The new gold: Creativity

The good news from 2009 is that South Africa’s creativity is loud, proud and strong. Despite the worldwide economic conditions and SA itself facing some of its biggest political and social challenges since its democracy, we held ground. This resolute determination and resourcefulness in the face of strife is certainly one of the country’s most endearing characteristics. If we could bottle the idiosyncratic SA chutzpah, we’d likely become the world’s greatest exporter.

As though these challenging times were the very fertiliser for innovation, vials of the country’s creative essence alighted the global airwaves en masse. Fashion stalwart Nkhensani Nkosi impressed at the New York Fashion Week, while Black Coffee opened Berlin Fashion Week as winner of the Mercedes-Benz Award for SA Fashion Design. Crafts initiative Design Afrika’s Xhosa gourd baskets were included in Sir Terence Conran’s highly desirable Inspiration series, while Barack and Michelle Obama installed two repurposed-waste chandeliers made by the Magpie Collective in the Karoo.

Both Net#work BBDO Johannesburg and TBWAHuntLascaris Johannesburg walked away from the 2009 Cannes Lions with a sought-after Grand Prix for the Virgin Atlantic Airline and The Zimbabwean newspaper campaigns respectively. Also raking in eight other Cannes Lions, the latter campaign may well be the largest prize booty any local campaign has pooled in Cannes’s 56-year history.

The amount of South Africans represented at the 2009 Milan Furniture Fair was also possibly record breaking, with Heath Nash, Tsai, Lyall Sprong, Walter Oltmann, Bronze Age and Leonard Shapiro all holding the torch up high. Testament to the quality of local publishing, no less than six SA magazines were included in the Top 100 Most Innovative Magazines in the World exhibition in Colophon – including the Design Indaba magazine.

Commercials director Keith Rose was inaugurated into the Clios TV Hall of Fame. Ladysmith Black Mambazo scooped their third Grammy award, director Madoda Ncayiyana’s My Secret Sky won best feature prize at the Cannes Pan African Film Festival, and filmmaker John Barker was recognised by the Cannes Film Festival as one of the world’s top 15 young directors.

Filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, who is speaking at this year’s Design Indaba as a top graduate, won numerous prizes including the Grand Prix at the Amiens International Film Festival for his debut feature film, Shirley Adams. Another of this year’s speakers, the Handspring Puppet Theatre, earned the accolade of ‘theatrical event of the decade” from the UK Sunday Times for War Horse.

On the architecture front, Peter Rich’s design for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre was recognised as World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival. While Design Indaba’s 10×10 Low-Cost Housing Project saw the completion of 10 prototypes of Luyanda Mpahlwa’s Curry Stone Award-winning sandbag solution, in Freedom Park. Not to mention some of the world’s most beautiful stadiums coming to life in the wake of the Fifa World Cup.

What’s exciting too is the often-unacknowledged younger generation of creatives that are pioneering a fresh approach to SA creativity. One of the most exciting sections of last year’s Design Indaba Expo was the Emerging Creatives. Lynda Relph-Knight, editor of Design Week (UK), described it as: ‘A taster for a future that looks assured.” A project of the Design Indaba Trust, the Emerging Creatives at this year’s expo are not to be missed.

Let’s just pause there for a moment. Too often South Africans are inclined to ask why there are so few international successes birthed in this country. But imagine all this having happened 15 years ago? Surely we should rather be proclaiming at so much success?

The world is ready. From Die Antwoord going viral on Youtube, to musicians like Goldfish, Blk Jks and Spoeks Mathambo filling clubs across the US and Europe, the Western World is hungry to taste something different to their refined, re-refined and over-refined cultures. Just consider how District 9, a sci-fi action flick set in Soweto, sent international box office sales through the roof. Or the fact that Moroso, possibly the world’s most revered furniture design label, themed their 2009 Milan Furniture Collection on Africa.

This is, however, where the problem lies. District 9 comes out of Vancouver. Not a single African designer presented actual design ware on Moroso’s exhibition. Are the rest of the world going to cash in on Africa’s originality while we quibble internally about crime and political handmaidens? Not to make light of either the aforementioned, it’s about time that every SA creative out there got on with it and shouted loudly to the world about what we are good at. ‘Let It Out!” proclaimed Design Indaba’s campaign this year.

In part, the Design Indaba’s international approach to the conference is inspired by this. Hearing from living masterminds can never be underestimated, however the real power of the conference is evidenced when speakers like Martha Stewart, the Wooster Collective, Tord Boontje, Michael Bierut, Bruce Nussbaum and many more turn to their respective followings and proclaim that South African design is hot. From last year’s conference speakers alone, both BarberOsgerby and Stephen Burks have subsequently invested in craft development projects in South Africa for the production of some of their most sought after furniture designs.

See, more than simply in their work, Design Indaba chooses its speakers to inspire SA creatives to get out there and make their voice heard. Having survived 14 years of democracy – with its ups and downs – South Africans no longer have any excuse not to be world players. So many mentioned here are rising to the challenge. But it’s not enough to rest on our laurels, we have more work to do.

Designers need to find their business muses; and businesses need to reinvent their purpose. Ad agencies must go further down the value chain, not only being the minstrels engaged in promotion at the end. Manufacturing, which has fallen off a cliff in SA, can only come back through an investment in ideas – and acknowledging that we cannot be a low-cost centre like China, but rather a value-added locus of excellence.

It’s time for the creatives to get more commercially savvy, and for business to come over and learn how to do something new. SA needs more risk-taking and proactive ventures. We need more entrepreneurs who will leverage the innovation and inventiveness of our people. We need more duets of right brainers and left brainers. And we need to start thinking BIG – who will be our Prada or our Alessi? These are the stretched ambitions that our creative entrepreneurs must cherish.

Then, the creative shall inherit the earth. Imagine, 15 years time, the creative industries being a new sector on the JSE— The new gold is the mining of our ideas, heritage and creative nous. It’s time to invest in SA’s creative futures.

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