Aaron Kohn is a Johannesburg-based American art historian who’s travelled more widely in Africa than most of us have our own country. He has been fascinated with the continent from an early age, his initial interest being sparked by an unlikely film viewing. He began visiting different countries and cities in Africa as a filmmaker, but became more interested in the stories that local filmmakers, photographers and artists where telling than the ones he was there on consignment to tell. So he returned to the States, studied African Art History, came back to Joburg and opened the first Museum of African Design, MOAD.
What is your official and/or unofficial job title?
I am the Founding Director of the Museum of African Design. Unofficially, the CEO: Chief Email Officer.
What did you do before this? Please tell us about your background and how you have ended up here…
I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. But I saw the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy when I was in school, and got pretty obsessed with the plight of the San “Bushmen” in Namibia and Botswana. And when I was 16, I started making films in Africa – Congo(s), Tanzania, Botswana, and so forth. Most of this was for NGO’s, to help with fundraising in the US.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I really thought I was going to be a filmmaker, and I kept freelancing over breaks and holidays, when I went to Columbia University. But the more I travelled as the white Jew with a camera, the more I started to meet local photographers and filmmakers in places like Dar Es Salaam, Kinshasa and Nairobi. And I became more interested in what art Africans were creating, and what stories they were sharing. That’s how I ended up studying African Art History.
Please can you explain a little about what you actually do – what does an average day for you consist of?
When I’m in Johannesburg, I am at MOAD. MOAD’s exhibitions are open 6 days a week, and then our offices are open on Mondays. In the last few months, I’ve been in the USA, Senegal, Zambia, Russia, and around South Africa. So when I’m home, I’m usually at MOAD.
What characteristics and skills does it take to do what you do?
MOAD is only 9 months old. I think like any startup, it means that the job entails wearing lots of hats, and rolling with the punches. I had no idea that at a museum I would learn the basics of construction, or how to pitch to big brands, but a big part of the job has been to renovate MOAD and also find funding.
You’re essentially pioneering something completely new – in Joburg and in Africa – what’s behind this, driving and inspiring you?
A lot of different things excite me about MOAD. Design is something that lots of institutions around the world are trying to figure out how to explore and exhibit. And the idea of “the” museum is also changing. MOAD has the opportunity to be exciting to people who don’t normally care about museums, but also really impactful through education and research. It’s also a cool opportunity for me to bring my knowledge of the rest of the continent to South Africa.
What’s the overarching vision for MOAD, and how does this relate to Joburg?
MOAD is just one of many museums in the South African museum landscape. When I was told about the idea, I realized MOAD would have to sit in a bit of a different space. It is not only Africa’s first design museum, but I hope it can also serve as a sort of gateway-museum (ie: gateway-drug). Gateway to other museums, because of the nature of the activities we host like boozy brunches and parties; perhaps someone who comes for a cocktail will be inspired by an exhibition and decide to check out WAM or JAG. And also a gateway into the continent, as the goal is to have 80% of our content from “North of the Border”. Most of the museums in South Africa have a mission to preserve national culture or identity, and there isn’t a space that’s dedicated to the rest of Africa.
African design is in the spotlight internationally – do you think this is just a trend, or indicative of a genuine shift in attitude towards art from the continent?
In the 1920’s the Brooklyn Museum in New York made a radical decision. They began to exhibit their ethnographic collection from Africa not as anthropological finds, but as art. That was only 90 years ago. Contemporary African art only took to the global stage in the late 1980’s. I think we are onto looking at some of what we called ethnographic or art in Africa as design. It’s a trend, but it’s exciting, because the same trends from the 1920’s and 1980’s now seem so obvious. But the focus on African design can’t be on curios, or on luxury. There’s amazing innovation taking place in research labs, tech hubs, and in markets across the continent.
I read recently that in America only 21% of the population had been to an art gallery or museum in the last year. In the local context, which is by no means a simple one, what’s your big idea to get feet through the door and new audiences engaging with African art and design?
For those that have been to MOAD, they know we don’t resemble a traditional museum. Rarely are there white walls or glass boxes. We had a roller disco in the museum. We’re building a makerspace with 3D printers and design tools. In September a bar opens 7-days a week in our basement. There are plenty of reasons to get people through our doors that aren’t exhibitions, BUT, as soon as those feet are in the door, for whatever reason, we engage in the exhibitions or in discussions about design.
Following on from the previous question: MOAD is a privately funded/commercially sponsored museum without a permanent collection. What are the advantages of this kind of setup in relation to other art and design institutions and spaces?
For the moment there is no private funding. We are purely sponsored. That could change. Although the world’s most established museums have endowments and development teams, they are also holding weddings and corporate functions, opening bars and shops, and so I actually don’t think it’s that different. Funding is so scarce, that we don’t want to compete with the institutions that rely on government funding, and for now, we don’t have to.
Tell us about some of the exhibitions you’ve curated up till now – which has been your favourite and why?
Our exhibitions somewhat speak for themselves. We’re trying to do a better job of sharing them online, but there has been really amazing response and foot traffic, although our exhibitions have been in many different disciplines of design. What’s exciting for me is always what’s next; and immediately that’s our four exhibitions opening in August. We’re also hosting the FNB Art Fair after party, which will be a fun opportunity to share MOAD with visitors from around the world.
What advice do you have for young creatives interested in pursuing a career similar to your own?
I certainly didn’t pursue the opportunity to open MOAD. In retrospect, a lot of what I have done makes sense for the role. But along the way, I wasn’t afraid to collaborate, or ask people much smarter and more experienced than me for their advice, or to get to observe what they do. I think it’s important to try to learn as much as possible about what you’re passionate about.
What are some of the highlights you’ve enjoyed thus far?
Moving back to Johannesburg after many visits and a brief stint studying at Wits has been amazing. The fact that MOAD is located in downtown Johannesburg, and that I also live in the city, has been eye-opening. It’s not hard to see how this city is becoming more exciting day-by-day, and it’s the perfect place from which to travel in Africa.
What African design pieces are you personally collecting (or coveting)?
In the last year I’ve focused on my own living arrangement, and have collected lots of South African design objects. But I’m now much more interested in exploring some of the design innovations in transportation and utility providers around the continent. I have a growing collection of solar gadgets and apps from tech hubs like Nairobi, and futuristic fabric samples from Dakar.
What’s next, for yourself and MOAD?
Myself and MOAD are one in the same at the moment. For the next year, we’re growing the size of our exhibitions, bringing shows from museums around the world, and consciously formalizing some or our “museum practices” while continuing to experiment with others. The building itself will only be fully completed in 2015.
Visit MOAD at 281 Commissioner Street, City and Suburban, Maboneng.