Ima-Abasi Okon with Saki Mafundikwa

Afrikan Alphabets Extended

Published  10/21/2021

I was first introduced to Ima-Abasi Okon by a mutual friend, Teal Triggs, in 2012 when they were teaching at London College of Communication. ­They have both since left, Teal moving to the Royal College of Art and Ima becoming a full-time artist. In December of that year, I invited Ima to be the guest of honor at our annual graduation ceremony. She arrived in Harare with a few days to spare; we spent a lot of time together, sightseeing and eventually taking a day trip to the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, which, aside from being the source of the country’s name, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was on that trip that we became good friends.

Three years later, I invited Ima to coauthor an ambitious book called I AM Design, which was going to be the first Afrikan design textbook. UK publisher Thames and Hudson expressed interest in the project—but then the T&H editor who had championed it retired, and thus the project died on the vine. A year after her Harare visit, Ima asked if I was interested in being interviewed about my Afrikan Alphabets book for an online magazine, and I agreed. At that point the book was still readily available, but it has been out of print for a while now. I am, however, working tirelessly on a new edition, tentatively titled Afrikan Alphabets Extended, which I’m hoping will be published by the end of 2021 or (more realistically) early in 2022. What follows is our original interview from 2013. It is one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. —Saki Mafundikwa

The Interview:

Ima-Abasi Okon: Collectively, what do these writing systems present? What do they do to the accepted narrative of history and culture? The obvious one being that Africa has made no contributions to world history or civilization.

Saki Mafundikwa: To me they present a “eureka moment,” they flip open Pandora’s box laying bare the lies, prejudice, and evil that has been visited on a whole continent and her people. Why is it important that there are scholars today who have dedicated their lives to deciphering writing systems like the Mayan Alphabet? Or even more profoundly, why is it of any importance or relevance to (today’s) society for the said scholars to share their findings with us? Why is it of any relevance that two Yale scholars referred to as “Egyptologists” discovered a writing system in the Egyptian desert (in 1998) that they say is the FIRST effort at writing ever made by humanity—correcting centuries of the false belief that the cradle of writing is the Mesopotamian basin. There is (urgent) need on our part (Afrikan scholars) to correct the myths and plain lies that have been immortalized in books the world over about us, our contributions, and our accomplishments. We’ve let the hunter tell the story for too long. It’s time WE the hunted tell the story from our perspective.

IO: Individually what do they say, speak of, or begin to pronounce?

SM: They say, “Hey world, I am here, look at me in all my Afrikan glory and beauty. Look at my ingenuity, my dexterity! I am not ‘just a writing system’; I am also spirit, rhythm, song, dance, movement, I am timeless. Yet I am deceptively simple.” They speak of our glorious past, a past that is under constant attack from “modernity” and misconstrued “civilization.” They inspire us to SANKOFA—return to the past, be inspired by it to make our future GREAT.

IO: Are they establishing or reiterating?

SM: Establishing, no doubt!

IO: One of the things you call for is for African designers to expand upon the Latin alphabet to reflect African culture. How would you suggest they go about this? Looking now at typography and type design as practices, do you not think that this is gimmicky, and can become a novelty?

SM: I am not calling for the Latin alphabet to “reflect Afrikan culture”; rather, in a situation where we have seen type design in the age of technology being mutilated and distorted in grotesque ways, I see Afrikan alphabets offering a breath of fresh air that can rescue the Latin alphabet from the vagaries of style and trends. As a typographer, and more importantly as a designer, I am in the business of the creation and peddling of “Beauty.” Aesthetic value has gone out of typography in recent memory. Afrikan alphabets offer a more aesthetically pleasing perspective and alternative. The deconstructionists could care less about “legibility.” Instead they care more about the “expressive” nature of typography. Afrikan alphabets straddle those two extremes comfortably.

Black type on a white background of Vai Syllabary.
Image of Vai Syllabary from Liberia, 2004. Image courtesy of Jason Glavy, Jamra-Patel.

IO: What would be the point of African typefaces? Surely a cultural slant in a font is superfluous. Type is supposed to be invisible when we read it. It is supposed to make language visible, right? I favor fonts that are void of decorative motifs, and that don’t parody a period or action because it presents the challenge to use them to evoke meaning. The thought of a “zebra-esque” typeface makes me cringe, because I imagine it to be ornamental or illustrative in style. Surely things like this only confirm this hegemonic African aesthetic that the West likes to populate. In other words it’s always safari, kente, wax prints or tribal masks—how do we avoid this? Again, will this establish or reiterate?

SM: For the typography novice, Afrikan alphabets can bring out the beauty of type. Some of the writing systems are so intrinsically beautiful that one cannot ignore this and so whatever work they will produce, it will by extension contain the same beauty. Let me point out that I am not suggesting literal translation of the writing systems here. Rather I am suggesting metaphorical use: where one takes cues from a specific system but maintaining the essence of the original font. The work becomes powerful when it’s “inspired by” rather than a simple literal translation or copy.

Image of Nguni Symbol Writing.
Nguni Symbol Writing, South Afrika, 1964. Credo Vusamazulu Mutwa, in "Indaba My Children." Image courtesy of Saki Mafundikwa.

IO: Swiss typography is seen as the influential powerhouse of typography. Pure, clean, and balanced. Without using Swiss motifs such as cows and everything synonymous with their culture, when you say “Swiss typography” you automatically think of a sans serif, black, heavy, considered unobtrusive glyphs, strong composition—an identity. What their typography communicates is an attitude. Can you describe an African attitude and how this can be translated into the design of fonts or the use of typography?

SM: Swiss typography embodies the coldness of the country and its people, the Alps and the white snow, the grid as the cornerstone of all forms of design, whether they be architectural or graphic; less is more—the modernist canon (white space becomes more about the design than the typography and the message) and an overall minimalist approach to all forms of design. The people’s fascination with cleanliness and order—to the point where it becomes anal, dead, and soulless.

Afrikan typography is the exact opposite: warm, humane, funky, organic, free, not constrained by the puritanical straightjacket! Good thing you know that type can describe (or represent) an attitude. Isn’t Afrika the home of “attitude”? Lagos could be the city with the most “attitude”! The market women, the street vendors, the Fela Kutis of this world, Nollywood (hey, I should design a font and call it “Nollywood”!!!), you know how Nigerian women kiss their teeth in a show of contempt or exasperation! THAT’S attitude galore that can be translated into the design of fonts and/or the use of typography! The folks who put together the amazingly beautiful Lagos, a City at Work—an incredibly beautiful book designed with a Nigerian attitude (right down to the typography!!!)—succeeded in this. Yet they did not even overtly take their cues from Afrikan alphabets!

Further reading:

  • 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 was educated in the United States, earning a BA in telecommunications and fine arts from Indiana University and 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 instructor. His book Afrikan Alphabets: The Story of Writing in Africa was published in 2004.

  • Ima-Abasi Okon is an artist based in London and Amsterdam. She works with sculpture, sound, and video to produce installations that explore exhibition-making as an exercise in syntax, adopting linguistic and grammatical structures within her installations as a way of complicating the construction of knowledge.

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