“History is not most probable in written traditions and tales of the past but can be conveyed through contemporary Art.”
~ David Nkusi – writer, cultural heritage analyst
Sifiso Shange is a South African creative that goes by many titles. Zulu Modernist. Founder and Creative Director of Afri Modern. Interior designer at LYT Architecture. Story-teller. Designer. But at the heart of it all is a longing to preserve the cultural teachings and rituals passed down to him. After attaining a degree in interior design from Durban University of technology in 2014, he began to design products with back-stories that preserved that knowledge.
It wasn’t until 2017, when he had his first exhibition at the Design Indaba second class, that the industry started to take notice. 2018 became a defining year in Sifiso’s career, with increased media traction. He showcased at the Emerging Creatives in Cape Town-main class, as well as, the inaugural Designing in Wood exhibit at 100% Design South Africa 2018; alongside industry greats such as David Krynauw. We caught up with Sifiso to learn a little more about his journey thus far:
That’s a three-year wait to get recognition for your work…
A lot of people have told me that I’ve been very patient. I think that everything has its own timing and I can truly vouch for the saying ‘trust the process’. Three years ago I wouldn’t have been ready to handle the conversations and negotiations I’m in now. And then, under the mentorship of Eugenie Drakes – through the Design Foundation which is awarded by Southern Guild – I’m now in the early stages of becoming a business. I really thank the universe, God and the ancestors that guide me because I’ve learnt so much and I’m ready for it now.
What does the term ‘Zulu modernist’ mean to you?
It’s that balance of Sifiso – the son who is very rooted in culture, family rituals and traditions – existing in a modern world and doing things in a modern way too. It’s blending both worlds and pushing the culture forward. I think the next stage for myself and my work is progressing the Zulu culture. It’s important that we document our experiences so they’ll have something of value to reference. I’m not saying I am an expert in Zulu culture, but I will share what I’ve learnt and what it felt like to be a Zulu man living 2019.
How do you balance between Afri Modern and LYT Architecture?
It’s a balance between the people in my life that I care about, work and Afri Modern. I’m doing as much as I can while my body still allows me to, because there will come a time when I can’t do this anymore. I think that’s why I have over 10 diaries of sketches, notes, stories and ideas that I still haven’t shown the world. I’m giving the world an extension of who I am, my people and whomever has contributed to these stories that I am telling.
Why did you change the brand name from S Design Studio to Afri Modern?
Towards the end of 2017, when the media features started happening, I realised the impact it started having back home. In my neighbourhood, the people recognised as winners were the gangsters and the criminals; the ones who had the cool cars, women and cash. And I realised that I was becoming a tangible inspiration that wasn’t from that world. So I changed the name to Afri Modern to reflect being one with family and community. Celebrating and preserving our stories and culture by putting it into product so that it lives forever. These products will be here way beyond me and that’s why it became bigger than me.
What is the idea behind Afri Modern?
The word is rooted in African stories being designed and packaged in product. Right now, I’m purely solidifying my name as a furniture designer but the long term goal is to create a variety of products with meaning. To me, whatever you create has to serve something and carry some sense of value for whomever is using it. So, I try to create quality products that are practical, functional and serve a purpose.
We’re curious to know why you decided to start off with servers…
Over the years it came to me that servers capture the feeling of preserving and storing perfectly. We tend to store special items full of meaning and feeling in them. While the servers have meaning on their own, you get to make your own meaning for it too.
What was the first range you released?
I can’t tell you which design comes first, because – for example – Nsizwa and Mina Nawe were done in February 2018 and I started posting them in 2019. There was a time I was posting five different pieces, five times a week. Now I’ve slowed down and I’ve found that people respond better to this because they have time to live with a design and understand it.
Let’s go through some of your pieces and their meaning:
- Dr Esther Mahlangu – This was a tribute to Dr Esther Mahlangu when she was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg. I just felt that I had to honour her because she is part of the few Nguni people that are pushing the culture forward with the arts. I was inspired by Ndebele pattern and blended them with Zulu patterns.
- Nsizwa – It means ‘young man’ in Zulu and it’s a celebration of young men. The upside down triangle is inspired by Zulu bead work and the three points represent the young man’s journey from start to middle and end.
- Intombi – Celebration of young women
- Muhle Muhle – Means beauty and is a tribute to women of all ages because women are the essence of life. Celebrating all the women who have come along in my life because I’m here because of the female energy. That collection is layered in so many pieces. For example I did one for Caster Semenya out of what she’s going through and just saying you’re beautiful beyond what the world says to you and that you’re loved.
- Mama Wami – Means my mother. It’s a tribute to her and thanking her for the support through all of this. There are times when ego kicks in and I want to quit. She’s always grounding me, reminding me to trust God and the journey, trust that the universe will give me what I need at the right time. She’s always been there and supported me. I value her a lot and she’s played a huge role in all of this.
- Nja Yami – Means ‘my dog’. A lot of young guys call each other Nja Yami ‘My Dog’ in SA. A side table is like your Nja Yami; always at your side and part of your memories.
- Mina Nawe – It means you and I. Initially, the first concept of it was inspired by a friend of mine who was getting married, their love and all the obstacles they went through. Over the years, it’s grown into unity and love across the board between friends, siblings and people.
- Hawu – Means shield. They were used to protect men in war, physically and also what they stood for and believed in. I translated that into being a shield for myself and my community, by protecting and preserving our culture. You are the shield for your people by the role you play in society by preserving what matters to you.
Which piece has the most significance to you?
A very special and sentimental piece is Vukani; which means ‘Wake Up’. My work is also an escape for me and an expression of where I am in my life. At the time, I was seeing the hommies were stressed because things weren’t working out, no matter what they tried. So Vukani is a reminder to wake up and rise together above whatever obstacles we meet along the way.
If we met you at one of the exhibitions you’ll be showcasing at this year, what should we ask you about?
When I have a one-on-one with someone, I can break down a piece in all of its layers. Everything I do is very systematic in numbers. For example, I post in threes on Instagram because it represents the start, middle and the end. Over the years I’ve mastered how to speak in Zulu symbols and then blended it with my own style to create my own language, mixing different patterns in specific ways to derive a message.