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African Decor and Design: Why This Term is Problematic

The problem with the term “African design” is that it’s impossible to encapsulate a single identity for the incredibly varied cultures that constitute this vast continent. Even the use of such an umbrella term degrades the richness and complexity of African creativity and invariably pigeonholes it into stereotypes crafted by Western perceptions. A 2013 HuffingtonPost article didn’t mention a single country by name when its author wrote, “African design is founded in [sic] on Primitivism and is concerned with raw form, childlike lines, and references to wildlife, earthly hues and the color orange.” The entire continent just sighed with exhaustion. In the same year, Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo said it best with the title of her debut novel, “We Need New Names.” The same is true for the term “African Design,” which reduces the multitude of aesthetics found across the 46 countries in subsaharan Africa to just a few export-driven motifs from tourist art found in a few well-known countries, namely South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria. If we extend our gaze to include the Sahel, for example, we can consider eight more countries that further expand the diversity of designs and patterns to include Persian, Arab, and Bedouin influences.