December 8, 2023

Creativity is Alive and Well in Zimbabwe

Interview with Saki Mafundikwa

Saki Mafundikwa is the founder and director of the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA), a design and new media training college in Harare. He has 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 educator. His book, Afrikan Alphabets: the Story of Writing in Afrika, was published in 2004. Besides being of historical importance, it is also the first book on Afrikan typography. It is currently out of print.

His award-winning first film, Shungu: The Resilience of a People, had its world premiere at 2009’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Active on the international lecture circuit, he was a speaker at TED2013 in Long Beach, California.

He keynoted the first ever Pan African Design Institute (PADI) conference in Ghana in February 2019. He spoke at the TED/PMI event in Dar-es-Salaam in September 2019. He has also run workshops for design students in Europe, North, South and Central America, and Africa. He currently delivers lectures and conducts workshops on Zoom for international students.

Saki Mafundikwa TED/PMI 2019

He has been published widely on design and cultural issues and is currently working on a revised edition of Afrikan Alphabets, which he hopes will be published in 2022. He is also working on the definitive documentary on the life and work of The Lion of Zimbabwe, and Chimurenga music guru, Thomas Mapfumo.

He lives, works and farms in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The globally-recognized visual communicator, design educator, artist, author, filmmaker and farmer dedicated to sharing Zimbabwean culture sat down with Harare Magazine to discuss the design world in Zimbabwe.

“Art was not taught in school when I grew up in Zimbabwe. I taught myself drawing through observation of nature and everyday life. As a kid, I always doodled, and my doodles were always letter forms. I didn’t know the letters I saw in books were printed by printing presses. I thought they were hand-drawn. And so, I developed a natural love of typography from a very young age. Only when I went to university the US in 1980 did I realize that what I had been doing forever was called ‘graphic design.’”

Saki Mafundikwa continued to live in the US for eighteen years, receiving an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University then working in New York City as an art director, graphic designer and art educator, including at the prestigious Cooper Union. 

HM: Why did you come back to Zimbabwe so early on in your professional life?

SM: “It was the most natural thing for me to come home from the US and start a school of design here. 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 to do, because I felt so fortunate to have discovered it.”

When Saki returned home in 1998 to start Zimbabwe’s first graphic design and new media college, Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA), the enrolment was low and slow. People thought it was a “New York thing.” Most parents worried that their kids would not find employment in Zim. 

SM: “I don’t want them to find employment,” I would respond, much to the parents’ amazement. And while they processed that for a bit, I would add, “I want our young people to be entrepreneurs! I don’t want to train worker bees; I want to them to start their own studios!

“It was a new kind of thinking in a country where getting a job and a company car was the dream of many. I explained that if you have a laptop and an internet connection, you don’t even need an office. I had learned this the hard way, back in New York, when I was laid off from my art director job. My wife was pregnant with our first son and I freaked out. I saw an ad in the paper for a design job and went for an interview; my heart sank upon seeing 20 people ahead of me and I didn’t think I had a chance. But I hit it off immediately with the interviewer, who hired me on the spot and promised more work. All of a sudden, I was busier than when I had a full-time job. The best part was working at home so I could help care for the new addition to our family.

“Well, fast-forward to 2020––the world’s workforce did just that, and with the advent of Zoom, we have “the new normal.” A lot of the ZIVA graduates work from home now. Most of my own remote creative work today is virtual with clients around the world, so I can pass the overflow on to my former students.”

HM: Are most ZIVA graduates still in Zimbabwe? And how many of your graduates are working in the field, compared to those who have gone on to other livelihoods?

SM: “A lot of them leave Zimbabwe initially, but they invariably return home – though a few have established strong businesses in their host countries – especially South Africa. Rodrick Chakaipa, Farai Mandimika, Joseph Madzivanyika, and former ZIVA instructor, Chanetsa Mukanahana come to mind. They are all doing extremely well in Johannesburg. I do not know of anyone who has gone on to another profession; all my graduates are working in the creative field.

“In the early days we had the odd student whose interest was primarily Animation. To think I used to send them away! Later on, we introduced Animation as a stand-alone programme and it was incredibly popular. It is one of the most popular art fields in Zim today, with great potential––and could be a very profitable aspect of Zim’s Creative Industries. I’m all for a homegrown Animation industry where we animate the very rich stories of Zimbabwe. Tsuro na gudo, and so many more. These stories, besides being very entertaining, also carry life lessons for all generations, which is part of my mission as an educator.  

“It is sad that top animation studios like Triggerfish in South Africa are owned and run by Zimbabweans who had to leave this country, where there is no government support for the Creative Industries at all and no financial incentives for young creatives to stay here. Zim would benefit immensely from getting on board this lucrative train. Jamaica, a few years ago, decided to grow an Animation industry by injecting millions of dollars into the new industry and is now a serious player on the Caribbean and international Animation scene.

“Zimbabwe is blessed with creative spirit. A visit to the National Art Gallery or the sculpture parks strewn across the country, and abroad, attest to this despite all the economic, political and social problems bedevilling our beautiful country. To have run ZIVA for more than twenty years without funding is nothing short of a miracle. Curiously, I have witnessed growth in the number of advertising agencies in Harare, though it remains a mystery in a country with as depressed an economy as ours where these agencies get clients.” 

HM: Beyond government financial support for Creative Industries in Zim, are there other means of support that you can imagine?

SM: “There are a lot of wealthy people in Zim, some quite fabulously wealthy; they could take it upon themselves to become patrons of the Arts, as philanthropists do in other countries. My school, ZIVA, for example, could not access funding from international arts organisations who were leery of investing in Zimbabwe, yet the funding we need could readily come from local sources. Perhaps it’s a matter of educating and reaching out to them. Who can do that?”

HM: What keeps you in Zimbabwe today? 

SM: “It is home. Beyond being an artist, I am foremost a farmer in love with this land. That’s the reason. I travel out of the country to lecture, teach, design projects, my livelihood – but I do still want to make a difference creatively and culturally at home, to contribute to developing my country. But after pushing uphill for over twenty years, I’m getting weary… and older. One can only do so much here. Zimbabwe breaks my heart… but not my spirit.

“For the time being, ZIVA is on hiatus while we figure a way of offering our courses online like the many other colleges worldwide. We do, however, face challenges of connectivity here in Zim – and whatever connectivity we have is quite cost prohibitive. We have to work our way around that if we are to advance into the future. I believe it can be done with the support of local partners. I haven’t given up hope; it’s not my style to!”

HM: Can you say something about the current global interest in African design?

SM: “The whole decolonisation of design education globally has rekindled interest in design from locales that were never thought of in terms of design. I am on the forefront of that movement. I spoke about that at TED2013 before “decolonisation” became a buzzword. Come to think of it, the very idea of returning home in 1998 to found ZIVA was an act of decolonisation!”

HM: What are you most proud of? 

SM: “The proudest moment of my career was being the first Zimbabwean to give a TED talk! TED 2013 in California: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered. Others had spoken at localised TEDx events. 

HM: And what is your favourite recent project?

SM: “TED asked me to design their stage and auditorium for TEDGLOBAL 2017 in Arusha, Tanzania. I’d never designed a stage set before but I jumped at the project with much gusto! This was an important homecoming to the African continent, and a ton of collaborative work went into creating an authentic experience from the curation of talks to the music to the graphics and stage design. The results pleased everyone who attended or viewed that event.”

HM: What advice would you give, or do you give, to artistically-creatively-inclined talented young people at home today?

SM: “I encourage them never to give up! Far too many parents and families strongly discourage their talented offspring from following a career in the arts. They say that the arts are not lucrative professions. Parents encourage STEM and I believe in STEAM. Note that STEM represents Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. While STEAM represents STEM plus the Arts: humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual art, design and new media. I explain to them how potentially lucrative the Arts can be, and to support and believe in that.

 “Africa is the source of it all. Let us come back to the source. The western world is looking to Africa again for inspiration. This time they won’t walk in and simply take our arts and culture – rather, they want to learn from us; there will be mutual respect for each other’s intellectual and creative property. There will be an equal flow of information and knowledge from north to south and vice-versa. That is the new order, and we are creating it now. ZIVA is a small step in this direction. We are asking people who care, to join us, invest with us and chart the way forward.”

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