Arts + Culture

MOAD Director Aaron Kohn Talks Africa's First Design Museum

Okayafrica spoke with the Museum of African Design (MOAD) director Aaron Kohn.


Photo by Andrea Weiss

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.

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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***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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