08 November 2006
Jane Shepherd (grazi)
Jane Shepherd (grazi)

Zimbabwe has hit the headlines and we have been catapulted from obscurity to the glare of international scrutiny. But the current interest in the economic and political situation only mirrors a portion of our experience as an African country. In spite of difficulties people still run businesses, students enrol at college, consumers spend, and projects, programmes and products are launched. The experiences of neighbouring countries testify to this. We are all trying to move forward, it's just that the pace has been reduced to a painful crawl.

As a profession, graphic design has only enjoyed a few years of normality, having emerged from a colonial past, war of liberation and the ten-year State of Emergency. There is no doubt that the illusionary economic boom of the 1990's thrust graphic design into a more prominent and appropriate place in business activity. Most designers benefited from the imf policies - access to foreign currency, increased competitiveness and trade liberalisation. Designers' increased confidence brought them together to form the Graphic Design Association in Zimbabwe (grazi) and challenge the status quo of shoddy work in the profession and allied trades. Designers demanded choice in paper, rejected bad print in favour of cheaper and higher standards from Mauritius, embraced new technology and through grazi started to promote work of excellence.

The first few grazi member exhibitions showed a remarkable diversity in clients and the beginnings of a search for African identity. This threw up predictable solutions as designers sold a version of Africa that appealed to European ideas. Naive illustration, use of pattern and 'ethnic' colours and references to colonial Victorian imagery abounded in tourism literature. Just about anything from packaging to posters were framed with borders of Ndebele patterns and chevrons. But it did herald a recognition by both client and designer that they were operating in an African environment. The poster work of Chaz Maviyane-Davies stands alone in both content and style. His internationally acclaimed work has encouraged global interest in African visual identity. He raised the hopes and dreams of many a young Zimbabwean designer.

The bumpy road towards visual identity hit a pothole with the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts (ziva) seminar on Cultural Variance in Global Design held in 1999. The lecture by Ricardo Gomez from San Francisco University, to a very mixed audience, ended with a fierce debate on ideas of legitimacy and cultural appropriation. Designers were asked, what happens when the designer, as an interpreter of society, is a minority in a dominant culture? Gomez commented, ''We may sit or live next to someone and think we can become their spokesperson, can advocate their culture or identity. But there is the risk of breakdown or of insignificance of their culture, something is lost in the translation.'' The exploration of African visual identity has taken off in South Africa with or without questions being raised. But perhaps the biggest question Zimbabwean designers need to ask is, what is our role as designers? 70% of the population live in the rural areas. 80% of the total population live in poverty. Zimbabwe is one of the worst examples of income inequality in the world with the richest 20% of the population receiving 60% of the income.

The last two years have seen the environment in which designers operate shrink. Many designers have left the country in the exodus of the middle class, black and white. The economy is on the brink of collapse. It is now a matter of sink-or-tread water. Human rights abuses including freedom of expression have created a climate of fear and self-censorship. The path designers so enthusiastically set off on during the 1990's has been eclipsed. But hope is not easy to extinguish, and there are brave initiatives that challenge the situation Zimbabwe is in. ziva is now in its third year and the intake of students is increasing. With support from the local and international community the creation of an exciting learning environment rooted in African experience will grow and develop. Community publishing, often overlooked by designers in their preoccupation with style over content, is tackling grass-root issues of leadership and democracy through the development of printed resources. 2000 saw the launch of a major opposition party popularised by the symbol of the open hand versus the clenched fist of Zanu-pf. Maviyane-Davies published a courageous visual political commentary running up to the 2000 elections. grazi refuses to lay down and die. Mike Danes, Chairperson of grazi, sums up the mood, ''Design in Zimbabwe has made tentative roots, more clients are realising the effects of home grown design. The gains we have made cannot be reversed so easily although they may seem overshadowed by other concerns. Change is inevitable, and with it will come an upsurge in designer and client confidence liberating creativity.''

About this article

In Icograda BoardMessage 8, Vol 2001-2003.
This article was written a year ago. Since then the situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated rapidly and become increasingly desperate.