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We can start as people, changing things; Rui Tenreiro in a conversation about Africa and Design Responsibility

April 7, 2010

When I think about multi-talented illustrator and artist Rui Tenreiro (b.1979) I think about a snowball, rolling around gathering speed and material and continously growing larger and more multi-faceted, collecting cultural input and making it his own before putting it out in all different types of work. Having inherited his last name from Portuguese grandparents, Rui was born and raised in Mozambique, educated in South Africa and the UK, has lived an worked as an illustrator in Norway and currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden. Having worked with textiles, ceramics, illustration, editing, curating, writing, advertising and film, he is just about to finish his Masters in Storytelling at Konstfack. He has published two books with a third in the pipeline, and he also runs Soyfriends, an independent publisher, dedicated to printing fanzine type works in small editions.

I stumbled upon him on my virtual meanderings (in fact, Rui was the creator of the letter L on the Animalphabet!), I really liked his work and found some of his ideas quite interesting, so I contacted him and despite the fact that he is now in the final few weeks of finishing his masters he very generously took the time to answer some questions…Lucky me, and lucky you guys too, he’s a bit of a treasure!

Me: Hello, Rui! I’m interested in grassroots-everything, and people taking power into their own hands, so can you tell me a little about Soyfriends? Why did you see a need for starting that up?

Rui: I wanted to work with artists I liked, on a Scandinavian level. I saw a red thread, mostly in Norway, and a little in Sweden, and wanted to gather all those under Soyfriends, but it quickly took another turn. I didn’t expect to be selling so much, and since I was the only one, it became too much administrative work: more distribution, posting, billing than just the pleasure of making fanzines with nice work, so I haven’t been releasing anything new.
Now there are so many small press publishers, so I’m thinking that if I continue, I will be making works and books focused on African artists instead, cause they get the least attention and have the least money as a general rule. There’s also very interesting work being made in Southern Africa at the moment, but it doesn’t get out there, either because it’s not seen for its full potential or because it fails to be produced in a way that complements it.


Me: Does that mean you’ll publish and distribute mainly in Africa, or are you planning to bring African work to the world?

Rui: I haven’t thought that far but if I make it, it’s only fair that it would be sold both in Mozambique and everywhere else.

(“Kho went on the rampage swallowing everything in his path. Including the path.”)

Me: You’ve written about Africa that it is “a place full of tradition and modern living in direct conflict. Forces on both sides tug and pressure the other to give way. Somewhere in the middle is where most things take place”. In your opinion, are they conditions for particularly interesting work, esp. storytelling?

Rui: I think so. I feel that there are so many nuances but what people tend to see from African countries (and I mean Southern Africa because this is what I know; I never visited Arab Africa) – is that it is a place either full of colours, or full of conflict. It’s a pretty boring take. I think the reality (tradition and modernity in cohabitation) is way more interesting and yes, of course it’s fertile ground for many, many things. Be it storytelling, film-making or anything, I think it’s a great situation to be creating in!

And of course there is lack of money for many people, which means the creations will find other outlets, other ways of coming out to the world. These conditions are unique and they will produce unique work too. Myself, I like the more bizarre aspect of African proverbs and parables. I like how some African – or perhaps I should say Mozambican- cities have a mass of vibrant crowd, cars, markets, salesmen, but people still eat traditional food (which is a blend of cultures like Indian, Mozambican, Portuguese), consult the witchdoctor, use traditional crafts, and so on.

Tradition can be seen in a gesture: how one holds their hands when giving something to another person, respectfully. This goes side by side with technology. All you have to do is look at Afrigadget [website] to realize that.

Me: I gather your knowledge of, and interest in, Africa is because of your cultural background – you’re from Mozambique, but you’re a white fella? Is that confusing for people?

Rui: My interest in Mozambique and Africa is because I’m Mozambican. It has all to do with how I grew up and how I feel, my background and my education, as well as my thoughts, and nothing to do with being white. In fact, being white and Mozambican confuses other people more than it confuses me. It specially confuses people who have little knowledge of African history. But this is understandable, I’d be surprised if a black person told me he/she was Korean or Russian.

I’m also interested in some themes to do with Mozambique and not in other themes, just like we all are. For instance, you and me are interested in how to combine design and ethics, or social responsibility, but some designers are not. This might have to do with your experience of living in Africa, or maybe not. I’ve met some Europeans who are more interested in helping a cause in Mozambique than many Mozambicans themselves.

Me: On your TED profile, you suggest that an idea worth spreading is to Stop aid to Africa – you reckon instead of building infrastructures, we should be teaching people how to create a working system that can run independently from foreign aid. How are those ideas founded in your own life? What’s your experience?

Rui: Well. I’m not sure, but it seems like Aid to Africa isn’t always good. An example:

There is a crisis (flood or draught) and people are asked to send food supplies to a country. What happens is that the foods and clothes arrive and are given away for free or sold in the black market for low prices. In any case, they won’t cost much. The farmers of the region (beyond affected area) and the local clothes factories cannot possibly compete for prices against these give-aways. In the case of the farmers, if they don’t sell any of their own products, they won’t have money to buy seeds for the following year. If such give-aways and cheap products flood the market often, how will the local businesses survive? How will a local clothes factory compete against clothes that are given away. In some cases however I think people should get help, but it’s hard to tell when. It’s tricky.

In the case of building infrastructures, let’s talk of another example. Let’s say you go to a village and build a water pump or tank in the middle of the country.
Those people will always be dependent on someone, a specialist, who can come and build water tanks. It might be more effective to teach the local population to build their own infrastructures. Even better, invest in a study on how to make such infrastructures with local materials that can be obtained locally and cheaply. What will happen when the water pump or tank needs a spare parts replaced? It might be left abandoned, or water might be wasted. Instead, it might be better to think about long-term solutions: how can we create a system (an educated, local work force using local products) that can let them be independent from foreign aid? It’s like the world community is trying to teach a kid to ride a bicycle but never lets go because the kid might fall. Instead, this kid never learns to ride free of the helping hand, and is never independent.

Me: Do you have any thoughts on that common interest of ours, how to combine design and ethics/design responsibility?

Rui: Some friends and I were once talking about whether designers and artists should feel a particular duty to be socially responsible. Not knowing enough about ‘design’, or about that debate, we wondered how it came to be that some designers feel at one point or another that they should be using their skills for actions that can make some change in society, either directly or indirectly. We also wondered whether the issue comes up for – let’s say – a lawyer, a librarian, or a a clockmaker. In the end there we were left with more questions and not an answer.

At the time I remember I argued that we, as artists, shouldn’t feel we have to be more responsible than any other trade; but we can start as people, changing things. I don’t have an answer for this, but yes, it’s possible to combine design and ethics/design responsibility. If I was a product designer it might be easier to imagine myself making shoes using eco-friendly components, or building better bicycles with local materials, but I’m not sure how I can combine what I do at present and be socially responsible. I will keep thinking about it.

I asked Rui if he could suggest some interesting links on the design responsibility topic, and after concluding that Afrigadget was probably his favourite, he supplied a bunch, of which the following are particularly interesting:

Nordic Dogs, the blog of Dori Gislason and his process of helping to create an institute for Art & Design in Maputo.
South African artist Cameron Platter
Black Women Writers
Feminist Press: a section on African Literature
Funny and interesting article on how to (not) write about Africa.
Check out Rui’s work on his website, The Culture Front, or visit his newslog for more of his ideas on storytelling. All images above copyright Mr Tenreiro.
Thanks, Rui! Good luck with your Exjobb!
One Comment leave one →
  1. Paula Almeida permalink
    April 8, 2010 7:39 pm

    The issue of design responsibility is very interesting and requires indepth analysis. Should it follow some sort of “standard ethics”? I am strongly against any type of violence contained in illustrations, advertising, films & video clips and maybe I would start here. It is hard to tell because the concept of ethics may change with culture, and thus a certain cultural behaviour in Africa (for example) may be different from some European behaviour. Even in Africa the new generations living in larger cities differ from those in remote areas who have only access (if lucky) to radio. Presently, it seems that what sells is violence, the bad, the scandalous, the wild, and so on. I believe it must be possible to redirect to a smoother attitude. Nevertheless, I would very much like to know other views on this issue

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