Inside one safari lodge’s two-year effort to put African arts and culture at centre stage. By Travis Levius
“The coffee you’re tasting on a sunrise game drive tastes so much more delicious out of a handmade mug,” says Toni Tollman, the director of design and projects for Red Carnation Hotels. Such details are central to the design-fuelled rethink of one of Botswana’s most iconic places to stay, Xigera Safari Lodge. The Tollman-family-owned camp reopened in late 2020 after a two-year overhaul led by architects Anton de Kock and Philip Fourie. The Okavango Delta property is what Tollman calls a “living gallery” of southern Africa’s most celebrated artists and craftspeople curated by Cape Town’s Southern Guild collective.
Many of the major pieces at Xigera (pronounced kee-jeer-ah) are site-specific commissions. Cape Town-based sculptor Adam Birch spent months on the property hand-carving benches and chairs from dead knob thorn and mangosteen trees, intending them to mirror the semi-marine landscapes and wildlife of the surrounding area.
Other commissions include a seven-metre-wide water lily designed by de Kock and sculpted by South African Otto du Plessis that reflects the dark delta waters flowing beneath the property’s elevated walkways. A quartet of coiled ceramic sculptures from Cape Town-based Madoda Fani was inspired by woodpecker nests and plumage. Even the vaulted canvas of the lodge’s 12 guest suites takes cues from the environment, mimicking the shape of the wings of the native Pel’s fishing owl.
But for all the eye-catching art from South Africans—those coffee mugs from ceramist Chuma Maweni, woven cane seating by designer Porky Hefer, hand-dyed and handwoven rugs from Coral & Hive—something is missing: Where are the artists from Botswana?
“Sadly, there are not so many,” Tollman admits. True, Botswana-based furniture and accessories brand Mabeo supplied some guest-suite tables and storage items such as trays, pencil boxes, and coasters. But almost all the major pieces are by South Africans—many of them white South Africans. Recently, Southern Guild has pulled in smaller contributions from dozens of Black craftspeople from across western and sub-Saharan Africa. “No doubt, the number of African artists supplying Xigera will continue to grow,” says the co-founder and CEO of Southern Guild, Trevyn McGowan.
Despite the representation question, the pioneering art-driven concept reflects a major shift for the safari industry: Tollman’s ambitions may well spark a positive change that will see Africa’s artistic talent woven more deeply into the fabric of the wilderness experience.