Chaz Maviyane-Davies


 1952, Harare, Zimbabwe

Cambridge, Massachusetts

That graphic designer Chaz Maviyane-Davies' work pushes the boundaries of social justice is not surprising. If you want to know what he was like as a child, ask his high school art teacher Ms. Buckland. “She used to tremble and turn pink,” he remembers. “I caused a lot of problems for my teachers. Everyone said I gave her such grief because of my work.”

Ms. Buckland's complaint was simple—Maviyane-Davies was being himself. When competing in a national competition for a hospital mural, he departed from his classmates' formulaic depictions of nurses and doctors and painted an image of a traditional healer. (“A witch doctor in the West,” he clarifies with a laugh.) Though the school staff was mortified, his mural won second place, setting the tone for his future career.

“I grew up in a racist state as a second-class citizen,” Maviyane-Davies says of his upbringing in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia. He was only 12 when Ian Smith created a separatist white government as an attempt to thwart black leadership. “No African rule in my lifetime,” Mr. Smith brazenly declared. “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.”

On being a designer:
Images transport ideas, but design drives them. The act of design is an act of independence.

Against that backdrop, Maviyane-Davies dreamed of leaving his country to pursue art, as such options were unavailable in his homeland. He couldn't receive a passport until he entered the army so he was conscripted into the military after completing training as an electronics draftsman, drawing circuit diagrams. With papers in hand, he settled on three potential overseas locations that would welcome a Rhodesian passport: South Africa, which was still in the throes of apartheid; Malawi, which was too close and was a puppet state of South Africa; and Switzerland, that bastion of neutrality. Within weeks of his discharge, Maviyane-Davies was on a plane to Geneva.

His stay in Switzerland was short. Although he reveled in the newfound freedom of expression, Maviyane-Davies spoke neither French nor German, so he was often isolated from his new environment. He packed up and headed back to Africa within six months, ultimately settling in Zambia in 1974. “I went all this way to travel 300 miles from where I started,” he notes. Restless yet again, he only stayed in Zambia for a year to take a foundation course in design, until his mainly English faculty suggested that he consider heading to London. Learning in Zambia was wrought with practical challenges, namely a lack of proper teaching materials and supplies.

On his first big break:
Being invited as part of 30 internationally acclaimed designers to create a poster on the environment for an exhibition at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. We all had the same brief. Mine became the largest selling poster and was sold out by the end of the first day.

London in the 1970s opened his eyes creatively. Maviyane-Davies consumed the socialist images that were flooding the city from the Eastern Bloc. “I flourished when I studied there,” he says. “So much was available—meeting people in universities, bars and clubs while arguing with everyone from Ethiopians to Eritreans. That whole bubbling over affected my work.” Posters from Cuba, in particular, with their vibrant colors and revolutionary tones, grabbed his eye for both their song of hope and change as well their iconography.

Seeing how global socialist causes took hold in Britain, Maviyane-Davies began to question: What did it mean for other international agendas to be imputed onto the English condition? Margaret Thatcher was beginning her rise through the House of Commons, and he remembers a strong conservative element swirling around him that had no patience for the liberation pronouncements of Cuba. “That's when I started to identify graphic design as a nonpartisan discipline that could help to bring about change. It doesn't only belong to capitalism or anybody. But you've got to be astute how you connect culturally with your audience.”

In 1982, he returned to Zimbabwe and worked at an ad agency for about six months before founding his own design agency, The Maviyane-Project. His country, still in the raptures of its recent independence, clung to many of the same problems as before. “The ad agencies remained white-run,” recalls Maviyane-Davies. “The clientele may have changed, but, either out of laziness or purposely, they just substituted white faces with black faces, the eight letters of Rhodesia for the eight letters of Zimbabwe. The way of life was the same. Some discrimination goes away and that says a lot. But the poor were still poor. One of my jobs as an agitator was to say: Things have to change for our betterment.”

Through his work Maviyane-Davies adopted a visual vocabulary developed from the culture of Zimbabwe, to help guide the burgeoning country. Manipulating images of African bodies and other local visual cues he began to project a message of social change. He explains, “It's about breaking down and finding the inherited, mythically infused iconography and then rebuilding it in order to fit the feeling and nature of where we are now. The tone, rhythm and depth of our identity is special and can be used to talk to each other today. And we have to use that visual language to slowly try to bring some of our personality and presence into the design arena.”

On technology:
So many different visual languages are being left at the doorstep of technological progress, as homogenized blandness—in the name of globalization—emphatically spreads its mediocrity.

An example is a self-authored series of posters from 1996, in which he reimagined the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights from an African perspective. In contrast to the usual depictions of starvation and strife that perpetually stereotype the continent, Maviyane-Davies sought to assert human rights by representing its people in a positive and dignified manner. “Human rights are a mandate we should all be born with, something that should be printed on the back of your birth certificate. It's something that every human being should have and what we aspire to achieve as civilized people. But instead human rights tend only to be discussed when they are violated.”

The authentic voice that Maviyane-Davies found in Zimbabwe is the same one he hopes to impart to his students at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where has has been a professor since 2001 and now holds tenure. “I tell my students that graphic design is not only what you learn in college. It's what you learn in life. You connect your values to who you are and thereby become the visual voice of the economic and cultural sector on your own terms.”

The epic concerns of globalization that he tackled through design in Zimbabwe have taken a practical turn for Maviyane-Davies as a professor. He believes that one of the biggest challenges for graphic designers is reconciling the widespread availability of tools like Photoshop and Illustrator with originality and personalization. “The software challenge is huge,” he laments. “I judge a lot of competitions and sometimes, when the images are there lying on the floor, you can't tell what's from Singapore, Australia or America.”

He reserves his sharpest criticism—and his highest hope—for his fellow countrymen and women's creative potential. “Look at our [African] sculptures—they're some of the best and most original in the world—and yet our graphic design looks the same as everyone else's. Why can't we see where our sculptors are extracting their inspiration from? They might not be communicating for a client, but they're taking from an indigenous, historical and humane source and that source is open to all of us. We're building a new language, and believe it can have universal appeal.”

But building a new language is not without its obstacles. In 2001, he fled the country after president Robert Mugabe lost a referendum and began cracking down on public demonstrations and civic dissent. Though Maviyane-Davies cannot return while Mugabe retains control, the flight has bolstered his convictions. “If anything, design is struggle,” he says. “Because if we don't struggle with something, we're not saying anything.”