Nontsikelelo Mutiti had been practicing as a painter and taught drawing for seven years in Harare, Zimbabwe when she decided to turn her attention to graphic design. She was tired of the local art scene, which she experienced as a closed-off space of “black artists creating work for expat-owned galleries.”
“I would look at the billboards surrounding the motorways and think, ‘I want my work to be up there’,” she says. “Why can’t I be communicating with people on that space, so that messages can be distributed to a wider audience?”
At the time, Mutiti was completing a multimedia art diploma at the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, where her tutor Saki Mafundikwa introduced her to experimental typography and the work of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. “Looking at Sheila’s print and metal work, I had never seen such a fluid way of embedding content into a cityscape,” says Mutiti, “I wanted to explore the tools of design, even if it wasn’t about putting work into context of design.”
Enrolling two years later in Yale’s graphic design MFA program, and graduating in 2012, Mutiti’s focus as a designer and artist now lies in print, book-arts, web design, and video; using these media to explores design’s role in shaping, shifting, and also suppressing personal and cultural identity.
“In our cultural spaces in Africa, specific design objects have done a lot of work and they have a lot of power and significance. This is something I’m always grappling with in my work,” says Mutiti. “I grapple with the rules of typography for instance.” Her interest in African writing systems began after reading Mafundikwa’s Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika, and continued to grow during her time at Yale when Mutiti was asked to do a revival of a typeface for Tobias Frere-Jones’ typography class. For the prompt, she ended up exploring the divinity school library’s collection of colonial bibles, considering the origins of the languages spoken in Zimbabwe through a typographic lens. The project culminated in a folded poster entitled ‘A-A-A’.
“We don’t have of our own writing systems, or little is known of them due to their past suppression,” says Mutiti. “Our languages appear for the first time through these objects that the missionaries used to convert indigenous people. Roman characters are something that I think about in this way.
“I’m still often considering this in my practise: do I need to totally reject a certain stylistic way of working to find one that I can own? I’m still looking at how to find my own voice through typography.”
Much of the designer’s recent research considers the lexicon of hair braiding, a practice that, like typography, is continually evolving, responding to innovations in tools, and absorbing new symbolisms and cultural references.
Mutiti describes her own design process—attempting to pull strands from various cultural signifiers into a single piece—using that hair braiding metaphor. Threads might be images from the 60s or 70s, or they might knot together references to black American life with those from an African context to articulate ideas of kinship.
“I am interested in the nuanced differences between black cultures,” the designer says.
Mutiti’s 2016 identity for Black Woman Artists for Black Lives Matter (BWAFORBLM)—which has its first action in September last year—uses the evocative shape of an open mouth for the logo. Impactful and dynamic, it draws from the black and white visual language carried across Black Lives Matter movement, and also nods affectionately to Levrant de Bretteville’s 1971 Everywoman newspaper, where a blown-up illustration of swelling pink lips devours the entirety of a two page spread. She also created an envelope modelled after the membership form of the New Museum in New York, where the event took place.
“We were trying to think of different ways that we could hide our content within institutional structures at the museum,” says Mutiti. “We took the structure of their pamphlet, its form, its place for a stamp, and its space for a blank address, and made various printed matter that could be slipped inside.”
Below, Mutiti describes the thought processes behind three of her book projects.
African Hair Braiding Salon Reader (Spiral bound booklet, laser print, 2014)
“I wanted to create a publication that would pull together different ways of thinking about hair braiding salons. The pages include photographs of objects like clips and combs, video stills from black American films that informed my idea of black aesthetics growing up, photocopies of academic essays, my own hand drawings of braiding, and cell phone photographs of salons that I would walk past while living in Harlem.
“I was fascinated by the atmosphere and design of a salon, and wanted to communicate the feeling of being there through the design of the book. What does it feel like to be in a space for six hours that is painted dragon fire orange? What does it feel like to hear the Nigerian music playing in the background while you have your conversation?
“Learning how to do the braiding technique itself was important for the design process. While something like screen-printing does record an aspect of labor, it’s a very different kind of labor and movement to braiding. I wanted the book to capture the body’s movement of parting hair and doing tiny braids in repetition. In the end, I found some plastic coils that I loved because they look like the kink of my own hair. Running them through holes in paper feels like the same movement that you make when you are braiding, so I used the coils for the publication’s binding. When I released the book, I made it a performative binding exercise where visitors could pick and collate their own pages and then bind them together with the coils.”
Bootleg This (Book cloth, book board, laser printed booklet, compact disk, 2016)
“This is the result of a recording that I made when I was walking down 125th Street with a friend. She asked me about my relationship to my president and as we were talking, we came across a truck with a picture of President Mugabe taped to its side. I was blown away; it was such an unexpected encounter.
“As much as I had been encountering signifiers of African cultures within Harlem, I hadn’t yet come across something specific to Zimbabwe. The van vendor was selling bootlegs, and he started talking to us, telling us how he had done security for Nelson Mandela in New York. He was standing right under the Adam Clayton Powell Building, right on Africa Square, and he was talking about how Malcolm X had given a lot of speeches close by. The location was also where people came in the 60s and 70s to buy publications written by black Americans and black Africans about the civil rights movement.
“I transcribed the whole conversation and created two booklets: one is the full transcription and the second is a visual index. Inside it, you have images of what the vendor is talking about. I put the recording on an accompanying CD, along with three tracks of the music that was playing in the background during our talk. I then went back to where the CD vendor had been: I wanted to offer the CD to him to see if it was something that he could sell, or, I was going to suggest he hide the recording as a bonus track on his bootlegs. When I returned though, he was no longer there. The police had moved him on; I think he was quite a vocal individual so they probably thought he was too much trouble. I haven’t seen him since.”
Requiem and RIP Kiki (2016)
“RIP Kiki was the first iteration of Requiem. It came out of an incident that happened in East Flatbush in 2013: I was struck by the shooting of 16-year-old Kimani Gray, which happened very close by to where I was living. This young man could have walked through my neighbourhood; he could have passed me on the street.
“Local news websites were posting about the event and the three days of riots following the demonstration. A lot of advocacy organizations were going to East Flatbush to rally together and talk about stop and frisk, and other ways that the police were antagonizing people. I started to transcribe some of the recordings that were on YouTube, pulling out certain phrases that people were chanting. I wanted to think of a way that I could create a tool that the community could use to educate people within the space about their rights. I also printed the fourth amendment in the publication, which says that the police cannot come in and seize personal belongings or search without a warrant.
“I see the publication more as a prompt. As something that people can use as an inspiration, so that they can decide what voices to push, what kind of content is important, and what they feel like are the things that can help them. Maybe everyone knows the fourth amendment but the police don’t care, for example.
“I modelled the second book, Requim, after the King James Bible. I imagined it being present at that vigil, and I thought about what could be inside it.
“I like print because of where it can land. A book can sit on a table and people can pass by it, something can fall on the ground on the street for people to find, a leaflet can be attached to a telephone pole for everyone to see. In spaces like Harare, Zimbabwe, and also in a space like Harlem on 125th Street, maybe not every single person has a personal computer to receive online information. Print has got a lot of work to do.”