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September 08, 2008
That graphic designer
Chaz Maviyane-Davies' work pushes the boundaries of social
justice is not surprising. If you want to know what he was like
as a child, ask his high school art teacher Ms. Buckland. "She
used to tremble and turn pink," he remembers. "I caused
a lot of problems for my teachers. Everyone said I gave her such
grief because of my work."
complaint was simple—Maviyane-Davies was being himself. When
competing in a national competition for a hospital mural, he departed
from his classmates' formulaic depictions of nurses and doctors
and painted an image of a traditional healer. ("A witch doctor
in the West," he clarifies with a laugh.) Though the school
staff was mortified, his mural won second place, setting the tone
for his future career.
"I grew up in a
racist state as a second-class citizen," Maviyane-Davies says
of his upbringing in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia. He was only
12 when Ian Smith created a separatist white government as an attempt
to thwart black leadership. "No African rule in my lifetime,"
Mr. Smith brazenly declared. "The white man is master of Rhodesia.
He has built it, and he intends to keep it."
Against that backdrop,
Maviyane-Davies dreamed of leaving his country to pursue art, as
such options were unavailable in his homeland. He couldn't
receive a passport until he entered the army so he was conscripted
into the military after completing training as an electronics draftsman,
drawing circuit diagrams. With papers in hand, he settled on three
potential overseas locations that would welcome a Rhodesian passport:
South Africa, which was still in the throes of apartheid; Malawi,
which was too close and was a puppet state of South Africa; and
Switzerland, that bastion of neutrality. Within weeks of his discharge,
Maviyane-Davies was on a plane to Geneva.
His stay in Switzerland
was short. Although he reveled in the newfound freedom of expression,
Maviyane-Davies spoke neither French nor German, so he was often
isolated from his new environment. He packed up and headed back
to Africa within six months, ultimately settling in Zambia in 1974.
"I went all this way to travel 300 miles from where I started,"
he notes. Restless yet again, he only stayed in Zambia for a year
to take a foundation course in design, until his mainly English
faculty suggested that he consider heading to London. Learning in
Zambia was wrought with practical challenges, namely a lack of proper
teaching materials and supplies.
London in the 1970s opened
his eyes creatively. Maviyane-Davies consumed the socialist images
that were flooding the city from the Eastern Bloc. "I flourished
when I studied there," he says. "So much was available—meeting
people in universities, bars and clubs while arguing with everyone
from Ethiopians to Eritreans. That whole bubbling over affected
my work." Posters from Cuba, in particular, with their vibrant
colors and revolutionary tones, grabbed his eye for both their song
of hope and change as well their iconography.
Seeing how global socialist
causes took hold in Britain, Maviyane-Davies began to question:
What did it mean for other international agendas to be imputed onto
the English condition? Margaret Thatcher was beginning her rise
through the House of Commons, and he remembers a strong conservative
element swirling around him that had no patience for the liberation
pronouncements of Cuba. "That's when I started to identify
graphic design as a nonpartisan discipline that could help to bring
about change. It doesn't only belong to capitalism or anybody.
But you've got to be astute how you connect culturally with
In 1982, he returned
to Zimbabwe and worked at an ad agency for about six months before
founding his own design agency, The Maviyane-Project. His country,
still in the raptures of its recent independence, clung to many
of the same problems as before. "The ad agencies remained
white-run," recalls Maviyane-Davies. "The clientele
may have changed, but, either out of laziness or purposely, they
just substituted white faces with black faces, the eight letters
of Rhodesia for the eight letters of Zimbabwe. The way of life was
the same. Some discrimination goes away and that says a lot. But
the poor were still poor. One of my jobs as an agitator was to say:
Things have to change for our betterment."
Through his work Maviyane-Davies
adopted a visual vocabulary developed from the culture of Zimbabwe,
to help guide the burgeoning country. Manipulating images of African
bodies and other local visual cues he began to project a message
of social change. He explains, "It's about breaking
down and finding the inherited, mythically infused iconography and
then rebuilding it in order to fit the feeling and nature of where
we are now. The tone, rhythm and depth of our identity is special
and can be used to talk to each other today. And we have to use
that visual language to slowly try to bring some of our personality
and presence into the design arena."
An example is a self-authored
series of posters from 1996, in which he reimagined the United Nation's
Universal Declaration of Human Rights from an African perspective.
In contrast to the usual depictions of starvation and strife that
perpetually stereotype the continent, Maviyane-Davies sought to
assert human rights by representing its people in a positive and
dignified manner. "Human rights are a mandate we should all
be born with, something that should be printed on the back of your
birth certificate. It's something that every human being should
have and what we aspire to achieve as civilized people. But instead
human rights tend only to be discussed when they are violated."
The authentic voice that
Maviyane-Davies found in Zimbabwe is the same one he hopes to impart
to his students. In 2001, the Massachusetts College of Art accepted
him as a professor (he now holds tenure). "I tell my students
that graphic design is not only what you learn in college. It's
what you learn in life. You connect your values to who you are and
thereby become the visual voice of the economic and cultural sector
on your own terms."
The epic concerns of
globalization that he tackled through design in Zimbabwe have taken
a practical turn for Maviyane-Davies as a professor. He believes
that one of the biggest challenges for graphic designers is reconciling
the widespread availability of tools like Photoshop and Illustrator
with originality and personalization. "The software challenge
is huge," he laments. "I judge a lot of competitions
and sometimes, when the images are there lying on the floor, you
can't tell what's from Singapore, Australia or America."
He reserves his sharpest
criticism—and his highest hope—for his fellow countrymen
and women's creative potential. "Look at our [African]
sculptures—they're some of the best and most original
in the world—and yet our graphic design looks the same as
everyone else's. Why can't we see where our sculptors
are extracting their inspiration from? They might not be communicating
for a client, but they're taking from an indigenous, historical
and humane source and that source is open to all of us. We're
building a new language, and believe it can have universal appeal."
But building a new language
is not without its obstacles. In 2001, he fled the country after
president Robert Mugabe lost a referendum and began cracking down
on public demonstrations and civic dissent. Though Maviyane-Davies
cannot return while Mugabe retains control, the flight has bolstered
his convictions. "If anything, design is struggle,"
he says. "Because if we don't struggle with something,
we're not saying anything."
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