Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

A New Visual Language for South Africa

i-jusi: National Typographika 1 & 2

Orange Juice Design<br>Available from<br> <br>

Garth Walker is South Africa’s leading exponent of post-apartheid design, though his vernacular style is not yet accepted currency.

South African graphic design generally suffers from a lack of identity. Typically it is a crude hodgepodge of borrowed ideas and globalised references, most often used to enliven the arid messages of corporate South Africa. Walker’s Durban-based agency Orange Juice Design, though, is different. Founded in 1995, a year after Nelson Mandela became leader, this commercial enterprise is at the forefront of ‘a new visual language’. Walker’s design style is located in, and draws influence from, the chaotic mix of competing identities that characterises Africa’s most southern economy – what Walker describes as South Africa’s ‘fruit salad’ society.

Instead of leafing through imported design annuals, Walker seeks inspiration in wayward places: the urban sprawl, cemeteries, bus depots. He is particularly fond of what he calls ‘street design’ and vernacular signage, the latter showing an odd preponderance for drop shadow lettering. Apartheid’s demise has occasioned a restless search for identity and place, and Walker’s efforts are among the more sincere in a country coming to terms with the notion of ‘Africa’ in the name South Africa.

He admits his commercial portfolio isn’t necessarily reflective of his own beliefs and interests. Speaking recently at the third Impact International Printmaking Conference, held at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art (27-30 August), Walker commented that South African business is reluctant to embrace the notion of ‘African-ness’. Somewhat ironically, he revealed that new black business is even more reluctant in this respect. ‘They all want to look like London or Hong Kong,’ he commented. ‘The dominant perception is that everything African is negative. They are reluctant to embrace our own culture because it’s been so traumatic. But we really need to develop a visual language that we can embrace.’

Walker’s print initiative, the A3-zine i-jusi, is probably closest to achieving this. A Zulu word meaning juice, the choice of title is revealing. The word ‘i-jusi’ is a crude form of pigeon Zulu, not dissimilar in principle to Japanese katakana syllabary, which absorbs imported words by making them sound Japanese. While the masthead speaks Zulu, the content is a cacophony of cultures speaking in a multitude of tongues, sometimes quite literally.

Anyone approaching i-jusi expecting revelatory examples of black design will doubtlessly be disappointed; there is very little of it. Not that this discredits the title and its probing explorations of South Africa’s visual culture – Walker has released two insightful issues devoted to new South African typography.

In National Typographika 1 (issue 11, 2000), the pages are filled with consciously avant-garde typefaces. The lettering shows a fascination with a newly discovered sense of home and self. Zulu beadwork, handcrafted wire crafts, shopfront hoardings in Durban, African funeral parlours (note the word African) and West African barbershop signage all variously ‘inspire’ the offerings.

National Typographika 2 (issue 17, 2002) gives substance to the nervous typography of its predecessor. Wilhelm Kruger’s cover design evokes the angst and agony that seems to characterise contemporary Africa – his typeface bleeds black, an allusion to blood and oil, both equally abundant in Africa. If the cover sets the tone, the content explores its implications. Red Mercury sees Walker refer to South Africa’s covert nuclear defence programme in explaining a typeface that pays tribute to Jonathan Barnbrook. Elsewhere, Dale Halvorsen presents Mugabe: dingbats for an oppressive regime. The crypto-fascist monuments that mark the South African landscape inspire Simon Villet’s brutalist Muzzle typeface.

While these offerings are intriguing, one is doubtful that they are anything more than didactic showpieces. In a pragmatic business environment, this new visual ideology must at some point begin to pay its way. And in Walker’s case this is finally happening. He was recently commissioned to develop a new typeface and related signage for South Africa’s new constitutional court, set to open in 2004. As yet untitled, this typeface is a consummate product of its location. After visually documenting every piece of lettering found on the old prison site, from graffiti to builders’ marks, Walker has combined them into something new. The typeface vindicates the idiosyncratic method of a designer who discerned the seeds of something new in the banality of the everyday.