Designer Ini Archibong says he is glad that people are waking up to issues of racial inequality.
The Pavilion of the African Diaspora opened this week as one of 38 projects on show at Somerset House for the 2021 edition of the biennale.
It will be used as a stage for talks, events and performances from members of the African Diaspora.
Ini Archibong told that, although the project comes in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is not intended as a statement about race, but instead as a place where people of African descent can come together and share stories.
“This is meant to be a platform for the people in the diaspora to have a conversation,” he said. “This isn’t a platform for Ini to express his views on race. It was never intended to be that and it won’t become that.”
Representing something bigger
The African diaspora refers to Africans and their descendants who have settled away from the continent, as a result of migration or slavery.
Ini Archibong, who was raised in the US by Nigerian parents, but who is now based in Switzerland, says he felt a responsibility to represent his heritage at the biennale, particularly considering the lack of racial diversity in the design industry.
“We don’t often have somebody that’s in my position be asked to put something into a biennale, or that even gets to be a designer on the international stage,” he said.
Ini points out that the pavilion was first conceived in 2019, well before Black Lives Matter gained momentum. But he believes the connection with this movement, as well as other organisations like The Movement for Black Lives, will help this project reach a broader audience.
“I’m proud that its execution came at a time when it can represent something bigger to a lot more people than just the design community,” he said.
“One could say it’s an act of defiance”
By creating a pavilion specifically for members of the diaspora, he hopes to draw attention to the lack of monuments and public spaces designed for people of colour, and the important role they play in making cities more inclusive.
He describes it as “a temporary monument in the seat of the home of the transatlantic slave trade out of the UK, dedicated to the people that were enslaved“.
“One could say it’s an act of defiance, one could decide to look at it as divisive if they chose to,” Ini said. “But I just presented it as exactly what it is and how people take it is how they take it.”
“If it is divisive, it’s divisive in the sense of saying that there are going to be people that accept us and they are going to be people that don’t, and that’s a division that I’m completely okay with,” Ini added.
In London, New York and Miami
The structure on show at Somerset House is named The Sail, while The Wave will debut in New York in the autumn and The Shell will feature at Art Basel in Miami in December.
These structures all take inspiration from the forms of conch and cowrie shells, which not only have symbolic meaning in various diasporic cultures, but can also represent the idea of resonating voices. Other inspirations include sound waves, ship sails and thresholds.
“After you’ve crossed this threshold and entered into the space of The Sail, you see these sound waves overtaking The Sail and carrying us into the future,” said Archibong.
“In a sense, it represents a mythological pass, and a through line, for the black voices leading us into the future.”
Legacy for the future
The 2021 edition of the London Design Biennale is curated by Es Devlin, with the theme Resonance. The exhibition – which also features Forest for Change, an installation of 400 trees – is on show from 1 to 27 June at Somerset House.
Throughout the biennale, the Pavilion of the African Diaspora will host a programme of events centred around contributions from the African Diaspora, curated with the help of managing partner Tamara N Houston.
Ini said he hopes that pavilion can have a legacy for the future, possibly in helping to create more cultural support for the African diaspora worldwide.
“Looking at the diaspora as a global whole isn’t something that we do very often,” he said. “It would be great if that was one of the outcomes.”