Flashback to the 1970s: Alex Haley's "Roots" ruled the pop-culture roost, the black pride movement was in full swing and a generation of African-Americans was celebrating their heritage by decorating their homes with tribal masks and kente cloth.
"People were bringing back textiles and other things from their journeys," recalled St. Paul, Minn., artist Ta-coumba Aiken, who made his own life-altering trip to Nigeria in 1977. "You might not know what part of Africa or what tribe you descended from, but there was a kinship" with the continent.
Today, we're part of a global economy; an African-American of Kenyan descent is in the White House, and African arts and crafts aren't just for world travelers and customers of pricey galleries; they're also available at mass-market retailers such as Pier 1 and Target.
As a result, African style is more accessible than ever.
"At first, it was kind of a fad," said Angie Scott, a St. Paul interior designer and owner of Access:Dezign. But globalization is fueling broader awareness and appreciation of other cultures and their aesthetic traditions.
For many black Americans, African-inspired design remains a celebration of cultural pride. "We're just drawn to those pieces and being in touch with our ancestry," said Scott.
But today's African decor tends to be understated and part of an eclectic ethnic mix.
"People want that influence, but they don't want it to scream," she said. "They want subtle cues: geometric shapes ... animal prints that are more subued than what you used to see."
Among collectors of global antiques and artifacts, African pieces "faded to the background for 10 or 15 years, as Asian antiques came in," said Ian Grant, owner of Bjorling & Grant, an imported furniture and accessories showroom in St. Louis Park, Minn. "Now, slowly, at the upper end of the market, African pieces are coming back in."
But now they're being used selectively, to make a bold, design statement. "It's not the shotgun approach with lots of masks and typical stuff," he said. "People are more judicious about the pieces they're getting. It's a direct result of all the clean modernism we're seeing."
Grant recently traveled to Togo and Benin, two adjacent West African nations, bringing back turn-of-the-century currency.
"There's interest now in some of the old throwing knives, disks and bones that were used as money, as well as some of the large, rustic furniture pieces," he said. "They're useful in all these modern interiors."
It's too soon to tell whether the Barack Obama era will help usher in an African style renaissance. But Aiken, for one, believes it can't help but have an impact. "With Obama being president, we're hearing about African countries." Kenya, Obama's father's homeland, was recently in the media spotlight, for example, with video clips of Kenyans cheering the U.S. election.
"What happened with Obama is that people have a different worldview," he said. "It isn't 'them' anymore; it's 'us.' Broader knowledge will create appreciation instead of fear."
And there's much to appreciate, Aiken said. "Some of the finest crafts in the world come from all parts of Africa. It's an area of beautiful age-old design. People will start looking at Africa and will be amazed."
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