic? Raimi Gbadamosi, curator of Mixed Belongings, has a succinct response.

"Of course, there is anelement of exoticisation, but that doesn't invalidate the purchasing," he says. "The greater inroads into the mainstream, the better."

'I HAVE THIS ZEBRA WITH HIS HEAD THROUGH THE WINDOW AND MY PARROT IS BUSY EATING MY CIGAR'

"You must visit us," Patrick Mavros insists, his voice booming across the line from his home outside Harare to my London office. "This environment is a huge thing - very involved with what I do and how I do it. Right now I have this zebra with his head through the window, and my parrot is busy eating my cigar."

Soon, no doubt, Mavros will be sketching these creatures and recreating them - in intricate detail - as wax cast moulds, then as his signature silver sculptures, desk accessories and tabletop pieces.

he Zimbabwe-born artist may be a world traveller with a new flagship store in London, but he relies on Africa for his inspiration, and he is eager for everyone else to see why.

"This is where I breathe life into what I make," he says. "I've had clients all over the world - Europe, America, the Middle East - and I consider it a great privilege when people come through the bush to see me. They meet my family, they meet my animals, they meet the people who work with me, and they enjoy our hospitality."

Of course, not everyone can travel to Mavros' bungalow, so the artist has tried to bring a bit of his African home into his more accessible Chelsea store.

"Even the construction was an African experience," he says. "It was all done by Kenyans, and we'd all have meals together." Prints of life-size elephants covered the site hoarding during construction and, just before the store opened in December, a large print of an African sunset with text inviting passers-by to come in was put up.

The completed store, now run by Mavros' son Alexander, is "uncluttered, clean and spacious" in spite of its city location. "We brought furniture from our home, art from our home, ostrich eggs from our land. Children are allowed. Hounds are allowed. There's no snobbery."

Mavros says that his timing had little to do with the recent surge in European demand for all things African. "We have this great revival every few years," he says. Instead, the store opening was "typical Patrick Mavros spontaneity".

"I needed another selling point outside Africa and I wanted to take to London the experience of the environment that I live in. It's this great continent of intrigue and tribes and wild animals and open spaces [but also] a place to relax. The hospitality, the welcome. When people walk in [to the store] they should feel cool, at home. Where can I sit? Where can I relax? That's most important."

Patrick Mavros, +44 (0)20 7052 0001, www.patrickmavros.com

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