Field Notes: Saki Mafundikwa “Time for a new design curriculum”

By Kristy Tillman
Born (1955) and raised in Zimbabwe, Saki Mafundikwa studied fine arts at Indiana University and graphic design at Yale University. At Yale he discovered the existence of sub-Saharan scripts and alphabets designed by Africans themselves - without the influence of the Roman or Arabic alphabets - and this became his life-long passion to revitalize African visual traditions in the form of graphic design, he calls it the “African bauhaus”.

He worked for many years as designer and art director in New York, while also lecturing at such places as Cooper Union, but finally decided in 1997 to return to Zimbabwe to create his country's first graphic design and new media college, the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA) in 1999. "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 African religion), a language whose inspiration is African. 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."

As a Black designer trained in America it has always been part of my ‘natural’ curiosity to seek and understand the idea of an African/African Diaspora inspired design traditions. Any such notion pertaining to the existence of the idea was conspicuously absent from my own heavily Euro and American centric design curriculum. So it is refreshing to see this idea addressed by Mafundikwa as he cultivates a whole new breed of designers with the freedom to explore the aesthetic of their own cultural motifs. 

“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 African-trained designers – unlike me, an African trained in the west. Soon I realized that force-feeding Africans 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!” Mafundikwa underwent a conscious effort to challenge the foreign cultural impressions inherent in his design training as a part of his mission to adopt and teach design principles rooted in African visual traditions. 

“I decided to dedicate this life to improving the design on my continent, especially from a teaching perspective, where we were dreadfully behind. What I have learned [in] managing Ziva, through
experiences uncomfortable and hard, made me stronger and a person able to replicate the model in other countries of the continent. I have no illusions, many African countries lack the infrastructure we have in
Zimbabwe and the experience will be so complex, but on the other hand I have come a long way from the luxury of my days as an Art Director in New York! Experience is the best teacher ever” Mafundikwa’s insights on the cultural experience of designers being an inherent property of their work begs the question, what does a Black American design aesthetic look like?

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