As the countdown to Design Indaba 2015 begins we’re interviewing some of the festival curators in our brand new Meet The Curators series to find out what goes into putting together this globally acclaimed design celebration. First up is the founder of Alexander’s Band, Emma Cook. This creative agency represents South African illustrators and they’ve curated an illustration exhibition titled Paper Planes, which will be showing at this year’s Design Indaba expo. For this show they’ve invited 44 local artists to create once-off illustrations inspired by Southern African mythology and folklore tales.
Although they’ve been very secretive about what exactly to expect, Emma shared some sneaky behind the scenes insights and pictures with us:
How did the collaboration between Design Indaba and Alexanders’s Band come about?
Quite out of the blue! I had originally approached Ravi Naidoo to pick his brain about business and creativity. I was looking for some guidance and a bit of inspiration. That was a little before Design Indaba 2014. We kept in touch, shared a few emails and then Ravi invited me around for a chat where he basically said that if I had an idea that could pique his interest for DI Expo 2015 then maybe we could work together.
It was really too big an opportunity to say no to, even though I had no idea about where to start! I went through a few ideas (which shall not be mentioned here as they were pretty damn awful) and finally remembered an idea I had had a few years ago that still interested me. It went down well in discussion and then we had two weeks to throw together a proposal to present to Ravi and co.
Thankfully at this point I had just met my new business partner, Arnelle Woker. She’s the goddess of organisation and I don’t think I could have pulled together the proposal without her. The rest, as they say, is history. The proposal was presented, went down well and suddenly we were being contacted by the expo managers to get this thing off the ground. We were thrown (and jumped) into the deep end, but we’ve loved every moment.
What is your vision for the showcase? Is there a particular theme?
Paper Planes is themed around some of our favourite local myths, legends and creatures. Storytelling is an integral part of any kind of illustration, be it commercial or publishing etc. We invited 44 illustrators who have each illustrated one of 22 stories. We’ll be displaying images inspired by the same story side by side, not as a means of comparing talent (’cause you just can’t compare some of these pieces, they’re all so great) but rather as a vehicle to help educate the public at the expo about how different illustrators can be and show how different artists can approach identical source material. So it’s gorgeous work being displayed, but with a little bit of education thrown into the mix.
What was your selection process and criteria for participating illustrators?
This was tough. Really tough. We initially had a list of about 100 people we wanted to include in the show. Yes, 100. That was out of a 200 person database and loads more that we tracked down while setting out to find a wide swath of South African illustration talent. As the reality of budget and time constraints set in we had to cut that back. In addition to curating the illustrators we had to curate the selection of stories as well, which included a whole lot of reading and research as well. That added to the fact that the artists were asked to deliver their final pieces in early January, meaning they would have to work over the holiday season, so we had to be a bit ruthless.
When we were busy with the proposal stage we canvased our illustrator database about their interest in the show. We used responses to this as a basis for selection – prompt and enthusiastic responses were favoured over delayed ones and any diva-like behaviour. With myself and Arnelle running this pretty much solo over and above having to do our own work as well as managing Alexander’s Band and other commitments, we knew we had to work with folks who were both talented and team players.
What was your brief to the illustrators?
It was fairly open. We gave everyone a link to read all of the stories we had sourced and asked them each to pick one that they would like to illustrate. First come, first served. We didn’t want to box anyone in by prescribing a certain colour pallet (which we had toyed with at one point) or that we wanted figurative over literal work. We just wanted people to do what they felt was appropriate to the story.
We got some surprises out of this approach. Some illustrators with vastly different approaches selected the same stories, while some with similar aesthetics chose the same story. And each has ended up complementing the other really nicely. I suppose it helps when you’re working with some awesomely talented and lovely people.
This is the first time this kind of exhibition is being done at Design Indaba, what is it about this particular expo/year that makes it the right time?
This years’ expo is going to have more design presence in terms of graphic design, comic art and visual communications in general. Our illustration community is vast and talented and the field has become a more and more popular choice of career over the past few years. Illustration is a valuable asset in any kind of design, be it graphic, motion, textile or publishing etc. and we think including illustration at this years’ Design Indaba is a nod to that, a legitimate status that illustration is a valuable tool in the deign and communication arsenal.
How can visitors participate in the Collaborative Wall?
The Collaborative Wall is where we’re inviting participants in the show as well as the public to come and add their voice. The stories we’re showing belong to all of us. They come from various cultures and times, but they are all a part of our shared heritage. We’re using the wall as a way to invite expo attendees to come together and add details to a story that will grow over the time of the expo and create a tale that extends the idea of sharing and creating common stories. We’re wildly curious as to how this will go. We’re well aware of the fact that the initial idea may devolved completely but we’re still excited about it because it is always going to be a record of what was happening there and then and what the sights and sounds of Paper Planes, and the whole expo, triggered in people.
What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced bringing together 44 different illustrators for a single exhibition?
It’s actually been pretty stress free in terms of dealing with the illustrators. They’ve all been pros, and where there were tiny delays or hiccups people always pulled through when they promised they would. Without fail. They were amazing.
What’s probably been the most difficult is keeping everything organised on our side. There has just been so much information and communication going on that it’s been tough to keep up. We asked a few people for some of their info more than once even though they had already supplied it cause it just got lost in the filing system. Also little things popping up here and there that were never planned for or thought about. Tiny things like plug points and bigger things like certificates form engineers and electricians.
That, and the design of the stand! I don’t know what we would have done if it weren’t for Fabricate, the architects we’ve been working with on that. That’s been a massive undertaking with loads of meetings to get everything from lighting to the build to the meeting we’re planning the weekend before buildup to plan exactly how we have to put up the stand and in what order to do it as swiftly and well as possible. It’s been mad. It’s still mad. But it’s been worth it.
During this process is there anything new or particular that you’ve noticed about South African illustration?
That’s a toughie. While we were tracking down any and all local illustrators and drawing up our lists and a database I got distracted by the racial and gender breakdown of the talent and worked out those percentages. It was an eye opener. We could go into a lengthy discussion about culture and the role of privilege in securing a career in commercial arts, but we certainly don’t have enough information to even begin to have an effective discussion on the matter. But it’s got us thinking, and thinking about something is better than not recognising it at all.
What can visitors expect to see/experience from this exhibition?
A great mix of illustrative talent, a bit of nostalgia for stories we heard when we were kids but forgot that we forgot, and some real love and attention paid to making the whole presentation as polished and cohesive as possible.
What are you most excited about showing?
Everything! We’ve often looked at all of the images spread out side by side and the whole collection looks AWESOME. But over and above the artwork, we’re excited to bring our local stories to life. We forget how great these stories are, how exciting and touching and sometimes violent and scary they can be.
See Paper Planes at the Design Indaba expo from Friday 27 February to Sunday 1 March at the Cape Town international Convention Centre. Buy tickets online here.
More about Design Indaba 2015, including all the ticket options, who to follow on social media, the Emerging Creatives to watch out for and more.
Umuveli and the Bird by Amber Smith
Modjadji by Daniël du Plessis
Racheltjie de Beer by Fort Rixon
The Tug of War by Marlize Eckard