When confronted with the inevitable question of 'What do you do?' at a dinner party, Porky Hefer first tries to change the subject. Only if pressed will he admit, 'I make nests,' and then await the inevitable follow-up queries. The South African designer prefers to let his work speak for - and define - itself. 'I find that most art is exclusive, while these are inclusive,' he says, gesturing to the three massive, pod-like forms he has installed just inside the entrance of New York's R & Company gallery. 'Because your first reaction - the common appeal - is nest! And then you go from there. As opposed to, "What the hell is that?"'
Hefer's human-sized nests are crafted from cane with the help of sightless weavers from the Cape Town Society for the Blind's cane furniture factory. They are joined by the work of husband and wife design team Dokter and Misses, Senegalese designer Babacar Niang and the design collective Ardmore in an exhibition titled Grains of Paradise. Organized by R & Company in collaboration with Cape Town gallery Southern Guild, the show of contemporary African design takes its title from the nickname of Aframomum melegueta, a West African spice and folk remedy that made its own way to the West.
'This work is alive. It's futuristic. And it has a bit of the old world at the same time,' says R & Company co-founder Zesty Meyers, sidling up to a row of colorfully glazed vessels created by South Africa's Ardmore Ceramic Art and marveling at the layered figures: birds, monkeys, boars, wild dogs and the occasional angel. 'I think they're trying to tell stories and we're trying to figure them out,' he says. 'At the gallery, our goal is to get the artisans to take the chances to present more of their dreams, and then to immerse visitors in their worlds and environments.
'The world of Johannesburg couple Dokter and Misses (also known as Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin) is revealed in four large wooden forms - clean-lined, secret-compartment-laden casegoods that give the impression of having gobbled up smaller pieces on their way to Manhattan. Inspired by the hand-painted mud huts of the Kassena tribe in the southern region of Burkina Faso bordering northern Ghana, the boldly patterned beech quartet comprises 'a town - our own interpretation of a town,' explains Hugo. He likens one to a house, one to a place of worship, one to a watchtower. And the one topped with a semi-circular, headdress-like steel pipe fitted with a light fixture? 'That's the wild one,' says Taplin. 'It's like the weird, crazy neighbor's house.'
A delightful strain of eccentricity also courses through the work of Niang, a self-taught designer who works exclusively with wood he finds in the bush, transforming the specimens into sensually sculpted tables, chairs, and benches that sit somewhere between animal and object. The smoothly carved ebony is often accented with braided leather or horn. 'There's an intimacy to this work, a mystery,' says Meyers, who found Niang through Design Network Africa, a program backed by the Danish government. 'Now all of these designers have a global following, and I think it's just the beginning of where they will go.'