Safari-style decor and furniture are strongly associated with Africa. In fact, there is a whole private tourism and elite resort industry built around them. But such spaces and the memories they conjure up have a complicated narrative. From talking about land ownership to animal hunting rights and colonial stories, the word “safari” in Africa can have less than glamorous connotations. Pith helmets and animal skins are part of an outdoor motif that is much more closely associated with British colonization than with indigenous African realities.
Vintage campaign-style furniture carries the same burden. The furnishing style that is so coveted today still bears the historical legacy of empire building in Asia and Africa. Whether antique or recreated, the heavy logs, the table legs with X-frames and the folding Paragon chairs point to a problematic story. The easily transportable items were the equipment that made it easier for British soldiers and colonists to settle in places that were not their own. Their robust workmanship was in demand in rough terrain and the craftsmanship should convey the powerful persistence of these newcomers. Vintage cabinets and heavy chests of drawers had a “civilizing mission” by bringing European letters and clothing to parts of the world that had very different cultural customs and values. And while many today agree on the harmfulness of such colonization and the injustices that go with it, the aesthetics of the time remain very popular. But is that bad?
Jomo Tariku, an Ethiopian-American artist and industrial designer, believes that “furniture should be judged according to its usefulness to the buyer, collector or user – or a combination of all”. When he launched his furniture collection of the same name in 2017, Tariku became a pioneer of modern African design. She was inspired by various arts and created objects that his family collected on their travels through Africa and beyond. Born in Nairobi, Kenya to Ethiopian parents, Tariku has always combined heritage, humanity and design sensibility. He encourages buyers to keep this in mind when deciding whether these vintage styles suit their current needs.
He admits that the name “campaign style” has a negative connotation, but he says it clearly: “That is the name and purpose for which it was used: to comfort the colonial soldiers while they were out with their invading army. When it comes to stop using the name, I prefer to diminish its association with the global south by producing new works that break that association. “
Tariku does this by inventing modern furnishings that carry on a long tradition of creativity and handicrafts from Africa. His work uses Western technology – digital manufacturing, power tools, 3D software, and printers – to redefine the work traditional artisans have long produced. He is part of a new work by African designers such as Hamed Ouattara from Burkina Faso, Doctors and Misses in South Africa and Piratas do Pau in Mozambique, breathing new life into the home decor and furnishings associated with the continent.
These new artisans remind us that while colonial styles could be associated with a troubled past, many of these basic pieces were made locally using local labor, unique woods, and hand-forged metal. In this way, there is a hint of collective agency behind antiques. Since contemporary buyers are looking for authentic pieces for modern spaces that represent and involve people of different origins, it pays to weigh the historical context of the historical pieces against the impressive myriad of today’s alternatives.
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Nafeesah Allen is an independent researcher interested in literary, gender and diaspora studies in the global south. In 2019 she completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa. She runs BlackHistoryBookshelf.com, a book reviews website that highlights global black history by language, subject, and country. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @theblaxpat.
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