Saki Mafundikwa is the founder and director of the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA), a graphic design and new media training college in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 1999 Mafundikwa left New York, where he was working at the time, to return to his homeland with a mission to create a school rooted in Afrikan history, one informed but not dictated by European design.
In 2004, Mafundikwa wrote and published Afrikan Alphabets: the Story of Writing in Afrika, the first, and still the go-to, book on African typography. While the book is currently out of print, you can watch Mafundikwa speaking about it in his TED talk, or wait for a revised edition, expected to be published in 2021.
I’ve been playing e-mail tag with Saki since last November. Our interview attempts were initially interrupted by Harare’s severe electricity cuts, then travel, and finally, COVID-19. When we finally did manage to get in touch, we had a very different conversation than originally intended, for a very different era.
Saki, hello. How are you?
First off, let me just say this, I am tired. I’ve run a design school for twenty years without a single cent in funding in a country that just won’t get its politics right. We have weathered the storm of autocratic rule for all 40 years of our “independence.” My country had only known one ruler for 37 years—that’s 37 years of brutal dictatorship and dysfunctional economic policies that saw our country degenerate from “the bread basket of Afrika” to a basket case. Then three years ago, we exchanged one dictator for a worse one. We never saw that one coming and the current dictator is both clueless and cruel, hell bent on looting the country’s treasury and mineral resources. We seem to be cursed by the worst leadership imaginable. Zimbabwe has enjoyed the distinction of “pariah state” for most of its life as an independent state.
Why is it important to talk about politics up front? Well 25 years ago when I was living and working in New York City and had the “brilliant” idea to return home and start a design school, I felt like nothing could stop me—I was invincible and my idea so brilliant that funding was just going to flow like the waters of the mighty Zambezi! It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was trouble in paradise. Every single application for funding was rejected on the grounds of where the school was: “Great idea but wrong country.” That became the mantra. It was frustrating because my school was a private entity and not associated with the government at any level. I realized then that politics play into many initiatives in many parts of the world. Most frustrating was the hypocrisy of the industrialized nations cherry-picking “rule of law” infractions in countries they deemed “unfriendly.”
So, as the lean years rolled by, I realized that I was on my own. Giving up never occurred to me, I just rolled up my sleeves and the with the help of our students’ parents we kept it going for 20 years, hence my current state of fatigue. There will be no next 20 years, I’ve given it my best shot. Why, I even outlived the Bauhaus which had a seventeen year run! I pulled the plug on ZIVA this January, and in retrospect, given the COVID-19 pandemic, that decision was pretty timely. I am, however, working steadily to launch an online version of ZIVA, hopefully before year’s end.
What, if any, advice would you give to others starting an independent design school today?
COVID-19 has changed everything. I doubt that we’ll ever get back to the “way things were” and that holds true for design schools. Do I know what the future looks like? I wish I had a crystal ball and if I did, I would’ve foreseen the game changer that this nasty pandemic is. It looks like everything is moving online and looks like things are going to work—for some—albeit in a very different way. Initiatives like ZIVA are now part of history, I do not think that type of design school will ever happen again. Ain’t that sayin’ something, wow.
What do you feel like are the important questions designers, and design, should be asking right now?
Boy-oh-boy, if you’d asked me this question mere months ago, like the first two months of 2020, I would’ve had a lot to say, but now… it’s about survival, our survival as the human race.
There’ve been conversations lately about authorship in type design: about who’s allowed to design typefaces for different scripts, who gets to critique their quality, what being native to a language, or a region, means. What’s your take on these issues?
I missed any debate on authorship of typefaces—living in Zimbabwe for as long as I have, I got used to being “off the grid” as far as information was concerned. Poor, slow, and expensive internet makes sure that connectivity is a luxury only the affluent few can afford. That situation is worse now as our economy slips into free-fall again. I just raise my eyebrows at the arrogance of the North who now predict education going online! Zoom with all its imperfections is an unknown word to most in my part of the world (I was hacked by racist white extremists in August during a Zoom lecture with a U.S. based partner and organizers and the experience left me pretty shaken up). So, I missed that conversation and still belong to the “old school” thinking that anyone can design any typeface they feel like designing irrespective of their nationality. The only condition that I have always insisted upon is crediting the source, and if there is any profit derived from the design, it must be shared with the source. Who’s the type design police issuing “permission” to designers?
What I do have greater issue with is the buzzword du jour: “Decolonization.” Here I declare myself the police (along with other Natives). Again, I raise my eyebrows at all this debate and interest by people who have no idea what it means to be “colonized.” Who feels it knows it—WE the colonized have to lead that debate. Nothing irks me more than “intellectuals” and self-appointed “experts” waxing philosophical about decolonizing design education. My very good friend and partner in crime, Sadie Red Wing and I ask the very crucial question, “What are they decolonizing to?” Only someone who has experienced the sting of colonization can decide that question. We are the ones with the indigenous knowledge systems that become the new curriculum. I’m fond of saying that our future lies in our past, for there lie our greatest achievements and contributions to the development of humanity. We have done the research and have the authority to author new textbooks and course material that our students can relate to and find relevance in. We have to decolonize Decolonization.