Autumn 2004

Face to face with the Afrikan written tradition

Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Afrika

Saki Mafundikwa, Mark Batty $34.95

Interview with Saki Mafundikwa on African Digital Art

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.


Steven Heller, design writer, New York

Read the full version 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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