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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Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

Freddie Harrel Is Building Conscious Beauty For and With the African Diaspora

Formerly known as "Big Hair Don't Care", creator Freddie Harrel and her team have released 3 new wig shapes called the "RadShapes" available now.

Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

The normalising of Black and brown women in wigs of various styles has certainly been welcomed by the community, as it has opened up so many creative avenues for Black women to take on leadership roles and make room for themselves in the industry.

Radswan (formerly known as Big Hair Don't Care), is a lifestyle brand "bringing a new perspective on Blackness through hair, by disrupting the synthetic market with innovative and sustainable products." Through their rebrand, Radswan aims to, "upscale the direct-to-consumer experience holistically, by having connected conversations around culture and identity, in order to remove the roots of stigma."

The latest from French-Cameroonian founder and creator Freddie Harrel - who was featured on our list of 100 women of 2020 - has built her career in digital marketing and reputation as an outspoken advocate for women's empowerment. On top of her business ventures, the 2018 'Cosmopolitan Influencer of the Year' uses her platform to advocate for women's empowerment with 'SHE Unleashed,' a workshop series where women of all ages come together to discuss the issues that impact the female experience, including the feeling of otherness, identity politics, unconscious bias, racism and sexism.

And hair is clearly one of her many passions, as Freddie says, "Hair embodies my freest and earliest form of self expression, and as a shapeshifter, I'm never done. I get to forever reintroduce my various angles, tell all my stories to this world that often feels constrained and biased."

Armed with a committee of Black women, Freddie has cultivated Radswan and the aesthetic that comes with the synthetic but luxurious wigs. The wigs are designed to look like as though the hair is growing out of her own head, with matching lace that compliments your own skin colour.

By being the first brand to use recycled fibres, Radswan is truly here to change the game. The team has somehow figured out how to make their products look and feel like the real thing, while using 0% human hair and not negotiating on the price, quality or persona.

In 2019, the company secured £1.5m of investment led by BBG Ventures with Female Founders Fund and Pritzker Private Capital participating, along with angelic contributions from Hannah Bronfman, Nashilu Mouen Makoua, and Sonja Perkins.

On the importance of representation and telling Black stories through the products we create, Freddie says, "Hair to me is Sundays kneeling between your mothers or aunties legs, it's your cousin or newly made friend combing lovingly through your hair, whilst you detangle your life out loud. Our constant shapeshifting teaches us to see ourselves in each other, the hands braiding always intimately touching our head more often than not laying someone's lap."

"Big Hair No Care took off in ways we couldn't keep up with," she continues, "RadSwan is our comeback.It's a lifestyle brand, it's the hair game getting an upgrade, becoming fairer and cleaner. It's the platform that recognises and celebrates your identity as a shapeshifter, your individuality and your right to be black like you."

Check out your next hairstyle from Radswan here.

Radswan's RadShape 01Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

Radswan's RadShape 02Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

Radswan's RadShape 03Photo: Courtesy of Radswan

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