Saki Mafundikwa is a maverick visionary who left a successful design career in New York to return to his native Zimbabwe and open that country's first school of graphic design and new media. Mafundikwa is the author of Afrikan Alphabets, a comprehensive review of African writing systems. He has participated in exhibitions and workshops around the world, contributed to a variety of publications and lectured about the globalization of design and the African aesthetic. In going home and opening his school, Mafundikwa's ambition is nothing less than to jump-start an African renaissance.
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. He loved drawing letters in particular. Though he had not yet heard of printing and thought typeset words were done by hand, his aim as a child was to make letterforms as good as those he saw in books.
On becoming a designer:
My family always knew me as an artist, so to them it's always been like, “God gave him the gift. We do not understand completely what he does, but he's done well for himself.”
His father, a schoolteacher, recognized Mafundikwa's constant scribbling as a talent to be nurtured. He enlisted his son to design classroom instruction materials, and soon other teachers were making use of Mafundikwa's artistic gifts, too.
Mafundikwa left Zimbabwe as a young man in the late 1970s because his country was at war. As some of his peers were being drafted into the colonial army and others were joining the guerrilla force fighting for liberation, he summoned the courage to follow a different path. He journeyed to Botswana and declared himself a refugee. There, due to his high school achievements, he was able to secure a scholarship to study in America. Mafundikwa says, “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.”
It was at Indiana University that he finally recognized his true calling. Though he'd chosen a fine arts and telecommunications double major, Mafundikwa often volunteered to design flyers for university parties. Another student noticed his work and suggested that he really belonged in graphic design.
He was introduced to two professors in the design department. Since he had no portfolio to present, they queried him about his life and family. They were intrigued when he mentioned his mother was good at embroidery and crocheting, and that he drew patterns for her. Mafundikwa says, “These people were smart enough to know that this was design. [In Zimbabwe] we didn't know what it was, didn't have a word for it, but it was design.” He was invited to study with them, and eventually changed his major.
On his education:
Yale, with its Swiss style, is where it all came together for me and that is where I adopted the modernist mantra “ less is more.”
Mafundikwa went on to receive an MFA in graphic design from Yale. A flame was lit during his application interview with professor Alvin Eisenman. Eisenman was aware that certain African countries had writing systems, like the hieroglyphics of Egypt, so he asked Mafundikwa if there was a Zimbabwean alphabet. The idea that, in addition to the oral traditions of the continent, African knowledge had been passed on in unique written form centuries ago was a revelation to Mafundikwa. He became passionately devoted to the subject, finally taking it on as his thesis project.
New York was Mafundikwa's next stop. There he worked at various jobs as an art director for advertising and publishing (which he enjoyed immensely). He designed and art directed for various imprints at Random House. In addition to designing books, he took on a number of freelance jobs creating promotional materials for popular recording artists. And he took part in the media boom as part of the team developing the Fodor's website. During this period Mafundikwa also taught a class at Cooper Union called Experimental Typography. The topic and his instruction elicited inspired work from his students.
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 Mafundikwa's native Shona language.
His advice to new graduates:
You wanna break the rules? Well, you gotta LEARN the rules first. Learn to draw like your life depends on it.
Through the school, Mafundikwa tries to illuminate graphic arts as a viable career path for Zimbabwe's young people. 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.”
At the outset, Mafundikwa funded the school by cashing in his 401(k) from Random House. He continues to pour all of his freelance design earnings into ZIVA because the political climate in Zimbabwe has made it impossible for him to garner other financial support.
Zimbabwe currently suffers from an economic, political and social crisis, which can be attributed to its government. Scores of supporters of the opposition have been arrested and displaced. In April 2008, The New York Times published the indelible image of a woman with a child strapped to her back crawling under a barbed-wire border fence to escape. But while others flee, Mafundikwa remains committed to his country and his cause. He says, “We all live on this thread of hope that change is going to come. That's why I'm still here. Those that are not eternal optimists like me—they left a long time ago. I believe in this country.”
In 2004, Mafundikwa published Afrikan Alphabets, a result of 20 years of research and a testament to Africa's intellectual wealth. It is his hope that Africa can imprint itself on the canon of graphic design. 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.