Arriving at the Perelman Building across Kelly Drive from the museum’s main building, “Creative Africa” is an exciting mix of five distinctive exhibits that showcases Benin bronzes and other historic artifacts, as well as contemporary African photography, architecture and fashion design..... “Look Again: Contemporary Perspectives on African Art” is an excellent introduction for “Creative Africa.” As the largest component of the five, it highlights traditional African pieces in styles from naturalistic to highly abstract. At the exhibition’s opening a few weeks ago, Timothy Rub, director and CEO of the museum, proudly stated these objects “cover a lot of territory,” bringing “the past into conversation with the present.”

Gando School Extension, Designed by Francis Kéré, Burkinabe, active Berlin,
Gando School Extension, Designed by Francis Kéré, Burkinabe, active Berlin, © Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

“The Architecture of Francis Kéré” provides a most compelling component to “Creative Africa.” Organized by Kathryn Hiesinger, senior curator of European decorative arts after 1700, this is the only one of the five shows in which a participating artist was directly involved with the design. For his first museum retrospective, Kéré took full advantage of the space, using ceilings and floors as well as walls.

Born in Burkina Faso, the architect has maintained a studio since 2005 in Berlin, Germany, where he had studied architecture. Soon after the primary school in his hometown of Gando was completed in 2001, he gained an international reputation. This modest structure was community-built with local materials and techniques; it has become not only a source of civic pride but also a model of global inspiration.

At the show’s opening, Kéré proudly declared: “It is an honor to try to use and transform the most basic materials for people in West Africa and the Western world.” His architectural vocabulary consists of the traditional circular African form that he called “roogo,” compressed mud/earth bricks; clay floors pounded and smoothed “like a baby’s bottom;” and local wood, like the fast-growing eucalyptus, for interior finishes and furniture.

Kéré maintains: “An important job of an architect is to help the community understand the value of design.”

His work aims to “improve the quality of life of the community.”


For the exhibit, the architect has created several interactive spaces. In the atrium of the Perelman Building, Kéré constructed a vibrantly hued site-specific installation of Day-Glo parachute cords. There is something quite playful and festive standing inside and surrounded by the architect’s brightly colored hanging ropes. The circular sections don’t restrict but welcome participation where a visitor can also hear snippets of recorded sounds from both Burkina Faso and Philadelphia, blending the two communities.

Just as Kere’s work has implications that reach well beyond the African continent, Vlisco is an international textile firm that specializes in Dutch wax fabrics beloved by the African market yet based in the Netherlands. Curated by Dilys Blum, the museum’s curator of costume and textile, “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage” features dozens of textile prints, including many of the company’s classics, like the “Happy Family” with its hen, chicks and eggs that dates back to the early fifties. Importantly, the show includes contemporary ensembles of Vlisco material by European and African designers.