The Passion of Culture in Art | Visual Voices Spring 2023 Saki Mafundikwa Review

Everyone carries a purpose when it comes to art. Saki Mafundikwa, who is a passionate designer, author, and filmmaker, brings the purpose of communicating Afrikan culture through his organization Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, his book Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika, and in his film Shungu: The Resilience of a People (2009). Since graduating with an MFA in Graphic Design at Yale University in 1985, he continuously shows his love of Afrika, in workshops and lectures in universities worldwide to transform and educate global awareness of typography, symbolism, and design culture to this day.  This semester I attended one of the Visual Voices Events and experienced the passion for Mafundikwa’s culture through his art.

To make Afrika “an indelible mark on the field of DESIGN” (Coyne, 2020) and spending a decade during the early 90s in New York, Mafundikwa returned to his home of Harare, Zimbabwe, to start the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, also known as ZIVA for short, a college that blended the intersection of digital tools and visual art training (hence the word “Vigital” in ZIVA). He had a mission to create a school rooted in the knowledge and beauty of Afrikan history, a sort of “Afrikan Bauhaus” in his words. He believed that his country deserved a world-class design institute, for it was the most natural thing to do: “Because I figured, my god, how many hundreds of young people in Zimbabwe would never know there is a field called graphic design? It was the right thing for me to do because I felt so fortunate that I was able to figure it out” (Coyne, 2020).  In an interview with AIGA Eye on Design, Mafundikwa says, “I felt like nothing could stop me- I was invincible and my idea was so brilliant that funding was just going to flow like the waters of the mighty Zambezi!” (Samarskaya, 2020), however, there was trouble in paradise. For the past 20+ years, every funding application was rejected due to where the school was. It was an amazing idea to have an institution of the arts but in Zimbabwe? Who needs an art school in Zimbabwe when you could use the money for something else, something “useful” for society? Those questions became the mantras of the government. It’s an unfortunate matter that politics plays a big role in the art world, but despite the lack of funding and the ongoing challenges from the government, never once did Mafundikwa give up. He continuously expressed his frustrations against the government during this design event but through it all, he still wanted and still wants his students, people, and anyone at all to live and learn the glory of Afrikan culture. 

Going along with the theme of providing a gateway of culture through education and art, Mafundikwa’s work in typography led to endless experiences of Afrikan alphabets and their symbolisms. This caused him to write and publish Afrikan Alphabet: The Story of Writing in Afrika in 2004. It presents a world of Afrikan symbol systems and alphabets that offers a breath of fresh air of creativity and aesthetics. To this, the book proves that the alphabets designed by Afrikans express ideas, spiritualism, cultural essences, and of course, beauty.  In his biography, he remarks, “As a typographer, and more importantly as a designer, I am in the business of the creation and peddling of ‘Beauty’. […] Afrikan alphabets offer a more aesthetically pleasing perspective and alternative.” (Coyne, 2020). It also educates and debunks many myths of the dark continent. Mafundikwa takes no blame to anyone for the ignorance of acknowledging the beloved “momma Afrika” (Miranda-Rivadeneira, 2023) as he welcomes anyone and everyone to learn. Bringing togetherness with culture is an ongoing theme that he expressed over and over again during the event, with the ambition to understand the visual language of art. I was able to see in the eyes of Mafundikwa that typography is an ageless tool of aesthetic expression- that no matter if it is traditional, digital, or even a blend of both- creates meaningful artistic constructions of intelligence and ingenuity.

Continuing to strive forward on the passion for heritage, Mafundikwa takes pride in talking about Harare, Zimbabwe. From the moment he speaks, anyone could tell he is proud to be a Zimbabwean. The inspiration that led to the creation of the organization of ZIVA and Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika was due to his home country. With the amount of love and passion Mafundikwa preaches, he also hopes for change. In other words, when there’s love, there is change whether it is for the good or the bad. The country of Zimbabwe, meaning “stone houses” in Shona as Mafundikwa taught us at the beginning of the event, has taken a downward spiral when it comes to politics and the economy. This has affected people tremendously all thanks to the former president and dictator Robert Mugabe. Mafundikwa goes on a determined mission to make the voices of ordinary Zimbabweans heard by making a documentary film called Shungu: The Resilience of a People. Directed in 2009, the film won the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival Award during the same year. In a way, the film represents “the cause and effects of Zimbabwe’s political and economic decline” as Jeff Kennedy, the Associate Curator for Mason Exhibition and co-presenter for this event mentions. Mafundikwa displays the opinions of the people as a representation of hope for a better future as he connects people from all over the country.  It is important to mention that videography has and does carry attributes of design and Mafundikwa is able to represent that by embracing his culture. Culture is carried in many forms of art, even if that form of art is visually represented through people.

Throughout this GMU’s Visual Voices event, I was able to see the love and appreciation Mafundikwa has for his culture in his art journey. Seeing his art is like seeing his reflection of endless inspiration and passion. Afrikan culture bears its beauty for not only him but for many around him and even around us. However, there is quite an abundance of people who turn a blind eye to it due to a lack of education and knowledge. It is a reason that Mafundikwa wants to carry Afrikan culture in his art- to educate those who do not know much about the oldest inhabited continent. He wants connection. He wants to bring people together. When it comes to critiquing this event, having it with everyone in person would have brought more engagement instead of having everything online on Zoom. Sure, everyone was connected and together in the literal sense through the internet aside from the occasional disconnections from Mafundikwa’s technical equipment, however, it just felt like there could have been more. The need for in-person interactions allows a much more authentic and genuine sense of togetherness. It’s much more difficult to bring people together or have interactions when most of the audience are muted black little boxes at a Zoom meeting. Besides the connection critique and technical issues, I wished he had talked more about his works as a filmmaker. If he mentioned more about himself being a filmmaker and his movies, in the same way, he talked passionately about himself being a designer and author, I like to imagine people would be more intrigued to see another visual side of Mafundikwa. Even though this is a design review of a graphic designer, he definitely carries his artistic attributes in his videography through my research. There are elements of design in how he creates his movies, but even without him discussing his film in the presentation, I was still able to see his artistic passion for culture in many forms of art. In the endless fields and possibilities of art, everyone carries a seed of passion- whether that passion is to connect others, spread cultures, teach others how to write well, or anything the world can imagine- that will grow into an immense blossom of inspiration and impact onto themselves and especially to others. I’m sure Mafundikwa realizes the great impact he has made on those around them but I’m sure he is hoping for others to realize their own impact.

Citations (in MLA format):

“AFRIKAN ALPHABETS: THE STORY of WRITING in AFRIKA’ NOW AVAILABLE | International Council of Design.”, 7 May 2004, Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.

Amsterdam, Oberon. “Shungu: The Resilience of a People (2009) – Saki Mafundikwa | IDFA.”, 2009, Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.

Coyne, Richard. “Looking Within.” Communication Arts, 18 Feb. 2020, Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.

Mafundikwa, Saki. “Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika [1 Ed.] 0972424067, 9780972424066.”, 2 Mar. 2006, Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.

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