This New Safari Lodge Is Like an African Art Gallery in the Wild

Inside one safari lodge's two-year effort to put African arts and culture at center stage.

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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-fueled rethink of one of Botswana's most iconic places to stay, Xigera Safari Lodge. When the Tollman-family-owned camp reopens to guests in early 2021 after a two-year overhaul led by architects Anton de Kock and Philip Fourie, the Okavango Delta property will be 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 knobthorn and mangosteen trees, intending them to mirror the semi-marine landscapes and wildlife of the surrounding area.

Artist Madoda Fani working on a clay sculpture
Madoda Fani working in clay. MICKY HOYLE/COURTESY OF XIGERA

Other commissions include a 23-foot-wide water lily designed by de Kock and sculpted by South African Otto du Plessis that will reflect the dark delta waters flowing beneath the property's elevated walkways. A quartet of coiled ceramic sculptures from Cape Town–based Madoda Fani were 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.

Cermics by Chuma Maweni
A collection of Chuma Maweni’s ceramics. HAYDEN PHIPPS/COURTESY OF XIGERA

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?

Artist Andile Dyalvane working on a sculpture; stools by Atang Tshikare
From left: artist Andile Dyalvane, whose ceramics are at Xigera; stools at the camp by Atang Tshikare. From left: ADEL FERREIRA/COURTESY OF XIGERA; HAYDEN PHIPPS/COURTESY OF XIGERA

"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. In recent months, 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 Southern Guild cofounder and CEO Trevyn McGowan.

A cheetah relaxes in a tree in the Moremi Game Reserve
A cheetah in the Moremi Game Reserve. COURTESY OF XIGERA

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.

A version of this story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A Gallery Without Walls.

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