Nontsikelelo Mutiti is a Zimbabwe-born interdisciplinary artist and educator who works across fine art, design, and social practice. Mutiti co-founded Black Chalk & Co., through which she produces cultural projects and events, and Reading Zimbabwe, a platform for archiving and interrogating the power dynamics of the publishing world. She currently serves as an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of the Arts.
Navigating terrains of locality, culture, and history is central to Mutiti’s work, and she’s acutely observant of the layers that mitigate how we view both design and education. In our interview, Mutiti explores how her past has affected her viewpoints, considers the frameworks with which typography or color theory could be discussed, and points out the virtues of “asking better questions.”
What’s your personal history with education? How does that form the way you view it as a practice?
In colonial Zimbabwe, the British—the Rhodesians—used education as a civilizing mandate, so it took a very particular form. Engagement with the book, with reading, and with study was tied to unlearning—you were learning one culture to unlearn another.
It automatically placed a hierarchy among forms, ways, and language. So for me, growing up in post-independence Zimbabwe, we still dealt with all of those same issues because nothing actively has been done to address what education has historically been in our spaces.
For this reason, education is problematic because we learn the Western canon—the way the Western eye has been looking at our geography, or our language, or history. There’s always a hierarchy among our way, our being, our language, and what’s been given to us.
You work a lot on the edges of typography, redefining what it is and what it could be. Could you talk about that?
The cultures within the space now known as Zimbabwe do not have writing systems that are formally recognized. There were pictograms painted on rock faces or walls and also beaded adornment with codified meaning. I was not taught about any of these ways of articulating myself. Writing and reading has always come with this colonial layer, even when we are reading local languages typeset using roman characters. And so my way of articulating myself has come with this colonial layer of using English, using written form, and reading texts that are set in global characters.
When I come into a space of teaching, I’m thinking about typography and letterform from that position. Thinking through publications like Saki Mafundikwa’s Afrikan Alphabets, which focuses on and privileges them as modes of established and systematized meaning making and communication.
I’m curious to look at that publication, and just look at my own life in general, and think about what writing is. What are the modules for writing, or for visual meaning-building? And then looking to other kinds of forms to think about presenting meaning.
What other ways can the current canon of graphic design be interrogated?
I think about what I learned about objects of material culture, and why I only see those things when I go to a museum. Why are we not looking at, say, Zulu beadwork and then talking about color theory in relationship to that? When we’re talking about color mixing, we’re talking about Pointillism, Impressionism. But what if we think about kente in relationship to that—in relationship to modernism and a rectilinear approach to design motifs?
I think about a book like Philip B. Meggs’ publication. The book was produced by Meggs while he was the chair of the Department of Graphic Design at VCU, and is now a household name. It has one instance of an African work, by Africans, which is hieroglyphics. There’s nothing contemporary. And how many years of scholarship has gone into creating the foundation for him to be able to feel authoritative enough to write that narrative?
There’s now a substitution which attempts to start bringing in some work—such as from Mexican cultures—but I still wonder, what kind of work has to be done? It’s a quandary that I’m trying to grapple with now. I’m making those points using ideas on hair braiding, thinking through them, thinking about even that visual form as writing, as meaning making, and thinking about how that relates to typography, or pattern, all of those things.
How does this translate back into the classroom?
That’s where I am right now; I’m just trying to ask better questions about what has been institutionalized. I think that is the way to open up and bring other things in. Or to say, okay, this is over-presented. We don’t actually need to be teaching that, we don’t need to be passing that on. We need to be discovering and bringing other things forward.
We have a very Euro-centric canon. It’s always been strange to me that even American scholars haven’t scripted a narrative for themselves and looked at materiality, some symbolism, typography, to the extent where it can stand on its own. The way we teach graphic design is we’ve tried to have this “global” arc of what has been happening in the discipline. This idea of the global has never been all-encompassing, nor has it referenced how motifs, trends, and visual ideas have circulated since before colonialism and because of it. This allows us to miss out on how important spaces outside of Europe and North America have been to shaping our aesthetic world.
For instance, Jerome Harris’ exhibition, “As, Not For: Dethroning our Absolutes,” presents the work of black American graphic designers. It’s not definitive, nor does it try to be. And I like that it names that up front.
Bringing that kind of work to VCU is part of the effort to present students with a case study of knowledge building. And thinking about: What is the sister project to Jerome’s exhibition? The cousin project? Is it your Vietnamese identity? Is it your Korean identity or Korean-American identity, related to your immigrant identity? Your white Southern identity? Why aren’t we talking about what graphic language frames the idea of the confederacy? Why don’t we create those lines of scholarship?