Autumn 2004

Face to face with the Afrikan written tradition

Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika

Saki Mafundikwa, Mark Batty $34.95

Contemporary graphic and typographic design histories are mostly America-centric or Euro-centric. Despite a few books on Cyrillic, the occasional study of Japanese and Chinese writing systems and recently more documentation on Arabic lettering, the Roman letter is supreme and western grids are paramount. 

It is a pretty safe assumption that West African graphic design has yet to be adequately covered in a substantive survey, aside from a brief section in Geoffrey Caban’s recent World Graphic Design (Merrell). The history of West African writing systems is also rare. In fact, when western designers typographically represent Africa (frequently for children’s books) they use Rudolf Koch’s Neuland typeface. In the same way that novelty faces Bamboo and Chop Suey stand in for Chinese characters, for reasons beyond my comprehension Neuland represents most of Africa (even those parts not once colonised by the Germans).

Yet the West – and modern art in particular – has long drawn inspiration from indigenous African art that, in turn, has stimulated the publication of art books devoted to its history. Currently a new book, Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Africa has opened the proverbial window to this unique aspect of African art, and some of the forms are quite familiar because long ago they were borrowed by some Western designers. (For example, Alvin Lustig incorporated African sign symbols, probably without knowing their linguistic significance, into certain design, including his Incantation textile print.)

‘The stereotype is that Afrikans have no written tradition,’ writes Mafundikwa, a Zimbabwean graphic designer, Yale design school graduate and founder of Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ZIVA). ‘The truth is that Afrikans have known writing since the very early history of humanity.’ African alphabets developed out of an oral storytelling tradition and have grown up in a variety of forms across the continent. Some were created several thousand years ago. The purpose was to preserve a collective memory and create a permanent record. The forerunners were pictographs and symbols that comprised rock art, knotted strings, tally sticks, symbol writing and include body painting and scarification. Although the common fallacy is that most of these images are decorative, Mafundikwa notes they actually tell stories and, therefore, logically evolved from symbolic reminders to phonetic codes of spoken language. And while many of the examples reproduced in this book vary from tribe to tribe and people to people, the African diaspora ensured that similarities can be found.

Mafundikwa faithfully traces the signs, symbols and syllabaries of West Africa. Drawing on historical documentation by European scholars, travellers and philologists, as well as interviews he conducted with African contemporaries, he weaves the theories, myths and facts of the respective writing systems into a tale worthy of the writing systems themselves. He learned that what began intuitively ultimately became codified.

For example Bantu symbol systems, he explains, developed from pictographs into ideographs that are made by simplifying pictographs. For instance a typical man is streamlined into a vertical ellipse with four appendages (although it is identified a man, it bore none of the details that tell anything about the man). As the symbols became more and more abstract, and, as the pictures gave way to pure symbols, languages had to be taught rather than intuited. Ultimately the Bantu language was designed for silent reading. Incidentally, the Bantu symbol-language was not taught to common people, but an estimated 30 per cent of the people can write in the language.

Unlike Swahili, the best known African language among Westerners, Bantu symbols are not a language where each symbol represents a single character, but rather like Chinese or Japanese symbols, each represents an idea that can be strung together. Mafundikwa generously reproduces many of the graphic forms in colour, and some are reminiscent of military insignia. Each is something of a case study in logo or modern sign-symbol design. My favourite is the symbol for ‘wisdom, silence’, an ‘L’ shape over a horizontal oval, or a finger over an open mouth. The sign for ‘break-up, divorce’, is sublimely simple: two triangles (i.e. a split diamond) facing in opposite directions. Not all the symbol-languages are as ‘Modernist’: the Ethiopic writing system is more calligraphic, while the Vai syllabary, the only script to be used in translations of the Koran and the Bible, is reminiscent of schematic electrical markings.

The book is more, however, than a collection of marks and their origins. Although Mafundikwa is not a natural writer (some of his introductory copy could have benefited from more graceful copy-editing), he is a gifted storyteller. I found myself enthralled by the account of his saga throughout Africa and the encounters with people and places that gave life to these myriad alphabets. Photographs from these travels further add dimension. In one recollection of a trip to Cameroon ‘so that I could meet history face-to-face’, a four-hour ride in a cramped minivan to Foumban, he visits the palace ‘where the king’s legendary grandfather had left an incredible alphabetic legacy.’ His treks to Calabar by way of Lagos to learn about the secret writing of the Ekpe Society and the Efik and Ejagham peoples who were victims of the slave trade, goes beyond the conventions of design literature.

In addition to exploring the syllabaries and scripts of peoples from Suriname, Bassa, Somalia and a score of others created during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mafundikwa ends his study with a survey of alphabets developed as recently as the 1960s. He further reproduces work by some of his own students at ZIVA, whose illuminated interpretations of western alphabets – anthropomorphic and metamorphic figurative letterforms – extend the lost traditions. As a coda Mafundikwa reproduces three symbols, captioned in English, representing ‘words’, ‘on a journey’, ‘learn from the past’. Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Africa fits this description to a ‘t’.

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 53 vol. 14, 2004

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can also browse visual samples of recent issues at Eye before You Buy.


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