Made for Well-Grounded Sensualism Period!
I begin with an apology pleading and soliciting your patience following the prefatory remarks that are to come before my views on the subject of this review. The furniture designs here by Tony Akudinobi are statements from a renascent spirit steeped in the traditions of African design re-presented in the contemporary. Because these works bear the imprint of Africa’s ancient traditions and yet seek commensurate space within a global design consciousness that lays claim to some modernity, I will attempt to define the road to global design. That road-map, which is Eurocentric, negates the transcendental attributes that undergird aesthetic conventions in Africa. In undertaking this hierarchical reconstruction my aim is to situate the biases and denials designs from Africa are subjected to through a definition of canons, not by Africans, but by Euro/American critics. Evaluating the design and art-worthiness of the work of art put out here is another way of defining what then could pass for African design initiative.
In the paper entitled “The Crises of Modernity: Art and the Definition of Cultures in Africa” (2007) I evaluated the frames Immanuel Kant developed for the authentication of the work of art an aesthetic category, and observed as follows with reference to Africa that its art has always accommodated the artistic and the extra-artistic. In other words, African artists always aspire to invest in the work they execute such pleasurable dimensions that necessarily invite the one who has come to look. This is in the way effusive decorations mandatorily are made part of the object made by man. Thinking aloud I had wondered how the decorations and carvings on Egyptian, Benin, Ashanti and Basonge stools relate to the objective of sitting. I came to the conclusion regarding the above rumination that to decorate the utilitarian object the way African artists had fanned the tradition are borne out of the intensification of the spiritual dimensions of culture.
The observation above trails Immanuel Kant’s enunciations regarding the aesthetic value of objects when they are lavished with decorations that compromise their supposed purpose and or end; which then repositions such objects lavishly decorated, as attractive for the mere utilitarian ends. In other words, a decorated utilitarian object with its entire lure is not qualified to be considered for the purpose of aesthetics. The aesthetic value of such objects become secondary as any beauty associated with such objects induce reference to the object solely from the perspective of its utilitarian value. This line of thought by Kant is the source of the cliché “art-for-art sake” which implies that the true aesthetic object in its beauty ought to remain on its own – a “useless object” – that is devoid of instrumental use. On the other hand, the opposite of the above condition is “art-for-life’s sake”. These two conventions “art-for-art sake” and “art-for-life sake stand for fine art and craft or design traditions in the things we make as humans. In recent times the above canon of evaluation for the aesthetic object has been the subject of revision where art is no longer restricted, as it were, to the “useless” or the “useful”.. The useful and the useless occupy unique positions in human consciousness to such extent that all human-made things now are seen within the same value regime. Such value regime is that the human-made object, as product of active human consciousness is intrinsic to culture as it is laden with some significance that helps us understand human culture and the progress made in it. Thus, the attribute of beauty, which is central to Kant’s definition of the work of art, gives way to a collective of objects that offer aesthetic effects for the interest they fund; which, in a particular sense, is a quest for the knowledge of self.
The above background informs the title of this preview “made for well-grounded sensualism. The works of art presented here are coded in furniture of utilitarian types that are simply alluring. They are in tandem with the African spirit where the works of art are products of imaginative creative powers that are at once utilitarian as they are decorative and loud; desiring and demanding that we appropriate them because we value them as products of our ingenuity. The value of these designs is the abandonment of the synthetic world induced by modern technology. In many furniture catalogues we confront furniture made with same technology as Akudinobi’s designs. They are an assemblage of various works that include the textile and leather artist, the machine operators and a host of diverse interests that lead to an end product. Where Akudinobi’s designs appear rustic and bucolic they all the same define a strength that is adequate to their function. Their rustic nature which relates them to the past is mediated by available technology but leaves their origins intact. This is where their renascence is located. Inspired by diverse extant and extinct traditions of design, these contemporary designs stand as eternal bridges that hold the flow of time with cheek; demanding that we revaluate their origins while identifying what we should hold onto as our identity or remnant of self. Within an African worldview sturdiness belongs to these designs in their diversity. As a virtue, it speaks adequately to functional ideals expected of objects, hence the consummate aesthetic ambiance they offer. In the designs put out here, therefore, function meets with some bucolic mien bearing witness to adequacy, enough, the good or the beautiful. What indeed has been regarded as an African limitation in the evolution of words for the beautiful becomes justified in these products from Akudinobi’s design stable. In aesthetic expressions in Africa, the words fine, nice, good, enough, beautiful all define adequacy of purpose for which a thing has become.
What is the value of the above designs for humanity beyond their adequacy of purpose? A few commentators have defined art in more of a connotative rather than denotative manner. Denotative definitions have often rather been restrictive; bracketing a specific set of objects made by the human as qualifying for the term art. On the other hand connotative meanings and definitions are usually expansive and embracing a wider range within a class of objects. Thus when Louis Finkelstein (1923-2000) an American artist and educator defined art as man’s erotic longing to possess the world through shapes and colour, he implies more than what normally we would refer to as art. In the same vein Gyorgy Kepes (1901-2001), a Hungarian-born painter, designer, educator and art theorist definition is close to Finkelstein: “Art is a sensuous form of consciousness, an important instrument in the conquest of nature and representation in the creative assimilation of nature” (1962: 29). Equally for Chinua Achebe; “Art is, man’s attempt to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given him, to offer himself a second handle on existence through his imagination.”
I have used the words art, furniture and object interchangeably. These terminologies are in tandem with the diversity of forms which the work here presents. All the same the employment of such diverse terminologies, though in consonance with one another, stands to good reason considering the definitions above given of art. It is then the reason I consider these designs as fulfilling diverse roles in in the multiplicity of shapes and forms associated with them. I am intrigued by their geometry and mathematical precisions. I am intrigues in the way the forms evoke diverse art styles and forms that Africa has produced over centuries. The sense of adequacy, which the objects throw up on mere appearance, remains their appeal. In other words, the forms associated with these pieces of furniture are not merely decorative even where that value is a secondary rationale for them. They are constructed answers to nature and its ordering powers. Any “consummate” design is because the artist creatively has assimilated nature. I do not wish to delve into the theory of mimesis here but it is important to acknowledge the place of these designs within the frame of the necessary in human anatomy. What are their comfort parameters? Do they owe any allegiance to the sanctity that nature holds fourth for humanity? An African approach to design, as noticed in the past, is one of adaptation and cooperation and not deflection with nature as we notice with technological traditions from the West. It is usually one where what nature provides becomes the material worked upon to achieve ends that are soothing and suitable for human needs. These design profiles emerge from this harmonious relationship with nature. Their sustainability index is high also hence they approximate to contemporary explorations in design that are environmental friendly.
Rooted in the past, therefore, they are precursory in many ways first as prime objects and designs that are adaptable, adoptable, co-optable etc. I remain intrigued by the sense of vision that has produced these designs. Their unique offer as contemporary designs from Africa re-situates an age long tradition within contemporary global competence as well as competitiveness. They are indeed well made to be of value as utilitarian objects as they are pleasurable to the sight.