Tapiwa Matsinde Showcases Contemporary Design and Craft from Africa Through the Written Word

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Born in the U.K. and raised in Zimbabwe, Tapiwa Matsinde started her career as a graphic designer, first in Harare and later in London, working for blue-chip, hospitality, and luxury brands. Her transition into writing and curation—something she also calls “storytelling”—was preceded by a successful stint as a jewelry designer in the mid-aughts; one of her pieces, a sterling-silver bracelet laden with semiprecious stones and Swarovski crystals, was showcased at a ball for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Forced to close her business due to the recession, Matsinde returned to the University of the Creative Arts, Epsom, for a master’s in design management and, after graduating, stumbled into blogging.

Matsinde’s debut book, Contemporary Design Africa, was the first publication of its kind to showcase current design and craft from the continent in a non-stereotypical way: “I was tired of always seeing books on African design displaying masks, drums, and mud colors,” she says. “Africa is so much more, and I wanted to show its creative sophistication and diversity.” She recently curated “The Artisan: A crafted tea room,” an exhibition at Homo Faber, an international craft event that took place in Venice during the last three weeks of April. Her installation was a working space filled with handcrafted objects sourced from 16 countries around the globe that visitors could not only see but also interact with. We asked her about it and her other activities.

The British Zimbabwean Matsinde at the site of her show, Padiglione delle Capriate.
The British Zimbabwean Matsinde at the site of her show, Padiglione delle Capriate. Photography by Lalia Pozzo/© Michelangelo Foundation.

Interior Design: Your blog, atelier 55, tells the stories of designers, artisans, and creatives from across Africa and the diaspora. How significant a role did it have in starting your curating career?

Tapiwa Matsinde: The blog began in 2010 as a place to store ideas, images, and inspirations but it fueled the love of writing, research, and putting information into context that had been ignited working on my master’s degree. I soon understood there was something happening across Africa in terms of a contemporary creative reawakening, and I found that exciting. Looking back, when I started my blog, I had begun curating without even realizing it.

ID: Why is storytelling a good way to talk to communities and introduce them to contemporary African craft?

TM: Storytelling is an intrinsic part of human life. It helps create bridges that foster understanding. This has been important to my work as a champion of design and craft from Africa, where storytelling, particularly the oral kind, is an essential part of the various cultures.

ID: How is the approach to craft in the African countries you are familiar with different from that in a European context?

TM: One of the big differences is accessibility to artisans. Across the African continent, at a grassroots level, one has greater access to artisans and to wit­nessing the craft process. In the U.K. and other European countries I have visited, craft is often done behind closed doors—to see the process one has to be invited in, so access to craft is often through a retail or exhibition display. I think the Internet is increasingly allowing for craft processes to be shared—though we may not always get to see it in person, we can see it in images and videos. In terms of similarities, I would say that much like in Europe, as African craft gets utilized in design it is contributing to the creation of a high-end, luxury Africa aesthetic in which artisanal handwork is upheld as a defining characteristic.

ID: How did you get involved with Homo Faber?

TM: It was Alberto Cavalli, executive director of the Michelangelo Foundation, which puts on the event, who approached me. At the time exhibitions were being postponed or cancelled so it was amazing to me that something of this scale was still being planned. It spoke to me of a commitment to supporting artisans in a way that I was honored to be a part of.

Rattan wall panels by India Mahdavi backdropping “The Artisan: A crafted tea room,” an exhibition curated by Tapiwa Matsinde for Homo Faber, an international craft event in Venice, Italy, this April.
Rattan wall panels by India Mahdavi backdropping “The Artisan: A crafted tea room,” an exhibition curated by Tapiwa Matsinde for Homo Faber, an international craft event in Venice, Italy, this April. Photography by Simone Padovani/© Michelangelo Foundation.

ID: Can you give us a few more details about your project, “The Artisan: A crafted tea room?”

TM: It was a space where all visitors to Homo Faber were welcome to enter and rest a while, filled with handcrafted objects that they were not only able to look at but also interact with. They could sit on plush couches by Arcahorn, recline in Visionnaire’s thronelike Pavone armchairs inspired by the peacock’s plumage, marvel at the application of complex intricate hand-beading accentuating SoShiro’s Pok Butler sideboard, play a game of billiards, chess, or backgammon courtesy of exquisitely handcrafted games by Hillsideout, Lazo Studios, and Alexandra Llewellyn, respectively, or simply sit on an armchair by the window and gaze out on the lagoon.

ID: Homo Faber’s inaugural edition in 2018 was Europe-focused. Was it important to you to bring more global craft to the event?

TM: Yes, it was. This edition had Japan as the guest of honor and the intention for the tea room was for it to be the exhibition that furthered Homo Faber’s mission to embrace exceptional craftsmanship from different parts of the world.

From the tea room, hand carving on an oak-and-steel sideboard by Sardinia-based ateliers BAM Design and Serra Luigi & Figli.
From the tea room, hand carving on an oak-and-steel sideboard by Sardinia-based ateliers BAM Design and Serra Luigi & Figli. Photography by Simone Padovani/© Michelangelo Foundation.
Matsinde’s first book, Contemporary Design Africa (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015).
Matsinde’s first book, Contemporary Design Africa (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015). Photography courtesy of Thames & Hudson.
Woven vessels by Zenzulu, a South African art collaborative, using master weavers’ techniques.
Woven vessels by Zenzulu, a South African art collaborative, using master weavers’ techniques. Photography courtesy of Angela Buckland for Zenzulu.
Custom wallpaper, based on a vintage Renzo Mongiardino lattice motif, handmade by San Patrignano Design Lab.
Custom wallpaper, based on a vintage Renzo Mongiardino lattice motif, handmade by San Patrignano Design Lab. Photography by Simone Padovani/© Michelangelo Foundation.
British metalsmith Claire Malet’s Marloes Strata Vessel, a tin can transformed by freehand flame cutting.
British metalsmith Claire Malet’s Marloes Strata Vessel, a tin can transformed by freehand flame cutting. Photography by Anthony Evans.
The Giorgio Cini Foundation on the Isola San Giorgio in Venice, Homo Faber’s atmospheric location.
The Giorgio Cini Foundation on the Isola San Giorgio in Venice, Homo Faber’s atmospheric location. Photography © Michelangelo Foundation.
The 5,000-square-foot installation, a working tea room populated with tables, chairs, and sofas accompanied by handcrafted design objects from around the globe.
The 5,000-square-foot installation, a working tea room populated with tables, chairs, and sofas accompanied by handcrafted design objects from around the globe. Photography by Simone Padovani/© Michelangelo Foundation.

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