Kyla Philander on using empathy as a design tool

This South African storyteller, musician and videographer looks to creativity as a positive outlet for violence, hurt and low self-esteem.

“My main goal in life is to create spaces where people can safely articulate their experiences,” says South African storyteller, musician and videographer Kyla Philander. At Design Indaba Conference 2014 Philander highlights the deep-felt issues she faces in post-Apartheid South Africa and reveals how she turned to creativity to overcome these issues. 

When Philander was in grade eight, she faced her first experience of being shut down by dominant Western structures. The entire topic of African colonisation was to be covered in one 45-minute lesson. She tried to process the little bit of information she was given and became increasingly hurt and distressed.

“What would make people who have no origin in Africa come to the continent and disrespect the place and its people in such a malicious and violent way?” she thought to herself. She raised her hand and asked: “What if white people never came to Africa? Imagine what it would be like and how we would have evolved”. Her question was dismissed and never answered. 

In order for the world to reach a more sustainable state, we have to start addressing the great inequalities we face on a global scale, says Philander.

Over time, Philander became increasingly angry by the way many non-whites are still treated in post-Apartheid South Africa. After realising she needed an outlet for her anger, she turned to creativity. “I needed a way to transfer that energy into productive and positive forces.”

Equality is a major theme in my life and my work. My main design tool is empathy, says Philander.

She continues to explain that her creative work is about retelling the stories of her people, unlearning Euro-centric teachings and using emotional landscapes to connect with people on a larger scale. “I don’t adhere to common modes of storytelling. I express a thought as it comes to me in any medium that feels appropriate at that particular moment.” 

Philander hopes slowly to shift the consciousness of her audience and to break down the violence, low self-esteem and hurt caused by structured racism. 

Watch the Interview with Kyla Philander