Saki Mafundikwa

Saki Mafundikwa

If you are discussing typography in Africa then you will come across Saki Mafundikwa. Saki Mafundikwa is a Zimbabwean graphic artist that has influenced typography and graphic design all around the world. Educated with a Masters of Fine Art at Yale and a BA in Telecommunications and Fine Arts at Indiana  University, he left the United States to return to Zimbabwe to found the first school of graphic design and new media.

Saki Mafundikwa’s Beginnings

Saki Mafundikwa’s inspiring story and legacy of worked was featured on AIGA .
Source: AIGA, Camille Lowry

Saki Mafundikwa is a maverick visionary who left a successful design career in New York to return to his native Zimbabwe and open that country’s first school of graphic design and new media. Mafundikwa is the author of Afrikan Alphabets, a comprehensive review of African writing systems. He has participated in exhibitions and workshops around the world, contributed to a variety of publications and lectured about the globalization of design and the African aesthetic. In going home and opening his school, Mafundikwa’s ambition is nothing less than to jump-start an African renaissance.

Mafundikwa was moved to draw from an early age. Using a stick, he illustrated on every surface he could find—on the ground, in the sand, even tattooing his thighs and arms. He loved drawing letters in particular. Though he had not yet heard of printing and thought typeset words were done by hand, his aim as a child was to make letterforms as good as those he saw in books.

On becoming a designer:

My family always knew me as an artist, so to them it’s always been like, “God gave him the gift. We do not understand completely what he does, but he’s done well for himself.”

His father, a schoolteacher, recognized Mafundikwa’s constant scribbling as a talent to be nurtured. He enlisted his son to design classroom instruction materials, and soon other teachers were making use of Mafundikwa’s artistic gifts, too. READ MORE

Afrikan Alphabets

Images from Rasx’s Photostream

Mafundikwa published the book Afrikan Alphabets, a history of African scripts and typography. This book is an illuminating and rare look at indigenous African graphic art tracing all the way back to ancient Egypt. This ‘Story of Writing in Afrika’ is one that every African designer should have on their bookshelf. It is a culmination of 20 years of research in to the collective writing and graphical representation of African history.

Saki Mafundikwa on Design in Africa – (In his Own Words)

Source: Graphic Design in Africa, Saki Mafundikwa

I returned home last year after an absence that totalled twenty years, going to school and then working in the US. I decided to come back home to start ZIVA, a New Media Arts school. ZIVA, besides being an acronym for Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, is also a Shona word meaning “knowledge.”…

At the heart of ZIVA’s mission is a desire to create a new visual language – a language inspired by history, a language that is informed by but not dictated to or confined by European design, a language that is inspired by all the arts (sculpture, textiles, painting and Afrikan religion), a language whose inspiration is Afrikan. We are at a crossroads in the history of design right now with the young designers of the Western world rejecting the straitjacket confines of what design is and is not.

First was the word, and it was modernism. A band of thieves headed notably by one Pablo Picasso and including accomplices like Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse “discovered” African sculpture, giving birth to “modern art” and altering the course of western civilization. While the others were impressed by the forms, the abstraction, the craftsmanship, the freedom of the African artists, it was Picasso who tapped into its “spirituality.” According to André Malraux, in La Tête obsidienne (Paris: Gallimard, 1974; pp. 17–19), Picasso had the following reaction when he visited the Trocadéro to see some Afrikan masks in 1906:

“The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things. And why weren’t the Egyptian pieces or the Chaldean? We hadn’t realized it: those were primitive, not magical things. The Negroes’ sculptures were intercessors… Against everything, against the unknown, threatening spirits. I kept looking at the fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too think that everything is unknown, is the enemy! I understood what the purpose of the sculpture was for the Negroes. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all, they weren’t Cubists! Since Cubism didn’t exist… all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people stop being dominated by spirits, to become independent. Tools. If we give form to the spirits, we become independent of them. The spirits, the unconscious, emotion, it’s the same thing. I understood why I was a painter… Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that day – not at all because of the forms, but because it was my first canvas of exorcism – yes, absolutely!”

These remarks were made to André Malraux in 1937. Jack Flam, in his essay, “A Continuing Presence: Western Artists/African Art” (New York: Museum of African Art, 1994; p. 62), makes the following important observation, “Equally important, he also seems to have understood that African art was meant to be used rather than merely looked at; and used not only by its audience, but by its creator. That is, the process of making the work was meant to be conceived as an integral part of its function – as with a ‘fetish.’ The physical act of working on the Demoiselles d’Avignon seems to have been an act of ‘exorcism’ for Picasso. In fact, the Demoiselles may be the first European painting that consciously fulfilled a function like that of African sculpture.”

Well then, if Afrikan art directly influenced Cubism, and Cubism – according to Philip Meggs in his “History of Graphic Design” (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992; p. 240) – changed the course of painting and graphic design, how come then one never hears any mention of Afrikan art as being the forefather of graphic design? It is time that Afrika, the original home of humanity and life itself, rose from the condescending “darkness” into the light. It never ceases to amaze me when in 1999, just a few months before the new millennium, I still hear of Afrika being referred to, in some quarters, as the “Dark Continent.”

So it is with this realization that only we, Afrikans, could set ourselves free that the idea of ZIVA came about. But how to make one’s ideas have an impact on a continent as massive as Afrika? The answer came in the form of an unexpected request from Jackie Guille, a professor at Middlesex University, who’d been asked by UNESCO to coordinate the first in a series of Arts workshops. She asked me to be one of the trainers for the three-week workshop at Makerere University, Uganda. The series, called “UNESCO Artists in Development – Creativity Workshop” (the brainchild of UNESCO director of cultural affairs Dr. Raj Issar), aims to bridge the gap between north and south through cross-cultural exchanges and the sharing of creative and technological know-how, thus creating the two-way traffic we seek. This one was the “Textile and Graphic Design Workshop,” which attracted twenty-five participants from fourteen countries in the Eastern and Southern regions of Afrika. I could not believe my luck! Here was a golden opportunity for me to put my ideas to the test.

I had never met graphic designers from Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, or Mozambique before, and I had to quickly snap out of the myopia of judging their work by European standards. These were Afrikan-trained designers – unlike me, an Afrikan trained in the west. Soon I realized that force-feeding Afrikans design principles born in Europe, principles that were the product of the European experience, just doesn’t work. Why should the sterile and bloodless corporate “Swiss” style work for a Mozambican designer whose existence and environment will never mimic industrialized Europe? And why on earth should a designer from the Moslem-influenced Sudan produce work that has nothing to do with his experience – struggling, unsuccessfully, to produce work that looks “European”? It is madness. But there we were, with the rest of my team of trainers: donning our western glasses and, like the design elitists we’ve become, trashing these people’s work!

I realized there and then that my mission here was not to “teach” any skills. (I was supposed to teach computer skills. In three weeks? You gotta be kidding me!) Rather, my duty was to introduce a new way of thinking about design, a new way of looking at the world around them – that creation of a “new” visual language I was talking about earlier. To get them to tap into Afrika’s wealth of inspiration. It hit me right then also, that we had to create a whole new design curriculum for Afrika! I remembered Paul Rand’s insistance that there was only one way – the modernist approach to design – and anything other was garbage! I also remembered him telling me that all I needed to do was “teach them” aesthetics and that it didn’t matter where one was: “Good design is good design, irrespective of where you are.” At a time in history when young western designers are rejecting Rand’s first contention, it’s high time Afrika joined them.

I taught an “Experimental Typography” class at Cooper Union in New York City in 1996, and I invited Elliot Earls, a digital type designer and a “post- structuralist” graduate of Cranbrook, to speak to my class. His radical approach to typography shocked my students, who were schooled in the modernist tradition. “Post-structuralism’s emphasis on the openness of meaning has been incorporated by many designers into a romantic theory of self-expression: as the argument goes, because signification is not fixed in material forms, designers and readers share in the spontaneous creation of meaning. Interpretations are private and personal, generated by the unique sensibilities of makers and readers… Rather than view the production of meaning as a private matter, post-structuralist theory tends to see the realm of the ‘personal’ as structured by external signs. Invention and revolution result from tactical aggressions against the grid.” (“Deconstruction and Graphic Design,” p. 9; in Lupton and Miller, Design Writing Research, Kiosk, New York 1996.) Earls and other young renegade typographers made a huge impression on me; I realized that we are kindred spirits. What they are doing dovetails with my ideas for Afrika. Graphic design cannot avoid the pluralism of influence wrought by the globalization of the canon. My illustration of the ridiculousness of force-feeding Africans stale design principles is true for other “non-western” locales.

So I lectured, showed slides – my Cooper Union students’ work, the work of the new typographers, and pages from my own book, called Afrikan Alphabets (a work in progress) – and stunned my audience! They were stunned not because what I was saying was so far-fetched or difficult to swallow – they had never thought of things that way! Graphic design was such a “foreign” thing that the idea of personalizing it had never crossed their minds. I gave them two projects: each one had to design a typeface, and as a group, they made a book out of bark cloth (which I call ”Afrikan paper”) about the process of making the medium. We wanted to create a truly Afrikan book, using natural dyes and inks and some of the new fonts, but we only had ten days, so we opted for silkscreening the text instead. Since I’m fond of saying that Afrikans did not have shapes like squares or rectangles, I insisted that the text be laid out in circles and other organic shapes, with each spread different. The results were stunningly simple and amazingly effective. Varying style and structure in one unit is also prevalent in other Afrikan arts like music and dance; just listen to mbira music, deceptively simple to the uninitiated ear but extremely complex in structure to the trained musician.

The Afrikan’s sense of color and rhythm is unique to the continent. Take for instance textile design. It was a revelation to learn that in the Congo, where textile design is big, the seemingly “off register” printing on “kitenge” cloth is intentional! That is how the market demands it. One looks at the graphic expression of the deconstructivists where razor-sharp precision is thrown out of the window in favor of looser and more atmospheric work and wonders why we are not encouraging our students to experiment with sensibilities that would come more naturally to them. Take color for instance. Afrikans have their own palettes that have no kinship with the principles of color devised by such schools of thought as the Bauhaus. Why do we ignore those? The rest of the world would love to understand this Afrikan sense of color! Tapestries woven by “unschooled” craftspeople grace some of the world’s major museums and private collections – stunning testimonials to the Afrikan creative genius. Rhythm comes naturally to the Afrikan artist because of her proximity to nature in everyday life. I saw stunning rhythmic patterns on baskets in Uganda and realized then that when we talk of rhythm in design today, we evoke the work of people like Piet Mondrian, who was inspired by the jazz music of the Afrikan Amerikans who in turn brought that stuff with them on their forced journey to the new world. Can you imagine the potency of design work that looks at home for rhythmic inspiration!

We could go on and on with the analogies; the fact remains – Afrika is the source of it all. Let us go back to the source. The western world is looking to Afrika again for inspiration. This time they won’t simply walk in and take it (in fact, they don’t want to!) – rather, they will learn from us; there will be mutual respect for each other’s intellectual and creative property. There will be an equal flow of information and knowledge from north to south and vice-versa. That is the new order, and we are starting to create it now. ZIVA is only a small step in the right direction. We need more people who care to join us and chart the way forward.



Leave a comment
  1. Patricia Amira

    September 28, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Thank you for this great introduction to Saki’s work

  2. crycepaul

    March 7, 2011 at 4:57 am

    It is wonderful to see respect and light given to African designers, every child of african descent thanks you

  3. Henrycherylg

    July 17, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    This great knowledge that is being shared. The Diaspora needs to be more informed. I am grateful for the awareness. Where can I purchase the book?

  4. Lisa

    August 26, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Saki-you popped into my mind, as I was listening to NPR  news of Africa-I have often wondered how your dream was progressing, and thanks to Facebook I found you in 30 seconds!!!
    I am doing well-I am teaching music while raising my children. My connection to the world of art is ongoing personal projects which one day I will share. I hope you and your family are well. I have only fond memories of you, and am happy for your success in Zimbabwe and beyond-sincerely, Lisa Olsson

  5. Thalia

    May 7, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Saki, Thank you for your wonderful talk at TED Talent Search in Nairobi. This was quite intriguing for me. I’m glad that you are sharing this, I would love to have a book once they are available in Kenya! 🙂

  6. Troy Johnson

    October 11, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Excellent! I will share information about this book and your work on my website as well.

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