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AFRI MODERN: Contemporary furniture inspired by Zulu culture

AFRI MODERN: Contemporary furniture inspired by Zulu culture
Illustrative image | sources: Unsplash / Pxhere / pngwave / pinclipart / pngguru / pngwave / EPA/Kim Ludbrook. Photo supplied by Sifiso Shange

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of life and the world of design, art and culture is no exception. In this series, we talk to artists, creatives, designers and musicians about their work, and what inspires them during these surreal times.

Depending on context, the Zulu phrase Ndlela Yami could be used to mean: my way, my path, or my journey. It is also the name given by AFRI MODERN founder, interior and furniture designer Sifiso Shange, to one of his latest designs: a rectangular black server cabinet with a muted gold geometric motif, overblown and placed on the face of the design, and complemented by striking feet that jut out at diagonal angles.

Ndlela Yami server, front view. Photo supplied by Sifiso Shange

It is also a particularly personal piece for the 29-year-old designer, who like many others, is currently confronting what the Covid-19 lockdown means for his young business. The Ndlela Yami server is a reference to his journey thus far: “It’s a new style of work that I’m deeply becoming connected to, which explores the idea and feeling of movement through the work. A design language which expresses moving forward, as I move forward in my life’s journey,” says Shange. “[It is also] a story that explores my life as a young boy to where I am now, through geometric Zulu patterns that draw inspiration from Zulu beadwork,” he explains.

Traditionally, beadwork in Zulu custom is a practice reserved for women, and that plays a large role in how Shange translates the patterns into his designs. Recreating the patterns in these minimal and contemporary styled geometric shapes “is special because it allows me to be deeply inspired by an art form that was special to my late grandmother – and many women within the culture and out of the culture – by honouring the artistic medium through my work. I do this as I feel it is not only important to protect and preserve the artform through my work, but to shed new expressive light on it by my storytelling through design,” explains Shange.

Ndlela Yami serve, side view. Photo supplied by Sifiso Shange

The focus on storytelling by incorporating time-honoured motifs into thoroughly contemporary furniture design has been the foundation of Shange’s practice. The use of triangles and lines, long used to communicate messages in Zulu beadwork, has not only helped to root AFRI MODERN in a narrative that is undeniably South African, it is also a reminder of the wealth of inspiration that still remains in the traditional motifs of South Africa’s multi-cultural society. Shange’s aesthetic take on these motifs has also made him a favourite at design showcasing platforms.

Design shows and exhibitions play a large part in helping designers to not only showcase their wares to potential customers, but also to establish their brands in the eyes of the public as well as their industry peers.

Ndlela Yami server front view. Photo supplied by Sifiso Shange

The South African design industry was introduced to the AFRI MODERN work in 2018, when Shange was selected to showcase at Design Indaba as part of their annual Emerging Creatives programme. In 2019, he was awarded a bronze Loerie for AFRI MODERN’s campaign, as well as being named Best New Talent at the 100% Design South Africa showcase, for a design created in collaboration with established and celebrated designer John Vogel.

Due to the lockdown, many of these showcases are likely to either be postponed or cancelled. Decorex Durban, Decorex Cape Town, as well as the 100% Design South Africa showcase which forms part of the latter in Cape Town, have already been moved to 2021.

The potential negative effects of these unavoidable postponements is something Shange is well aware of. “The main affecting factor has been the postponement of design shows which contribute a large portion of my business as this is a special time where the public gets to interact with me and my new work in real time. Secondly would be the postponement of furniture production which affects cashflow into the business,” he says.

As with a lot of designers and artists, online platforms have become even more important for Shange: “I feel the online space will contribute positively as we go through isolation and social distancing, in order to share more enlightening and inspiring work to keep our spirits high through these times. It has been a positive and innovative way to keep followers, and potential clients in tune with how I’m rethinking new ways to showcase my work.”

In between creating new pieces and working on content for his “new and updated website”, the designer is also taking time to, “reflect and understand myself more as I prepare for a new chapter after the pandemic. I feel a lot will change, and I’m mentally and creatively preparing myself for that beautiful unknown change.”

He is hopeful, and he is looking for a silver lining to the dark Covid-19 cloud, hoping there are lessons to be learnt: “I have three words, ‘Please Support Local’, let’s all try our very best to contribute and support local during this time and afterwards. I strongly believe everything happens for a reason and maybe this time is teaching us to unite, and be each other’s support systems, to rise above and be stronger and more connected as the human race.” DM/ ML

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