In 1984, together with the ethnologist, Fritz Trupp, and the social psychologist, Norbert Minkendorfer, Kristian Fenzl founded the interdisciplinary Institute for Ethno-Design. In co-operation with artists, architects and social researchers, this studies the artistic statements and forms, which flow into the design process of various ethnic groups.
The rapid changes to passed-on traditions are described by Fritz Trupp, who serves as an ethnologist in the Institute for Ethno-Designs interdisciplinary team, as follows: In the course of major economic and social upheavals, many ethnic groups have sacrificed their traditions. The degree to which traditional systems of values alter is mirrored to an equal extent by the artistic statements of these peoples. Therefore, original tribal art is frequently subject to dissolution and the emergence of new forms of artistic creativity. Now, production no longer, or not only, takes place for the local market (household items, architecture, ritual objects), but also for an external one (tourist art). It is interesting to observe that these new artistic statements do not necessarily mean that traditional creativity is lost. This fact is exemplified by the manner in which the Herero from Botswana continue to erect their huts in their original style, but using empty beer cans, or the toy cars made by the children from shoe polish tins, old tent pegs and wire.
The starting-point for Kristian Fenzls study trips was quasi his scholarship to the Stellenbosch University in South Africa, which he undertook following the completion of his studies. Moreover, during the 1970s, as an artist and designer he carried out research in the course of numerous journeys to North and Central America, India and the Near East.
However, Kristian Fenzl is not a specialist within a limited area, but rather a cosmopolitan both with regard to the arts and his approach to life, which derived from his upbringing. His father, the Steyr optician, Alfred Fenzl, was already recognised in the 1950s as a researcher and collector of non-European art and for example, had accompanied the documentary film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl, as a photographer during her first trip to Black Africa. In addition, an uncle in Tunisia, who was an agricultural specialist, and an uncle in Brazil, who was a construction engineer, were the object of frequent visits and an influence on his youth and development. Surrounded by curiosities and affected by ethnic art, Kristian began to paint and also demonstrated an exceptional talent for design.
In the 1980s, shared study trips with the co-founders of the Institute for Ethno-Design resulted in exhibition projects involving the art of the Dogon and the Makonde and other African tribes.
One of many study projects involved a research expedition in teamwork with the Vienna Anthropological Museum (Völkerkundemuseum) and the University of Vienna (Prof. Dr. Armand Duchateau) to Irian Jaya (West Papua New Guinea).
In addition to Kristian Fenzl, Helmut Gsöllpointer (professor at the University of Art and Design Linz) and the ethnologist, Fritz Trupp, participated in this exhibition, which via waterways led into this otherwise impenetrable jungle region.
In territorial terms, this area consists of a huge, swampy labyrinth of rivers and a mangrove coast with a length of at least 200 kilometres. One special feature is that the rivers have a reversed flow, as the tides have an effect that extends for up to 100 kilometres inland. The Asmat, an indigenous population group, who have no form of calligraphy, inhabits the region, which is roughly the same size as Belgium. The bulk of the Asmat collection in the Schmiding Museum in Upper Austria was obtained during this expedition and some rare objects went to the Anthropological Museum in Vienna.
Everyday objects in the public domain and aesthetic needs in daily life constitute an interesting area for field observations in differing countries. The demands made on routine objects vary greatly and possess national specificity. In Western Europe, uniform, contemporary design in the public area is esteemed. Telephone boxes, waste bin and street lighting are largely produced using standardised, modern styling.
By contrast, the Brazilians demonstrate great imagination with regard to the design of their telephone boxes in the Amazon region. In the city of Belem, they can be admired in the shape of a natural mussel (while elsewhere they assume the form of simple plates), or they are designed as colourful parrots, which offer shelter against the frequent tropical downpours.
Conversely, in China such profane objects as waste bins are matched to the house where they stand.
Each bin receives a separate design, irrespective of whether it is facing a pagoda, or positioned in front of the Great Wall. While in our concept of China, the idea of the uniformity of the people and a standardised look predominates, on a small-scale a wealth of designs and colours flourishes. The Chinese favour bright shades and striking designs with regard to childrens clothing and this individuality is projected onto the wearers.
In 1996 and 1997, the Neue Galerie of the city of Linz was the venue for an extensive, documentary exhibition regarding the art and culture of the Makonde tribe of southern Africa. The Makonde live on both sides of the Ruvuma River, on the border between Mozambique and Tanzania and loans from the Maputo National Museum in Mozambique and exhibits from the Livingstone Museum in Zambia supplemented the expedition.
Hon. Prof., Dr. Norbert Minkendorfer, 2009
social psychologist, Steyr, OÖ