International Project

ZIVA – Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts

Combining African roots, formal education and new digital design tools.

Athina Balopoulou
Jun 12th 2014

Location: Zimbabwe

The story of ZIVA is intrinsically linked to the story of its visionary founder and current director Saki Mafundikwa. Mafundikwa work spans graphic design, typography, photography, and filmmaking. He is the author of the first book on Afrikan typography (‘Afrikan Alphabets’) and a recent TED Talks speaker, exploring the history of typography in Africa and the challenges that African designers are facing today.  After spending more than twenty years in the US design and media world as a student, freelancer and teacher he returned to the beginning of his journey in  Zimbabwe, to fulfill a new mission: returning the power of visual communication to where it was born, in ‘Mother Africa’.

Mafundikwa, with a deep knowledge of typography and the roots of visual arts found in Africa, acknowledged that while Africa had always had deep design sensibilities and a long visual arts tradition, creative and media industries were struggling. The problem with the current state of these industries was not the lack of talent, but the lack of an infrastructure to identify, nurture and support this talent. On another level, African talent often found itself looking for inspiration or ‘answers’ somewhere other than their geographic, cultural  and heritage stimuli. Mafundikwa came back to Zimbabwe determined to change the situation by setting up the first Zimbabwe Design and New Media School.

ZIVA, the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts was founded in 1999 in Harare and covered a wide range of courses across the spectrum of ‘vigital’ arts – visual arts taught using digital tools. The idea was for ‘a Bauhaus sort of school that would investigate the creation of a new visual language based on African Cultural Heritage’ says Mafundikwa. ZIVA’s programme was structured to provide design education of the highest quality; enhancing the students skillset for the new media industry, increasing their employability chances; and fostering creativity on a macro level.

Mafundikwa’s pledge is to encourage African designers to look back to their roots for answers, in their history, culture and personal experiences. This effort is at the core of every aspect of ZIVA. Alongside the latest design software, anthropology and sociology are a core part of the curriculum, enabling connections with the past through a deeper knowledge of and engagement with African identity. ‘Design; it is not enough to be proficient with the digital tools, because that is exactly all they are: tools’ says Mafundikwa.

ZIVA came into the spotlight in 2013 with a crowdfunding campaign that set a  $100,000 target to upgrade their technical equipment, software and hardware and to get access to new teaching resources.  Through this new funding stream they also intended to expand the faculty, and to provide full scholarships to deserving and talented young designers in order to pursue further education abroad.

By bringing African students closer to their roots the programme has supported many talented designers to move abroad and get access to further education or professional opportunities. Among many others, ZIVA has produced students such as Nontsikelelo Mutiti who received her MFA in design from Yale University, Maxine Chikumbo who now attends Cooper Union, and Christopher Masonga who in 2003 was awarded the Type Director’s Club of New York City’s Scholarship award.

The impact of Ziva’s work can be seen on many levels. On a national level it provides education opportunities and capacity building programmes for young people, as well as a path to new opportunities for employment. On a cultural level it nurtures a new generation of designers, who enter the art scene on an international level and introduce their unique features and influences, fueling a new cultural dialogue between ancient typography and new media, between African heritage and western cultural production.

Find out more:

TED talk