Saki Mafundikwa is Founder and Director of ZIVA in Harare, Zimbabwe. At the end of 1997, Mafundikwa decided he could be more useful in Zimbabwe than in New York. He left a comfortable life and returned to his native land to open the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts, or ZIVA. “Vigital,” a word of his own creation, refers to visual arts taught using digital tools. Ziva means “knowledge” in the Shona language.
Mafundikwa is the author of Afrikan Alphabets, a comprehensive review of African writing systems. He has contributed to a variety of publications and lectured about the globalization of design and the African aesthetic.
On leaving his native land, “Sometimes you have to leave home to discover yourself. If I hadn’t left home, I would never have become a graphic designer, and I would never have discovered African alphabets.”
Saki Mafundikwa is a Graphic Designer, Design Educator, Author, Filmmaker, Photographer and Farmer. His first film, Shungu: The Resilience of a People a feature-length documentary has won the prestigious Ousmane Sembene Award at Zanzibar International Film Festival and Best Documentary at Kenya International Film Festival in 2010. Saki Mafundikwa has a powerful vision for the future of African art. Mafundikwa is working to bring African art back to its roots.
He says, “It was the most natural thing for me to come home and start a school of design. 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.”
Mafundikwa was moved to draw from an early age. Using a stick, he illustrated on every surface he could find—on the ground, in the sand, even tattooing his thighs and arms. His aim as a child was to make letterforms as well as those he saw in books.
He says,” You want to break the rules? Well, you got to LEARN the rules first. Learn to draw like your life depends on it.”
His mother was good at embroidery and crocheting and he drew patterns for her. His father, a schoolteacher, recognized Mafundikwa’s constant scribbling as a talent to be nurtured. He enlisted his son to design classroom instruction materials.
In 2004, Mafundikwa published Afrikan Alphabets, a result of 20 years of research and a testament to Africa’s intellectual wealth. Mafundikwa says, “The dream is for something to come out of Africa that is of Africa.” He knows it will be a monumental task, but he is confident that his book and his school are steps in the right direction.
ZIVA was born from this desire to give Zimbabweans the best possible grounding in both traditional and contemporary design practice.
“It is our strong belief that education and sustainable training will save our country even as it continues its free-fall economically. We are well aware that no educational institution can go it alone and in the absence of philanthropy from within our country, we have to look outward if we are to achieve our original vision of providing a world-class education for not only young Zimbabweans but for those in other parts of the continent as well.”
ZIVA places the continent’s rich artistic history at the center of its curriculum. Mafundikwa encourages African artists to take a look at their own cultural heritage for artistic inspiration. He sums up the concept with the Ghanaian glyph Sankofa, which means literally “return and get it” — or “learn from the past.” Says Mafundikwa, “We must go to the past so as to inform our present and build on a future.” In his TED talk, Saki Mafundikwa celebrates Africa’s creative heritage by surveying the continent’s history of written language. Jumping across nations, Mafundikwa describes the fascinating writing systems of societies from the Akan to the Bantu to the Yoruba. The Adinkra symbols of the Akan people (Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire) represent proverbs, historical events, attitudes, objects, animals and plants. Originally, they were printed on cloth to be worn and displayed at important social events. Today, they are also printed on pottery and metal, and used in architecture and sculpture
On modern African designers he says, “Designers in Africa struggle with all forms of design. They are more apt to look outwards than inwards for inspiration,” he says. “The creative spirit is as potent as it has ever been. What they are looking for is right within their grasp, right within them.” Africa has a lot to offer to those who want to learn, in other words, including to those looking at the field of fractals within mathematics. It is time for African students of design to be inspired by their own continent’s incredible advances, and to remember the words of Marcus Garvey: “A people without a knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
“I AM the Afrikan here and I decide how I want to spell my continent whether it pleases any one or not.” Saki Mafundikwa
By Themba ka Mhlanga