Can you heal the wounds of apartheid with a design conference? Last week’s Design Indaba event in Cape Town was another courageous attempt to prove it can.

By Femke van Gemert and Richard van der Laken

Sitting in a conference hall for three full days from nine in the morning till after six in the evening is a test of stamina. Every year Design Indaba, one of the biggest design conferences in the world, offers a fully packed programme with speakers with all sorts of backgrounds from the far-flung corners of the world.

This year’s line-up included an architect from the Ivory Coast, a graphic designer from New Zealand and a product designer from Japan. It also featured seasoned veterans like South African photographer David Goldblatt and emerging talents like young Dutch product designer Dave Hakkens.

What sticks in the mind after three days at the conference? In this series of posts, we pick out some highlights and pinpoint some themes that ran through the event.

Blut und boden

Close to 20 years in existence, Design Indaba has showcased an impressive list of renowned designers, architects, artists, curators, photographers and other creatives. The hope was, and is, that these luminaries will enrich the barren soil on which South Africa’s creative community ploughs its lonely furrow.

At times, this aspiration can feel a little awkward, especially when you experience from close range the almost unbridgeable gap between a highly developed Western design culture and the harsh reality of Africa. But on this occasion the conference was dominated by several inspiring stories by South African creatives. A probably unintentional theme of this year’s conference could therefore be defined as Blut und Boden, best translated as ‘roots’ — roots that in South Africa are largely determined by the apartheid era and discrimination based on skin colour, descent and sexual preference.

Photographer David Goldblatt, who earned a standing ovation for his impressive presentation, is a long-time advocate of equality in his home country. Though apartheid has always been a prominent theme in his photography, this year he presented work denouncing South African homophobia.

Zanele Muholi

Goldblatt also introduced one of his protégés, the photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi. She is openly lesbian, which is not easy in South Africa, where homosexuals and transgenders are discriminated against, excluded, ‘correctively raped’, and, in the worst case, simply murdered. Her presentation, like Goldblatt’s, stunned the entire audience, reducing many people to tears.

Muholi devotes her life and work to campaigning for the rights of homosexuals and transgenders. She highlights injustice by recording the hate crimes that are so common here, which is a courageous act in a place like South Africa.

As a result, and luckily so, her work is nationally and internationally recognized and acknowledged. Among the accolades to come her way recently is the prestigious Dutch Prince Claus Award, a timely prize in light of the anti-gay laws adopted last week in Uganda and before that in Russia, as well as the protests against gay marriage in France.

Top photo: A farmer’s son with his nursemaid at the farm Heimweeberg near Nietverdiend, 1964, photo David Goldblatt

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