A lot of people have asked me, what does it mean to be the Museum of African Design? What is ‘African’?” So says Aaron Kohn, founding director of MOAD in Johannesburg, the first museum within the African continent that’s dedicated to design.
And yet the question is a tricky one for Kohn, not only because he happens to be a young American from Cleveland, Ohio, but also because MOAD’s public mission statement is broad enough to incorporate pretty much everything and anything that could fall under the creative umbrella, design-specific or otherwise. Unlimited by race, history or geography, MOAD’s doors are open to exhibitions by both continent-based and diaspora artists using any artistic medium, which creates a prevailing sense that the museum is still finding its way in terms of its offering, as well as its specific Africanness within and beyond South Africa.
“There are a lot of young contemporary arts institutions in Africa doing great things, so I’m not sure how cool it is to say that we’re the first design museum on the continent,” says Kohn. “In fact, I’m arguing with myself about whether MOAD should stand for Museum of Arts Design or stay as the Museum of African Design.”
There are, however, indications that the museum is positioning itself as an ideal space for fresh African narratives via collaborations between new cultural bedfellows. Take, for example, last year’s D’Zair: Art and Craft A Johannesburg, the Arabic-, English- and French-titled design exhibit that was specifically conceptualized for the museum. Supported by the Agence Algérienne pour le Rayonnement Culturel and curated by renowned Algerian artist Hellal Zoubir, the exhibit brought 13 Algerian designers to MOAD for a three-month showing of their work.
A relatively rare cultural partnership, the exhibit’s significance stemmed from a long tradition of emotional and perhaps spiritual distance between the north and sub-Saharan regions. Traditionally, the five uppermost countries stretching from the western Sahara over to Egypt have long been painfully absent from most Africa-titled endeavors, and it’s fissures like this that can potentially strengthen MOAD’s position as a base station for syncing African creative activity in and beyond its own geographical borders. By fusing the north with the rest of Africa, through art, the venue can become a potent agent of change within the continent.
Very much a part of the thriving downtown Johannesburg cultural scene, the museum was officially launched in 2013, two years after Propertuity — the South African developers of the vibrant Maboneng Precinct — bought what was originally a 1930s Swiss-American mining factory.
Established as a space for leading creativity from around the continent, and a central African platform for showcasing and discussing design ideas, the museum’s directorship went to Kohn due to his successful founding of Africanlookbook.com — a virtual store that managed the distribution of the work of 30 U.S.-based African designers direct to international boutiques, museums and online customers.
As a non-curatorially-driven space, though, it’s MOAD’s eclectic board of directors — individuals representing retail, arts, academia, wine, hotels, fashion and software — that tends to select the programs in collaboration with artists or creative organizations.
Other past exhibitions include last year’s Think Global, Build Social, a touring display that explored themes of social responsibility in architectural design in Africa and other emerging economies. The Cape Town–based Southern Guild also showcased locally made, limited-edition art pieces from its gallery in South Africa’s coastal city.
One of its latest showcases, Unfinished City, refocused attention back on the museum’s home soil, featuring a series of mixed installations from literature and blueprints to models and artwork. There’s symbolism in the fact that the history of Johannesburg as a former mining town was presented within the old factory, with traces of the past still evident in the form of visible tracks on the original floor and sizeable cracks from fallen machinery.
The healthy footfall of tourists in the much-talked-about Maboneng Precinct means that the museum is capable of attracting visitors who are already inspired by art and design, but MOAD wants its reach to be broader, both within Johannesburg and indeed across the continent.
With that in mind, and sensing a shift in museums in and beyond Africa, Kohn says he’s excited by the prospect of opportunities for pop-up exhibits and spreading design thinking to more communities. “MOAD has yet to really live up to its ‘A’ when it comes to footprint,” he admits. But with a future that could include a mobile museum, the MOAD’s power for connecting Africans from all of the continent’s regions just might become unstoppable.
Nana Ocran is a London-based writer, editor and lecturer who specializes in contemporary African trends. She was editor-in-chief for the Time Out Group’s series of guides to Lagos and Abuja, and has consulted and established publications on West African culture for a host of organizations. Having shared a panel discussion on African design with Aaron Kohn during the Also Known as Africa Paris arts fair last year, she thought it seemed interesting to revisit the conversation in print.