Kossi Aguessy: “Protesting is fine, but doing is even better”

In the latest of his Four Corners series of interviews with designers from the African diaspora, Jon Daniel talks to Togo’s Kossi Aguessy.

Update 26 May 2017: RIP Kossi Aguessy (1977-2017). I was devastated to hear last week of the death of Kossi Aguessy, who passed away on 17 April. Kossi was such a dynamic and progressive creative. Of the many people I have covered in my 4 Corners column, he was one whose career progression excited me the most. He created a fabulous body of work that clearly shows the passion he had in celebrating his African heritage, and executing it so beautifully and brilliantly through a modern design and contemporary art methodology. I will miss his presence greatly.

This piece was originally published in 2015, prior to Aguessy’s death.

Togo, or the Togolese Republic as it is officially now known is, at just 22,000 square miles and with a population of just over 6.7 million, one of the smallest countries in Africa.

Certainly, its not a place that you would readily associate with the creation of high quality and luxurious product design of major European brands. And yet it is precisely assumptions such as this that have driven our latest profiled designer to overcome such prejudices.

Armed with an abundance of talent and bags of confidence, he challenges the very perception of what an “African” designer should be. It is my pleasure to introduce you today to the magnificent Kossi Aguessy.

KA by Stephane Ginner 1_crop
Kossi Aguessy. Portrait by Stephanie Ginner

What’s your background?

The first thing I’d like to mention is the funny part of the situation: almost a decade ago when I started being noticed for my design works, everyone around me was sceptical about how there could be “a prominent designer of African descent”. Now everyone sticks to my design works and almost forgets one fact: I am not a designer, I design. And I try to design each time as if it was the very first time.

I do not want a stamp or a box; we’ve got enough already. I never really integrated the boundaries of “disciplines”. I am an artist who happened to be an engineer. As design stands at the crossroad of these two “disciplines”, I naturally have designed, for as long as I can recall.

As for my background, I am a self-thought African and global artist (and designer, according to labels) born in Togo from a Togolese-Beninese father and a Mother of Afro–Brazilian descent. Neither arts nor design were part of my prime education. I come from a pragmatic business and politics-orientated family.

My first public design works were almost accidents, but I have consciously made design the central concern of my production these past, recent years. This decision came when I found out how little people of my skin tone were represented in the industry, and how little credit they were given.

Back then I heard a lot of: “Africans can’t be trusted when it comes to industry.” As I’ve learned, protesting is fine, but doing is even better. There was a chance to provoke, and I guess I just went for it.

Now that I have started feeling more acceptance, it is time for me to move on to the second step, which is launching truly useful and unusual design projects with the least concessions possible, alongside focusing on contemporary art.

I do feel we live in a splendid moment of history, which may, in one way, seem chaotic, but in another it is a time when deep changes are occurring, and when schemes and habits are questioned, as the Renaissance was.

We are at the edges of one time, and the beginning of another, and as with every switch, it is painful. But no matter what, I am a believer; I feel the thrill of that switch and know there is much to act on. I am content with witnessing and participating.

I DOLL n°2 The Sun
I DOLL n°2 The Sun

How did you get started in your field of expertise?

I guess you mean design by field of expertise, although I do consider sculpture and painting are equally fields of expertise to me. As mentioned before, I have, on purpose, dedicated myself mainly to design the past few years. I was done with having prominent actors of the design field constantly bashing “people of my kind” because of their so called incapacity to do meaningful or advanced industrial projects.

I know a countless number of industrial artists with these backgrounds who ended up giving up because they were called “exotic”, while they could have brought some serious deal to this field.

Why should “coloured design” or “exotic design” still be used as terms while everything else is global? I have refused to be a victim of this shameful segregationist hypocrisy. Going almost exclusively design, and not the “sort” of design I was expected to provide, was a way for me to induct that change in the system.

I am one singular individual. This is who I am and what I do, regardless of my origins or of someone else’s prejudices and fantasies.

I have collaborated with brands all around, and I have stopped counting the situations where I have had to face these prejudices or fantasies.

The good thing is that, from the very beginning, I knew this was just a moment in my career. So being the “funny black guy” made me smile. I knew the type of design, from objects to concepts, that I wanted to provide. I knew it demanded independence and being capable of providing them on my own, with no distortion. On my personal evolution table, I call it “level two” – and this is exactly were I stand today.

DAMN Chair
DAMN Chair

What challenges did you overcome in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?

It seems like the design industry, on a whole, was not very open to diversity back then, and it is still somewhat the case, although the focus on African and afro-related creatives is growing. Until the splendid Global Africa Project Exhibition at the Museum Of Arts and Design in NYC, the situation was very simple: unless these creatives accepted being the funny ones, they would not even be allowed to be part of the game.

That is the first challenge you have to overcome when you are a young designer of a certain origin. We have to find ways and tricks to make it through. We have to show the most solid determination possible and never give up on anything. People like Karim Rashid, whether you like his style or not, contributed in a very active manner to the change what we are witnessing today.

Then came the regular deal: Working and trying to convince your counterparts almost permanently that your vision, technical skills, artistic personality fit into their worlds.

On that topic, I’d like to bring your attention to the basis on which the design industry has ended up running. Hundreds of producers, labels and brands out there offer no choice to creatives other than starving.

When you are a designer and you have collaboration proposals from these producers, you end up giving them your projects for free. You are promised royalties, but I would really like somebody to explain to me how people working endlessly are meant to survive two or three years before they start to get their royalties paid back to them?

This is what we have been through. This is what thousands of creatives suffer daily. And as a bonus, they are asked to be thankful for the opportunity of exposure they have been offered. I still don’t know anyone paying their bills with exposure – if you know some, I would very much like to be introduced. I just cannot understand why there is no legislation defining a minimum wage upfront for the creative.

Creatives invest every day – and not simply material assets – they invest their finances and their health because they are small companies of their own. In fact, trying to make a name for yourself is some sort of a masochistic experience. Yet do we really have a choice? When you feel it matters, you go for it.

But “going for it” does not mean not having the choice to change some of the conditions. I have created my own design lifestyle label for these reasons. As I said previously, protesting is fine but being the change we want to see is the most secure manner for ensuring these changes.

With the label we try to provide meaningful concepts with real quality, alongside having respectful production schemes towards the environment and not cutting off innovation or extreme creative processes.

It is certainly a real challenge, yet it is pleasant going through step-by-step and seeing the results. I am a fierce optimist and I do believe in us. I hate complaining and although the route was ambushed sometimes, I would be willing to do it again if I was given the choice. I do very much like history but future is definitely my greatest motivation.

L447 Lamp
L447 Lamp

Who, or what, are your greatest inspirations and influences?

From Monday to Sunday, it’s nature. In terms of people, the greatest designer and artist to me is Leonardo Da Vinci.Even when I came to do the most intimate and personal of my painting series, Leo De Medio Rubi, I used some of Da Vinci’s canvases as creative bases.

But everything around me influences me, from the news to my friends. My inspirations are quite random, sometimes the most insignificant event is one ignition, sometimes it is a longer process, but I have observed a constant is the living. By this, I mean everything from nature to the derivatives, such as culture.

INFINITY Armchair for AKAA Art Fair - Paris
INFINITY Armchair

What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?

I do not think I really know what pride is. I am a little too perfectionist to have any. I do consider my pride to be forthcoming. Everything I’ve done or can do is, in my personal opinion, obsolete from the minute it exists. My interest then moves to the next challenge. It is in fact a bit frustrating but I have been like that my entire life.

I know relief when a project is done, but even that feeling does not last long. The next instant, I am already thinking of what can be upgraded.

I have some satisfaction with what I am currently working on, because it corresponds exactly to how I want to act at that precise moment of my life. I feel happiness following my path as an artist, and handling my design projects and brand at the same time. It is proof that the no-frontiers mindset can be turned into reality.

LIL FOGO Candelabra for AGUESSY™
LIL FOGO Candelabra

What would be your dream job or project?

You mean aside from having a personal exhibition next year at the Tate Modern?

As an artist, I do have some works, sculptures and installations I would like to create, and technically these are still dreams – incredibly challenging ones and therefore exciting.

I do have some crazy dreams, such as revamping Versailles in the manner of a Murakami. I dream of creating one singular artwork tribute to the millions of victims of the triangular trade, and to the wonderful result, we, their descendants, finally happen to be. I dream of paying a tribute to the Nigerians, Kenyans, Tunisians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans who turn out to be the collateral damage of the culture we have built.

Finding a way to complete the production and distribution of the solar modular lamp I am currently working on for Southern regions of the world, working on a clean automotive project with Tesla, and working on a spaceship or a space station, because I am 100% amazed by Elon Musk’s philosophy, are all up there.

I mean these are the sorts of people and projects which understand make me feel proud to belong to the human race. Doing for real what everyone else considers a dream – this is my dream.

STELLA Perfume Bottle
STELLA Perfume Bottle

Who are some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition, and why?

Lately I’ve discovered the great work of King Houndekpinkou, a French/Beninese artist and designer. He works exclusively in ceramics and the least I can say is that his work is intense – Halfway between Japanese Raku ware and the Benin Voodoo Idols look. Talking of greatness, the latest work from Jonathan Freemantle, from South Africa, is simply splendidly powerful.

Youssef Eskandar Nabil, a young Egyptian architect and designer living in New York is quite a hit, as well. Clément Boutillon, a young French designer, sincerely has every chance of becoming a serious deal if he has good opportunities to deal with.

In Britain, Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien are great. I like a lot Sebastian Bergne’s work as well, Tokujin Yoshioka and Mikiya Kobayashi’s in Japan. Also Fanny Lecart, a young ceramist from Brussels, Belgium, alongside Tamim Daoudi, Michael Koska, Antonio Virga, and Vincent Patfoort from Ludovic Avenel Studio. All these people bring thrilling variety, new perspectives to their fields, and that is what it is all about.

USELESS TOOL Chair by Masaki Okumura
USELESS TOOL Chair

What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I am not very good at advising, but I will say: “Prepare to battle; be as creative as you can; as innovative as you may; question everything; live and breathe your art; never forget the technical but keep in mind that a spoon of beauty never did wrong.”

More globally, I’d very much like the younger generation to understand that disciplines are a manufactured concept. The real deal is out there, and it is called the universe or life, name it as you want.

Questioning establishments, trying to find solutions, dealing with production or providing objects is vain if you do not know love, laughter, light, a smile, everything that matters, is in everything but an object. Understanding this allows us to create better, or at least with deeper meaning.

LEO DE MEDIO RUBI. Twice Half A Sister by Stephane Giner
LEO DE MEDIO RUBI. Twice Half A Sister

What’s next for you?

Practically, I have two exhibitions coming up in October. One contemporary art-focused in Paris, the another design-oriented one at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Also coming up is the AKAA fair in Paris, with a couple of exhibitions in both sculpture and design categories, with my French gallery on one hand and the Museum Of African Design on the other one. There’s also Art Basel Miami, the Christmas and new year collection of my design brand to launch, and starting work on next year’s programme.

Seriously, my next challenge is sparing some time for a few days of vacation.

Pragmatically, everything that is coming next.

Philosophically, Life, etc…

For more information visit: www.aguessy.lifewww.kossiaguessy.bizwww.facebook.com/AguessyLabelwww.facebook.com/KOSSIAGUESSYOFFICIAL 

Network:

EUROPE:

‘DOING NOTHING IS NOT AN OPTION’ Exhibition at Peckham Platform. 2015 marks 20 years since Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, alongside eight colleagues, for crimes he did not commit. They were campaigning against Shell’s exploitation and environmental destruction of the Ogoni land which 20 years on, remains unchecked. Peckham is at the heart of London’s Nigerian and Ogoni diaspora so to coincide with this important anniversary, Peckham Platform has commissioned artist and writer Michael McMillan for a commemorative exhibition that will take place at the gallery from 17 September – 22 November 2015.

THE CARIBBEAN:

TTFF 2015 (The trinidad+tobago film festival) 15–29 September 2015, celebrates films from and about the Caribbean and its diaspora, as well as from world cinema, through an annual festival and year-round screenings. In addition, the ttff seeks to facilitate the growth of Caribbean cinema by offering a wide-ranging industry programme and networking opportunities.

THE US:

THE FREEDOM PRINCIPLE: EXPERIMENTS IN ART AND MUSIC, 1965 TO NOW links the vibrant legacy of the 1960s African American avant-garde to current art and culture. It is occasioned in part by the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a still-flourishing organisation of Chicago musicians whose interdisciplinary explorations expanded the boundaries of jazz. Alongside visual arts collectives such as the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), the AACM was part of a deep engagement with black cultural nationalism both in Chicago and around the world during and after the civil rights era. Combining historical materials with contemporary responses, The Freedom Principle illuminates the continued relevance of that engagement today. Runs until 22 November 2015. 

AFRICA:
THE SIXTH EDITION OF LAGOSPHOTO FESTIVAL ‘DESIGNING FUTURES’ positions the relationships between African design, the design of Africa and our understanding of how we may design Africa, as the platform to discuss our past, present and future intentions. With history, circumstance and fantasy as significant pointers of the lens-based projects exhibited, Designing Futures highlights crucial aspects of ‘making’ that come into play in African signs and design dialogues. The making of image, identity, desire, ecology, and even culture are explored through advertising, textiles, portraiture, factual and conceptual photography; these offer tangible and esoteric backdrops to how we process, navigate and inhabit the realms of a future Africa. 24 October – 27 November 2015.

If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info@jon-daniel.com.

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Jon Daniel is a London-based independent creative director, designer and curator. For more information, visit his website at www.jon-daniel.com or his blog at www.visual-intellectual.com.

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