If you encounter one of the speakers before they take to the stage at Design Indaba the sense of fear is palpable. Whether they are 18 or 80, at the outset of their career or a seasoned pro, there is a feeling of anticipation and adrenaline that radiates from each individual. There are many factors that cause this: the size of the audience (2500 in the auditorium, and the hundreds viewing the simulcasts around the country); the scope and stature of the people who have ventured into the spotlight at the event before them; and the fact that they have been challenged to produce a presentation that goes beyond simply presenting work they have completed – to do something original on stage.
The 21st Design Indaba kicked off in eclectic style with three presentations that, in the spirit of the event as a whole, spanned a diverse number of disciplines and interests. First up were Stephen Dirnbirger and Chanel Cartell who, inspired by Indaba alumni Stefan Sagmeister, had sold all their possessions and set off on a trip around the world to see how far they could get. They were followed by Paloma Strelitz and James Binning from Turner-Prize winning architecture collective Assemble who passionately discussed “the power of creativity and collective action” and a performance by Helen Isibor-Epega, who sang from her opera The Venus Butterflies. The tone, and bar, was set for the rest of the week.
Day two highlights included Egypt-based Mohamaed & Hatiham El-seht (known as Twins Cartoon) who gave an intriguing presentation into the history of comics in Egypt and how, since the Arab spring, there has not only been a political revolution in the country but an artistic one. “We won a new way to express our rights through illustration,” they proclaimed. That afternoon, South African-born, British national treasure, Margaret Calvert received a standing ovation after she spoke and Snask combined rock and roll and professionalism, ignoring their own advice, to bring a rock band onto the stage having arrived in the auditorium in a car.
The closing day saw Naresh Ramchandani from Pentagram articulately extol the virtue of words – somewhat the antithesis of most presentations that focused on visual culture, and new perspectives on art, architecture and design from the likes of Lava Lab from Amsterdam, Jaime Hayon from Madrid and Christian Benimana from Mass Studio Rwanda.
In a world where design festivals are becoming ever more prosaic, the value of design is championed by governments and ignored in policy, and where physical and notional borders are being obliterated by technology, Design Indaba, despite being 21 years old, retains a vitality. It’s global embrace, and geographic location in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, married with a purpose that has started to manifest change in south Africa sets it apart. The ethos and politic of Design Indaba permeates every moment of the event – it’s a snapshot of the world and the people who are making change for the better. Long may it continue.