Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

I am quick to confess that I am an easy sell-out to a top piece of print, yet at times this has been thwarted by unresolved issues that I hold with the graphic design profession.

Written by Ima-Abasi Okon on Feb 04, 2013 in  http://www.anotherafrica.net

As an individual who mediates between art and design, I am careful not to shoot myself in the foot here. One such issue is the vagary of snobbery that implies the rights to a ‘correct aesthetic’ is maintained by elitist art-school practices. A stench occassionaly emitted when graphic design becomes ‘Graphic Design’: a term, notion and construct. Terms and definitions are important, as they have the potential to establish parameters of intelligibility by liberating relationships.

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Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika.

Where the relationship between the discipline of graphic design (by discipline I mean explicatory statements, abiding principles and methods of analysis including education as opposed to practice) and Africa appears to have little or no public harvest, overwhelming evidence such as my father’s ‘vault collection’ of TDK tapes and 12″ vinyls belonging to an array of soukous and highlife artists and my mothers archive of Ovation Magazine — not forgetting the printed matter that’s produced and circulated in the continent’s metropolis, is hard to ignore. Celebrated designers such as Durban based Garth Walker have done well to also dispel this inaudibleness. Yet it is still a faint sound. So quietly, I went looking for a perfect level of pandemonium 

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Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika.

I was introduced to Saki Mafundikwa, a Typographer. Typography being that branch of graphic design concerned with how text appears in a given space (in its inception this space had always denoted the physical page: books, posters, newspapers and has now opened up to include vistas such as the screen). It is the method by which language is given visual form. Emil Ruder, the Swiss typographer, stated that typography as a technology “has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing”.

We can consider writing as a structure which has capabilities to support, prop up and make permanent. Without it the empires and numerable trades that rest on it would be non-existent. I believe it has become and continues to be both an agency and catalyst for memory, presentation, propaganda and growth. Engendering and making provision for identity, allowing the storage of vast amounts of information to be retrieved at will whilst bringing together disparate groups. Just that question alone has my mind wondering about the many encounters I have with writing on a daily basis.

If I am not writing I am reading, if I am not reading then I am writing. I think to read is to write. I am not referring to those instances where we pen a piece of text and you read over it, although still valid. I am pushing a symbiotic notion that when you write you are also reading, likewise in reverse. I don’t believe you can separate the two. Although dependant of one another and occurring simultaneously, neither one is a passive pursuit. In the sense that to write is to articulate; give form to thoughts, conversations and dreams. To do this, you need to comprehend that matter that you so desire to put down.

Therefore before you can physically write you need to read within you, an activity that varies in time from person to person. The process is very true for reading. When you read, you write down, you make an imprint in your memory. Things become saved and sometimes overwritten. A process that is additive and accumulative. Each ‘performance’ of reading alters, whilst recording and writing a new or extended history.

What precedes typography, and by all means becomes its support structure, is writing. It is a representation of speech, mine, yours and the world over. The very utterance through which language comes. A complex system of communication wherein which writing is an integral part. To critically engage with typography one would first have to begin the process of mapping writing onto speech. Wherein lies the function of an alphabet.

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Shü-mom characters from the Bamum script developed in Cameroon at the turn of the 20th Century by King Njoya.

Due to globalisation, the Roman alphabet, the most widely used writing system in the world, has domineered as an economic powerhouse. Yet the information age’s incessant use of web 2.0 technologies, having had a big impact on the way we communicate, has called for the creation of new web based fonts of many scripts. This has caused the Roman Alphabet used to write English and many other national languages to be in hot pursuit by Chinese and Arabic scripts in the digital realm. Attempts to meet the demands of access to information and new fonts are truncating parochial alliances virtual and real. These non western groups are now utilising communication in all its form to ‘resume historical trajectories independent of the West’.

On a smaller scale, but no less as powerful, other challenges to the Roman script are happening elsewhere. In 2003, the ancient Berber script used to write Tifinagh, the language of the Tuareg, the chief inhabitants of the Saharan desert, now found in Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and neighbouring countries, was adopted over both Roman and Arabic alphabets by the administrative Council of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture to teach Amazigh in Morocco. Likewise the N’ko script used to write the Bambara language, spoken by people in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal has been modified into an app for easy tweeting.

The last two are scripts indigenous to Africa. Despite colonial suppression they continue to be used today. Unfortunately that cannot be said about the majority of other scripts that were developed and used throughout the continent. There are infact many and they have a rich cultural and artistic history but as Saki puts it their story is little known and in some cases eliminated.

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The Adrinka Symbols of the Akan people of Ghana. Adrinka means” goodbye” in the Akan language

Born and raised in Harare, Zimbabwe, Saki completed an MFA at Yale School of Art in 1984. He has since gone on to found Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Art (ZIVA), Zimbabwe’s only school dedicated to design and new media. Studying design under the tutelage of Paul Rand a seed was sown to look into African writing systems, and that he did. Twenty years later Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika presents a collated introduction into the history and development of more than twenty alphabets. Leading us through pictograms, mnemonic devices and syllabaries Saki charts how writing has and continues to evolve across Africa.

Aware that some of the systems documented do not satisfy the criteria to exist as an alphabet, he has nonetheless proceeded to call them as such. Contending for the place of pictograms, tally stick marking and scarification to be seen as forerunners of writing in Africa. Asserting the significant role that symbols have in African culture as forms of communication, citing calabash carvings of the Kikuyu of Kenya, the Ishango bone from Congo and the knotted strings of Nigerian Aroko as recordings of oral information. Therefore rendering void the idea that the majority of graphic symbols are purely decorative and instead advocating their place within agencies/mediums of communication. Apprehending such practices as proto-writing.

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A selection of Bantu Symbols.

The chapter on historical systems was of particular interest such as the personal achievements of King Njoya of the Bamum Kingdom, who acknowledged the need to preserve the culture of his people during Cameroons colonisation in 1896. Initially created with 465 characters, the Shü-mom script, developed in accordance with handpicked artisans, went through several alterations during his reign. With the exception of the printing press he invented (which was later destroyed) King Njoya left a legacy of several manuscripts, maps, administrative notes and records including a calendar that detailed the history and culture of his people. This collection is now available to view at the Bamum Palace Museum.

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Portrait of King Ibrahim Njoya. Elements of the script can be seen above and beneath the kings figure.

In another chapter the modification and continuation of some of these Afrikan Alphabets in South America and the Caribbean are mapped through Saki’s observation of the scattering of people through the Atlantic slave trade. He highlights the similarities between Nsibidi, an ancient ideographic script created by the Ejagham people of the southern part of Nigeria, to that of Anaforuana which can be found in Cuba and Haiti.

Likewise in reverse, Vah, the writing system of the Bassa people was restored to Liberia in the 1900s after being lost during colonisation. Now taught in schools and used in literature and some newspapers it was found to be actively used among Brazilians of Bassa origin. Enjoyably Saki’s surveillance of these scripts re-emphasises Africa’s relationship with South America which is often blighted by an intense absorption on the western hemisphere.

You’ve probably noticed that Saki spells Africa with a “k”. A-f-r-i-k-a. The forward by Maurice Tadadjeu expands on this. However the bite that I’ve come to appreciate in Saki’s diction is absent. So I inquired further, purposely provoking him. “I AM the Afrikan here and I decide how I want to spell my continent whether it pleases anyone or not” was the seasoned response that I was after. Highlighting that the sound in Africa is a “k” and not a “c” and in Zulu, which he speaks “c” is a click sound. Which makes perfect sense for him and most African languages to use a “k”. I checked, and although my knowledge is not definitive, the ones I was able to find do in fact use a “k”. Tadadjeu points to the logic, that non-African languages should take the spelling of African names from African languages. But due to limitations in number and the circulation of African writing scripts, the power needed to influence is extremely short.

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Saki Mafundikwa on spelling Afrika with the letter ‘k’

Although informal Afrikan Alphabets presents a foundation for those wanting to expand further on the subject. And that they should, as his sojourn and the information distilled from such an endeavour challenges and alters accepted views of African history. With a focus on the graphic form of the scripts, Saki accepts that there is room for deeper levels of enquiry and a more rigorous approach to their epistemology. Waiting patiently, for the call of the Sankofa Adrinka symbol, “Return and get it” to be answered by the next generation.

Saki’s quest, both into African writing systems and his move back to Harare to set up ZIVA is not an aberration as some would suppose. To leave an established post in an arena and economy that perpetuates both the culture and industry of Graphic Design (both as practice and discipline) to an environment where its culture and industry appear wanting could be considered rash. Likewise so too, the time spent in scholarly activity researching defunct scripts. Yet those that know him, would perhaps in hindsight suggest that this has been a clean cut path from the beginning. He is proudly African. Owns it as a title, and even perhaps a second name. Just watch his introduction to the TED talk he did last year. And his appetite for design? Clearly an abberation. The guys at TED probably realised this too. As they’ve asked Saki to grace their platforms once again in February’s TED2013 programme. He will expand on his first talk, which was an introduction to Afrikan Alphabets, by dropping the bombshell that writing was invented in Africa and not Mesopotamia. Saki is full of bombshells, but not in a vacuous manner. He indeed has the mettle and intellect to take us on journeys of revised narratives.

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The first version of Shü-mom.

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Shü-mom calendar

When I spent time with him such sentiments were c-o-n-t-i-n-u-o-u-s-l-y confirmed. Such as his incongruence to my breathlessness as we made the steep ascent to Great Zimbabwe. Looking around, Saki was preoccupied by the various letter forms created by coupled boulders and deep fissures revealed by natures wear and tear. This was slightly usurped by a conversation held the previous night over dinner, when it was concluded by virtue of his typographic sensibilities that the world is in a mess!

What Saki has done with Afrikan Alphabets and continues to do with ZIVA is proof that graphic design is a nascent process happening all over the continent. What I mean is that it is there and has been there. Just like his reasoning for the use of ‘k’, we may be looking for that which is called by a different name. And occupies a different sound that no roman character can describe. A notion that the language we verse in today cannot support. And just as some of these scripts are long gone so might that which we are looking for. However, by presenting Afrikan Alphabets and a commitment to ZIVA’s objectives, Saki teaches us how to re-draw this ‘Afrikan’ creativity in a way that remains true.

So to return, Saki Mafundikwa is a typographer, an African typographer who hopes to to encourage design students to learn from Africa’s rich visual heritage to advance not necessarily an African aesthetic, but an African attitude.

Ima-Abasi Okon | Collectively what do these writing systems present? What do they do to the accepted narrative of history and culture? The obvious one being that Africa has made no contributions to World history or civilisation.

Saki Mafundikwa | To me they present a “eureka moment”, they flip open Pandora’s box laying bare the lies, prejudice, and evil that has been visited on a whole continent and her people. Why is it important that there are scholars today who have dedicated their lives to deciphering writing systems like the Mayan Alphabet? Or even more profoundly, why is it of any importance or relevance to (today’s) society for the said scholars to share their findings with us? Why is it of any relevance that two Yale scholars referred to as “Egyptologists” discovered a writing system in the Egyptian desert (in 1998), that they say is the FIRST effort at writing ever made by humanity – correcting centuries of the false belief that the cradle of writing is the Mesopotamian basin. There is (urgent) need on our part (Afrikan scholars) to correct the myths and plain lies that have been immortalised in books the world over about us, our contributions and our accomplishments. We’ve let the hunter tell the story for too long, it’s time, WE the hunted tell the story from our perspective.

IO | Individually what do they say? Speak of, or begin to pronounce?

SM | They say, “Hey World, I am here, look at me in all my Afrikan glory and beauty. Look at my ingenuity, my dexterity! I am not “just a writing system” but I am also spirit, rhythm, song, dance, movement, I am timeless. Yet, I am deceptively, s i m p l e.” They speak of our glorious past, a past that is under constant attack from “modernity” and misconstrued “civilisation”. They inspire us to SANKOFA – return to the past, be inspired by it to make our future GREAT.

IO | Are they establishing or reiterating?

SM | Establishing, no doubt!

IO | One of the things you call for, is for African designers to expand upon the Roman alphabet to reflect African culture. How would you suggest they go about this? Looking now at Typography and Type

Design as practices, do you not think that this is gimmicky, and can become a novelty?

SM | I am not calling for the Roman Alphabet to “reflect Afrikan culture”, rather in a situation where we have seen type design in the age of technology being mutilated and distorted in grotesque ways, I see Afrikan alphabets offering a breath of fresh air that can rescue the Roman alphabet from the vagaries of style and trends. As a typographer, and more importantly as a designer, I am in the business of the creation and peddling of “Beauty”. Aesthetic value has gone out of typography in recent memory. Afrikan alphabets offer a more aesthetically pleasing perspective and alternative. The deconstructionists could care less about “legibility” instead they care more about the “expressive” nature of typography. Afrikan alphabets straddle those two extremes comfortably.

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Design work belonging to ZIVA students.

IO | What would be the point of African Typefaces? Surely a cultural slant in a font is superfluous. Type is supposed to be invisible when we read it. It is supposed to make language visible, right? I favour fonts that are void of decorative motifs, and that don’t parody a period or action because it presents the challenge to use them to evoke meaning. The thought of a zebraesque typeface makes me cringe, because I imagine it to be ornamental or illustrative in style. Surely things like this only confirm this hegemonic African aesthetic that the West likes to populate. I.E it’s always safari, kente, wax prints or tribal masks— how do we avoid this? Again will this establish or reiterate?

SM | For the typography novice, Afrikan alphabets can bring out the beauty of type. Some of the writing systems are so intrinsically beautiful that one cannot ignore this and so whatever work they will produce, it will by extension contain the same beauty. Let me point out that I am not suggesting literal translation of the writing systems here. Rather I am suggesting metaphorical use: where one takes cues from a specific system but maintaining the essence of the original font. The work becomes powerful when it’s “inspired by” rather than a simple literal translation or copy.

IO | Swiss typography is seen as the influential powerhouse of typography. Pure, clean and balanced. Without using Swiss motifs such as cows and everything synonymous with their culture, when you say Swiss typography you automatically think of a sans serif, black, heavy, considered unobtrusive glyphs, strong composition – an identity. What their typography communicates is an attitude. Can you describe an African attitude and how this can be translated into the design of fonts or the use of typography.

SM | Swiss typography embodies the coldness of the country and its people, the Alps and the white snow, the grid as the cornerstone of all forms of design whether they be architectural, or graphic; less is more – the modernist canon, (white space becomes more about the design than the typography and the message) and an overall minimalist approach to all forms of design. The people’s fascination with cleanliness and order – to the point where it becomes anal, dead and soulless.

Afrikan typography is the exact opposite: warm, humane, funky, organic, free, not constrained by the puritanical straitjacket! Good thing you know that type can describe (or represent) an attitude. Isn’t Afrika the home of “attitude”? Lagos could be the city with the most “attitude”! The market women, the street vendors, the Felas of this world, Nollywood, (hey, I should design a font and call it “Nollywood”!!!), you know how Nigerian women kiss their teeth in a show of contempt or exasperation! THAT’S attitude galore that can be translated into the design of fonts and or the use of typography! The folks who put together the amazingly beautiful “LAGOS: a city at work” – an incredibly beautiful book designed with a Nigerian attitude (right down to the typography!!!) succeeded in this. Yet they did not even overtly take their cues from Afrikan alphabets!


Saki Mafundikwa (b. 1955, Harare, Zimbabwe) is the founder and director of the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA) a design and new media training college in Harare. He was educated in the USA with a BA in Telecommunications and Fine Arts from Indiana University and an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University. He returned home in 1998 to found ZIVA after working in New York City as a graphic designer, art director and design instructor. His book, Afrikan Alphabets: the Story of Writing in Africa was published in 2004. Besides being of historical importance, it is also the first book on Afrikan typography. His first film, Shungu: The Resilience of a People a feature-length documentary had its world premiere at 2009’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). It won the prestigious Ousmane Sembene Award at Zanzibar International Film Festival and Best Documentary at Kenya International Film Festival both in 2010 and has screened at some of the top film festivals in the world.

The film is an objective, in depth look at the causes and effects of Zimbabwe’s political and economic decline through the voices of ordinary Zimbabweans.


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