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MOAD Director Aaron Kohn Talks Africa’s First Design Museum

The Museum of African Design is located in Joburg’s experimental Maboneng Precinct. Like all industrial areas, the streets and buildings are not beautiful, except maybe to engineers and avant-garde architects. This side of Johannesburg has inspired neither song nor poem (though the changing metropolis has inspired a very insightful documentary). Three years ago none of the current Sunday market flockers had any reason to visit this place. The only constant streams of bodies were the workers of the automobile shops and the sangomas of the Kwa Mai Mai Market.

MOAD, which opened its doors in late October, is located a little bit outside the heart of Maboneng, an unassuming warehouse space in a sea of unassuming warehouses. Larger than I thought it would be, it consists of two floors with distinct two ways of navigation — a fire-escape-like set of stairs and a scaffolding walkway that snakes around the interior side. The museum’s director is Aaron Kohn, the American co-founder of the African Lookbook retail site and a recent college graduate. I sat down with Aaron on a scorching Johannesburg afternoon to discuss MOAD, Joburg, and how it came to be that a Cleveland native is running the continent’s first museum dedicated to African design.

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Photo by Alon Skuy (Times Live SA)

“I ended up here with a strange obsession with Africa, which started off thinking I could be the white saviour from America. Y’know, do a lot of good. And along the route of disillusionment, I started hanging out with a lot of artists from across the continent. I started studying African art and spent a lot of time in Johannesburg.” To Aaron’s great credit, he acknowledged and managed to bypass the propensity for non-Africans to look at Africa as a continent that needs saving.

It’s worth noting that the head honcho of Maboneng, Jonathan Liebmann, had earmarked the warehouse space as MOAD as early as 2011. “There wasn’t a lot they could do with it, so about a year ago, I started chatting with him [Jonathan] about turning it into a fully functional, all-year-round museum, and in November last year [2012] we started with the actual planning, and in July we started construction. We added a floor and touched up some things, but the goal all along was to leave it as raw as possible and unrefined. Refine the unrefined.”

Aaron has no formal training in design, but has a passion for African studies, which he studied first in New York, and as result became interested not only in design, but specifically African design. After watching two blonde kids play in one of the works on display, we chat about design and its ever-evolving nature, the “aspects of design” as he calls it. “Where do you draw the line between art and design, and on the other end where do you draw the line between craft and design? What do you do when pieces don’t hang on white walls, how do you display them, do people sit on that chair [he points to the chair the two kids are sitting and posing for pictures on], are they allowed to?”

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