Ep. 57 Crafting Cultural Narratives in Design | Chrissa Amuah

Showcasing African talent on a global stage


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Chrissa Amuah [EP.57]

[00:00:00] Chrissa Amuah: So it's about, in a way, giving room and making and promoting this idea of self taught learning and that education in different countries looks different.

[00:00:10] [Afrika Design Ident]: Afrika Design Ident]

[00:00:12] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Chrissa, thank you so much for joining me. We've been planning this. It's not an exaggeration to say for years. So it's incredibly good to have you here calling in from London, right?

[00:00:24] Chrissa Amuah: Yes, calling in from London. I'm very excited to be having this conversation. It's been a very long time coming, as you said, so thank you very much for having me.

[00:00:33] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Thank you too. And so we'll go straight into it. Maybe you can introduce yourself and we'll talk about your passion for African design.

[00:00:41] Chrissa Amuah: Sure, definitely. So my name is Chrissa Amuah. I am British born, but of Ghanaian heritage with dashes of Togo and Benin in there as well, but it's primarily, Ghana that influences or has influenced my design narrative and underpins my design practice. I work with a lot of, I should say in the initial instance, I was known or have been known to be a textile designer, but in latter years, I've actually come to think that that's in a way a disservice to my design practice.

[00:01:15] And I'd better call myself a multidisciplinary designer as I've always actually worked with a broad range of materials. In a broad range of forms and so on. And I think as my career has developed, I've demonstrated and shown more comfort and confidence in those other materials and concepts and so on.

[00:01:38] So I very much now go by multi multidisciplinary designer, which is always a mouthful to say. And alongside that, I am the founder of Africa by design, which was established in 2017 as a platform to showcase the very best of Africa's very diverse design talent. Especially in the context of product design, furniture design, environmental design, and textile design.

[00:02:08] So, that's me in a nutshell.

[00:02:11] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, it's interesting. You mentioned doing yourself a disservice almost and I've heard a few designers going into calling themselves multidisciplinary because I introduced myself as an industrial designer, or I say that's what I trained in, and of course I still do industrial design, and I do a lot more as well, and that's why human centered design or life centered design is really a phrase we're trying to grow towards now.

[00:02:37] So your interest in textile design, did it also at that stage when you were studying cross over with your interest in culture?

[00:02:47] Chrissa Amuah: Oh yeah, it was always underpinned by culture. In the initial instance, starting with the Adinkra symbols of Ghana and for those that are unfamiliar, Adinkra is a language of symbols. And there are hundreds of them and they've existed for centuries and the intention is to encourage and promote our social and environmental well being.

[00:03:12] So, most symbols have a proverb that accompanies them. And I just love this idea of combining beautiful design with meaning. That's intended to encourage us through life. And for me, it wasn't enough to just create something beautiful. I always thought that there was more longevity in something that had meaning and the power to speak to us beyond like a surface level.

[00:03:36] So I've always worked in that way and I've found that I've been able to carry that essence with me when I've worked for brands that maybe don't have that same cultural narrative, or, you know, I did a project for Mortlock, Mortlock by Design, which is a Diageo owned whiskey brand based in Scotland. So of course, the Adinkra symbols aren't necessarily an automatic, well, there, there is a synergy there because they speak to our shared humanity, but I very much looked for the symbolism that I could find in the context of that brand and its own history and story.

[00:04:14] So I think there's a power to being able to speak about symbology and meaning throughout any, you know, in any context.

[00:04:22] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, I wasn't even going to mention it, but since you've discussed the relations between symbols across cultures, we had the International Design Day and we looked at peace symbols, and there's one symbol that I've always been fascinated with. And it's the one that appears on the command button on an Apple keyboard.

[00:04:44] Chrissa Amuah: Yeah, I'm looking at it now.

[00:04:46] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah,

[00:04:46] Chrissa Amuah: the loop.

[00:04:47] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): I did research into it at university and at the time the trail basically took me as far back as saying that it was a road sign manual from I believe Sweden, that the Apple designers found. And that sign symbolizes on Motorways in Sweden, a place of interest, like a tourist site.

[00:05:09] Chrissa Amuah: okay.

[00:05:10] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): It kind of could look like a medieval castle from above or something, but then it took me a bit further to look at, well, we have the Mpatapo Adinkra symbol, which is exactly the same and I was interested to find out that the history goes back to the St. John's Cross, I believe, in again, northern Europe, but adinkra symbols actually originated kind of in the 1800s, right?

[00:05:37] So it could be that somewhere they came from Europe, because my kind of assumption was these have to have been African, because I've seen them as an African symbol, and interestingly it kind of took me back round to say, oh, and maybe they were developed independently, but the history behind the adinkra symbols singularly would be really interesting to track back as well.

[00:06:01] Chrissa Amuah: I've never read that they need. Yeah, I've never read that they came from Europe and I think that what I've read is that they were discovered by the British when they arrived in Ghana and it wasn't just Ghana actually I should say it's the area now known as Ghana and what crosses the border into Ivory Coast if you go to a certain part of Ivory Coast as well they use adinkra symbols, but I think there are overlaps of some of those symbols in European culture in, what's now known as the swastika, which has negative associations.

[00:06:33] If you look at Sanskrit, I think Sanskrit India, that symbol exists there and actually exists in the Adinkra symbols as well. I think it's the reverse. The other way around but obviously, it has such dark and negative connotations now that nobody really touches it or, you know, uses that. There may be parallels or similarities, but I think that symbology actually just looking at the nature of African cultural Ghanaian culture.

[00:07:00] I think that they've existed for centuries, and it was maybe when the British came that it became sort of came to the fore in the global north in the same way that you could look at what is now known as Ankra print fabrics, which origins stem from Indonesia and when the British were busy colonizing the world, brought that to Europe, and then it was brought to Africa and took on a life force of its own.

[00:07:28] So, yeah.

[00:07:29] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, I saw another reference somewhere for South America. So it's, it's something that seems like people might just draw in the sand, right? It's a very nice pattern to draw on it. It might even, just as I'm drawing it here, it feels peaceful, right?

[00:07:46] Back to that actually because your work, your designs have actually physically been inspired by these symbols, right? Like the, the coffee table.

[00:07:55] Chrissa Amuah: Definitely, definitely. So, the Asanka coffee table, the base of the table takes its inspiration from the Asanka, which is like the Ghanaian pestle and mortar equivalent. That shallow bowl usually made from ceramic clay. And then this idea of playing with circles took its inspiration from Adinkrahene which is the symbol that represents... it's almost said to be the chief of the adinkra symbols and it represents authority and leadership and greatness. And so I, I play on concepts as well as shapes. Sometimes the shape is informing the idea. Sometimes the sentiment behind the symbol is informing the idea or it's a combination of the two. But what I've done in most instances is abstracted those symbols, and I talk about this idea of their relevance for 21st century living.

[00:08:48] In no way, shape, or form am I trying to say I've defined Adinkra symbols or anything like that, but when you go to Ghana, for example, you will see symbology embedded into the fabric of society, be it through, you know, somebody's wall or architecture or furniture and that sort of thing.

[00:09:06] But I had never seen it incorporated into the home. It's always been very traditionally applied. When I was doing my master's at Chelsea College of Art and Design, I was very much interested in this idea of how do you. Incorporate it into modern day context and make it... and it was also my sort of idea of saying, you know history and life has imposed itself on Africa and a lot of African culture is now consumed or overridden by western concepts, western design and that sort of thing.

[00:09:38] But actually, Africa has been doing a lot of things, you know. I've been upcycling since, you know, before it became fashionable. And Africa also has a lot to give to the world. It was me wanting to pay homage to that and show, I guess, speaking of wider context of this is what you can also learn from Africa.

[00:09:57] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, and you've been doing that by extension through your curation work, through some of the stuff that you've showcased around the world. And you took part in, well, we both did, we didn't get to see each other. We took part in the London Design Biennale in 2021?

[00:10:14] Chrissa Amuah: I know it seems like a lifetime ago and trying to realize that project during the pandemic was wild. But we did it and I know, yeah, everyone was working to various constraints, but I worked with Alice Asafu-Adjaye, who is a Ghanaian based architect and designer and we spoke to this idea of celebrating local artisanship and working with brass, which is a celebrated material across the continent.

[00:10:40] And yeah, we created something I think very beautiful.

[00:10:44] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): And the symbolism behind the piece was really important as well, right?

[00:10:48] Chrissa Amuah: Yes, definitely. And because we were given a theme which my mind has gone very blank on right now, but resonance, that's it. The theme was resonance and how as we head towards a more digital society, how again, looking at this idea of shared humanity and we wanted to start with Somerset. The Biennale took place at Somerset House, which is a very prestigious venue in London.

[00:11:12] And we wanted to talk about the influence. If you look at the history of the building, it was built on the wealth of the British colony. And also celebrated across Europe by inviting artisans from across Europe to influence its architecture and its legacy as a cultural hub still exists today. So we very much wanted to say, well, if African artists or Ghanaian artisans had been invited into this collaborative relationship. How might they have also influenced the interior space of Somerset House? So that's what our concept spoke to.

[00:11:50] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): It's yeah, really beautiful. And I heard amazing feedback about it as well. So thank you. So you're going to be celebrating 10 years of AMWA designs. So how has that flown and where did it all start from?

[00:12:05] Chrissa Amuah: In many ways, it feels like it's flown, like, I can't believe it's a decade, but also in the same breath, I feel like I've lived a million lives in that time. And I did my MA at Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2013. And I went into it with a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve. But I wanted the time and space to be able to explore this idea and see what it could become.

[00:12:31] And it started being bigger than I thought it was, or that I gave myself credit for. And so AMWA Designs was very much launched from that that same year I exhibited at Salone Satellite, which is part of Milan Design Week, which, you know, for me was crazy that within the space of a year, this is where I found myself, but it was a beautiful opportunity and a beautiful space for me to be able to share my design ideology with the world, literally with the world and yeah, and it's just evolved from there. It's grown very organically, it's grown, it's taken tenacity, it's taken a lot of hard work. As I mentioned alongside that, I created Africa by design and I really like thrown myself into it and I think the reward of that has been knowing that, you know, sometimes I'll get messages, whether it's by Instagram or wherever and someone in Venezuela has seen my work and it's like, wow, like to know that it's reaching literally the whole world and to have so many people buy into it, is beautiful.

[00:13:39] And it's opened the doors to some really great experiences and opportunities. So I think it's been a great 10 years. I think it's a great time for reflection and to see what else is left to do. And there is a lot more to do and to celebrate. So I'm definitely going to try and, you know, continue to push forward in the years to come.

[00:14:01] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): So, what are some of the other, you mentioned opportunities. What are some of those opportunities that have been opened up and what are the projects that got you there?

[00:14:11] Chrissa Amuah: Sure. So I mean, there have been overlaps with Africa by design and Africa by design was very much about celebrating other designers, but I guess being the curator and the founder it was me knocking on doors and opening doors. So even things like, you know having Africa by design featured in the New York Times and having some of the designers profiled in that.

[00:14:34] That's incredible. Like the New York Times is not to be taken for granted at all. Participating in Dubai Design Week, being invited to be a moderator and speaker for Sotheby's, an international auction house. And then I've worked with brands. Like I mentioned, Mortlock by design for Diageo. I've done a project for Lexus, you know, so some of these really international brands.

[00:14:58] I'm working again with different materials with different concepts. I realized I really love a good concept or coming up with an exciting brief that just allows your imagination to go wild.

[00:15:09] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, that really seems like one of your massive strengths creating these concepts. So, what would it look like when one of these clients came to you? What are they actually after?

[00:15:20] Chrissa Amuah: Yeah, so sometimes there's just a title, right? For the Mortlock Project, I was told, actually, that they wanted me to create a light fixture. And even then, I'll, you know... I'm not a traditional lighting designer, so it was both an opportunity and and also like a, oh, wow, like this is almost starting from... I'm not unfamiliar with lighting as a design product, but it wasn't, you know, there are some designers where that's their space.

[00:15:47] So it was giving me room to, I guess, be creative. Like I said it's always nice when a brand comes to you and says, this is the scope. This is the delivery. This is the budget. And then you know how far you can push your imagination.

[00:16:02] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): And then working with other designers and showcasing other designers work. How do you go about finding those designers? How do you go about putting something together that's cohesive to present them?

[00:16:15] Chrissa Amuah: Sure. So it's very much about understanding context in which people work. I know for a fact that a lot of designers that work across the continent have more of a WhatsApp culture than an email culture. So it's knowing how to communicate with people. Sometimes language has been a challenge because although I understand a little bit of French, I wouldn't say it's enough to hold a certain level of conversation and recognizing that a number of the designers that I've worked with are French speaking, so it's having to, again, adapt and be flexible and actually despite that, I've built some beautiful relationships with some of our French speaking colleagues. So, it's not impossible. Language is not a barrier. I think it's essentially, it's about people relationships, right? And developing relationships with people, understanding them. Encouraging each other, learning from each other and sort of being humble with it as well and willing to put in the work and yeah, I think the most successful examples or stories are where you can see a lot of work and consideration has gone into it.

[00:17:24] And that doesn't always mean having an amazing budget, but maybe being creative with what you do have.

[00:17:30] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, for sure. That's such an important thing of connecting Francophone and Anglophone Africa because whenever we've been part of projects, there's usually a headquarters in one or the other, and that's where it leans towards. And so this is also an invitation to Francophone speakers, you know, those designers from West Africa to be a part of our conversations so that we can learn from each other. We'd definitely love to see more of that. Yeah.

[00:17:59] Chrissa Amuah: Definitely.

[00:18:00] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah. And speaking of learning as well, you've been judging the

[00:18:05] Chrissa Amuah: Yes.

[00:18:05] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Dezine awards 2023.

[00:18:08] Chrissa Amuah: Yes. So that has been really fun. I was given the opportunity to judge the exhibition interiors category. I've also just completed a judging session for the Taiwan International Student Design Competition, which is something that I hope in years to come is promoted even more to Africa's design students because it's a wonderful opportunity.

[00:18:31] There's a really generous reward and prize for the top winners. And I don't think it's often that young people get those sorts of opportunities. So it's something that I'd love to see promoted across the continent's design schools as well.

[00:18:45] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, definitely add us onto that, you know, onto the calendar. It's something we'd want to be promoting more. Always comes and then goes very quickly as these things do.

[00:18:56] Chrissa Amuah: Exactly. Yeah.

[00:18:57] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): We just had the arts thread global design graduate show close as well. So really important. And actually, one of the challenges I've noticed is a lot of these things encourage students or graduates.

[00:19:11] Now, what's the way to approach that when you haven't graduated or you're not a student, when you're self started? And that's something we're increasingly thinking about, how to encourage our international partners as well when it is a student competition. What about the self taught students?

[00:19:30] Chrissa Amuah: And I think there is room for that. And I think, you know, the internet is so powerful and with resources like YouTube, like there are actually a lot of young people that are really just have their wits about them and know how to find or look for information that they don't know. But in the same breath, there are so many more, I think, that don't know how to do that.

[00:19:51] So it's about, in a way, giving room and making and promoting this idea of self taught learning and that education in different countries looks different. Right. And Kenya will be very different to Ghana as it will be to Togo or wherever. And it's something that I've thought about going forward.

[00:20:10] You know, a long-term dream of mine is for Africa by design, to be a design school. I feel like now that I've put it out there, I have to make it happen. But that's a long-term project and my dream is that it will make room for, you know, people who maybe haven't had a formal education as well as those that have and encourage excellence across the two.

[00:20:31] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, that's something we've talked about as well within the group of Pan African Design Institute as well, PADI, right? It's starting to shape a pan African design curriculum, right? And being that we've got so many experts on these things. So being able to at least consolidate because we should be learning from each other as well. We really want to know what's happening in Senegal. What's happening in...

[00:20:58] Chrissa Amuah: yes,

[00:20:58] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Everywhere. Yeah.

[00:21:00] Chrissa Amuah: definitely.

[00:21:01] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Have you got any questions for me in terms of things that we've we've been meaning to catch up on?

[00:21:08] Chrissa Amuah: Yeah, so I was actually thinking because you and I first caught up, so I went to Nairobi. I can't even remember which year this was. I feel like I want to say 2019, but I don't think it was that long...

[00:21:18] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): no, I think it was probably like, yeah, I think it was, or maybe 2019, but it was in a Java in, I remember where we met. Yeah. Hmm.

[00:21:28] Chrissa Amuah: Yeah, exactly. And I just had a lot of respect for what Adrian is doing and is continuing to do. And I was just curious, like, is there anything about what you've learned in that time since we've had a global pandemic since then? Like, what are you doing differently with regards to Nairobi Design Week and your own design practice?

[00:21:48] What has the world taught you in that time or changed you if it has?

[00:21:52] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Really interesting. I think we're constantly learning, like, we're constantly trying to configure what that business model is because really, we, we know we have to be self sustainable and we've known from the very beginning that we have to have a community throughout the year and a festival that engages people not just one week a year.

[00:22:15] So that's something we've been focused on. During the pandemic, we went a lot more online. Right. And everyone did that and we have stuck to some of those things. The fact that we can do podcasting online because people are much more used to doing this stuff now and people are much more used to consuming content as well that's been recorded remotely by two people.

[00:22:38] So that's something that stuck with us. We've definitely come back really strongly in terms of physical events. We have, you know, the festival, we've had the second one back live, and it's just getting better and better. People are really enjoying the experience. So bringing people together in a physical space, there's still something incredible about that and something that gives people much more, you know, in that 15 minute conversation when they meet, than they might have had in the previous few years, even if they'd known each other.

[00:23:11] So, those sparks have been really exciting for us. And we're also very conscious that we are Nairobi as a design capital and we want to use Nairobi to showcase design and culture from beyond Nairobi. It's always the capital cities. I've lived in Warsaw, London, Nairobi, and it's always the capital cities that get most of the funding, and we want to make sure that there's a design calendar not just in Nairobi, but around Kenya. So we're supporting anyone who's coming up with initiatives around Kenya and around East Africa, as we always have been to make sure that we have a full design calendar. So, Nairobi Design Week is for us that focal point and then we have kibera fashion week who are on the 14th of october. It will be their second one.

[00:24:02] Last year, it was on a railway runway. And this year is going to be an even better runway. So that's exciting. We're also working on a Turkana fashion week proposal with our friends from Turkana with Samir who's a fashion designer so really trying to plug those gaps and bring in all of that so we can share.

[00:24:24] So if we're doing something in another city, it's also making sure we bring in designers who are from there, right? Kibera Fashion Week focuses on people from there and shares that out.

[00:24:35] Chrissa Amuah: Amazing. I love it. Now, that's really exciting. I hope our calendars can what's it, coincide so that I do plan to come to Nairobi again and to make sure it coincides with one of your events because I'd love to see it all happening in real time.

[00:24:52] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Well, the next one is 9th to the 17th of March next year. So

[00:24:57] Chrissa Amuah: Okay, you've given me notice and I've got witnesses. I need to figure it out and make it.

[00:25:02] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): The theme is, we got this. So it's a really exciting theme and it's our ninth festival. So if you don't come, you'll have to come for the 10th one. Yeah.

[00:25:11] Chrissa Amuah: Definitely. But yeah, I think it's amazing, Adrian, what you've been doing, and more power to you, I say.

[00:25:18] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): And you, and it's really good, you know, to catch up. Sometimes it does take a few years to see each other again. And hopefully we can pick up these conversations because definitely there are things we can share and yeah, I'm looking forward. I'm sure I'll be in London at some stage.

[00:25:34] Chrissa Amuah: Definitely. Definitely. But thank you, Adrian.

[00:25:37] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Thank you too, and all the best to family and everyone else as well. so last question then because we usually start with this question, but us two didn't really need an icebreaker. So does your name have a reason or meaning? Your personal name.

[00:25:54] Chrissa Amuah: This is where I feel like I'm cheating. So I'm known as Chrissa and that is my name. It's actually an abbreviation of my full name, which I am not disclosing on, on this podcast, but I know that Chrissa is actually a Greek name and it means gold. So, you know, that's a nice thing to be associated with.

[00:26:14] But my Ghanaian name, which I'm called by certain family members, is actually Amenchua and it's two names as one, but it's Amma Enchua, and Amma means it's an Akan name, and it means that I was born on a Saturday. And Enchua is a family name, which nobody to date has been able to tell me what it means.

[00:26:35] But there are often meanings in Ghanaian names. Mine, no one can tell me what it means, but it depends which part of Ghana you're from, which clan you're from. My mum's clan, they tend to have more symbolic and meaningful names. And I didn't get one of those, unfortunately, but yeah, Amenchua is my Ghanaian name.

[00:26:57] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): That's beautiful. AMWA Designs is self explanatory, I...

[00:27:01] Chrissa Amuah: yes, it's my surname spelt phonetically, so that one works, yeah.

[00:27:06] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for your time. If people get in touch.

[00:27:11] What's the best way?

[00:27:12] Chrissa Amuah: So I'm on Instagram, chrissa.amuah is my handle name. Or you can also look for Africa by design. Africa by designs website is to be relaunched. So if you don't find anything there, do not be alarmed that we are still very much in existence. We're just plotting and planning the next move.

[00:27:31] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): There's plenty of past exhibits to be looked at

[00:27:33] Chrissa Amuah: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

[00:27:36] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Thank you, Chrissa.

[00:27:38] Chrissa Amuah: Thank you, Adrian. We'll speak offline for sure, soon.

[00:27:42] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Good. Good. Okay. Thank you.

Chrissa Amuah, a versatile designer, serves as the Founder and Creative Director of AMWA Designs, a high-end homeware and interior decor brand infused with Adinkra symbolism. While her heritage spans Ghana, Benin, and Togo, her primary inspiration stems from Ghana. She delves into the Adinkra Symbols, emphasizing how they grant her designs enduring significance, believing that meaningful creations have a longer-lasting impact.

Chrissa's impressive portfolio encompasses diverse projects, including Amplify, the Ghana Pavilion, and the 2021 London Design Biennale hosted at Somerset House. Yet, her aspirations extend beyond personal success. She aspires to showcase African talent on a global stage, thereby introducing Africa to the world. This mission is embodied in her brainchild, Africa by Design, which has already exhibited in five cities across four continents since its inception.

Amplify, Ghana Pavilion, London Design Biennale 2021 (Somerset House, UK). Photo credit Dean Hearne.

Ink, Duality Collection, a collaboration with Bernhardt Design.

Asanka Coffee Table by Chrissa Amuah

Episode Credits

Produced by Nairobi Design

HostAdrian Jankowiak

Producer, Shorts & Artwork: David King'ori

Music: Ngalah Oreyo (@ngalah_oreyo) and Mercy Barno (@merc.b_)