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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.”[1]
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.

But what we do know is that at the time the British manufacturing industry was on a decline.

Country cloths were the popular attraction in the Sierra Leone section of the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924, The occasion was also celebrated with the publication of the booklet Sierra Leone Country Cloths by Dr M C F Easmon.

This was one of the earliest publications of West African textiles. On the left is a rare copy and below a photograph included inside.
The cotton cloth from Sierra Leone sold very well due to the high cost of Manchester cotton after the First World War. Fashion designers and textile industries went on to use these fabrics without acknowledging its original source.
No attempt was made to safeguard the intellectual property of African creative workers.

According to UNICEF,
"Creative industries are becoming increasingly important components of modern post-industrial knowledge-based economies. Not only are they thought to account for higher than average growth and job creation, they are also vehicles of cultural identity that play an important role in fostering cultural diversity."

In addition to this, the World Intellectual Property Rights Organization (WIPO), notes that conventionally copyright was only looked at as a legal category and not as a growth factor of social and economic importance. Its findings were that copyright had a significant contribution to economic performance of countries. Countries that have experienced rapid economic growth were found to have above average share of GDP attributed to copyright industries.

African countries have now the opportunity of implementing stricter adherence to copyright in order to ensure that our creative designs are not cribbed by former colonizers as they once did before.


Copyright + Creativity = Economic Growth

[1] Cited in Woodham, Jonathan. "Images of Africa and Design at the British Empire Exhibitions," Journal of Design History.
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