How Europe Cribbed African Design
Europe discovered Africa the most in the modern world through the colonial exhibitions which were shown to white audiences in different parts of the world in the 1920s and 1930s. The hunger was for new sources of creative inspiration to inform European design, especially in Britain.
The British Empire Exhibitions were a platform to increase trade between Britain and her colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. This was done through the display of cultural artefacts from these territories.
One critic believed that that studying African arts and crafts would be “rewarding both as a means of rediscovering a true spirit of creativity… and improving the levels of taste in British mass-produced good.”
These exhibitions not only showed physical objects, but also displayed people of African origin working on crafts from their country of origin.
The range of African designers included jewellers, embroiders, ironworkers, potters, wood-carvers and instrument makers, that excited British audiences who enjoyed the idea of witnessing “real” African people acting as they would in their tribal villages.
This boosted the sales of products and crafts sold at the exhibitions. It also attracted considerable media coverage.
The Illustrated London News and The Studio are but two design magazines that reproduced images of Venda colour patterns and Zulu beadwork.
Over 30 million spectators visited the exhibitions in the 1920s, 1930s.
In the absence of quantifiable evidence, we can only speculate just how much of the African designs were cribbed by European manufacturers.