History & Culture

Symbols within

Contemporary definitions of literacy and education have left out a lot of the world as illiterate. But the desire for knowledge and its articulation is age old and evidence of its expression brings to the fore great sensitivity and understanding of people. The meaning they capture is multi-dimensional, encompassing whole stories at times, as shown by Saki Mafundikwa.

Sankofa is a Ghanian pictograph which says, “Return and get it”. In other words, learn from the past. That is Saki Mafundikwa’s password too. Saki Mafundikwa, a native of Zimbabwe, a graphic designer and author of “Afrikan Alphabets”, went back in time to draw ideas of design from African alphabets.

In a simply delivered talk with lots of pictures and sketches, the designer says, “After a 20-year stay in the U.S.…my country called me home and I founded my country’s first institute of graphic design…to interrogate and investigate new ideas, to create a new visual language based on the African creative heritage. Topography is a very important part of the curriculum where we encourage students to look inwards…” and Saki shows some designs which his students have come up with. An important motif the students use is based on the different types of writing found in Africa.

The first examples Saki shows us are of proto writing. Proto writing is the use of ideographic and early mnemonic symbols, which were still probably devoid of direct linguistic content, to convey information. These systems are dated around the Neolithic period (7th century BC).

“Nsibidi is the ancient writing created by the Ejagham people in southern Nigeria. There are three levels of Nsibidi:1. Common signs of human relationships and communication, 2. Dark signs representing danger and distress, 3. Secret signs only known by priests and initiates,” says Saki

The script is made of circles and semi circles arranged in different manners, arrows facing different directions and combinations of squares and circles. He moves on to tell us about “Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. The motifs represent proverbs, historical events, attitudes and objects, animals and plants. This system originated some 400 years ago,” he says. The first symbol is the Sankofa.

He shows us a pictograph made by the Jabwe people of Angola saying, “This tells the story of the creation of the world.” The picture has four snakes like arms on its four sides, and in the middle, a square made of five squares on each side. The area between the two arms of the snakes on all sides is representative of some aspects. Says Saki, “On the top is God, at the bottom is man. To the left is the sun and the right, the moon. All paths lead to and from God.”

Some of the sacred societies of Africa developed an intricate writing system and what you see on paper is a complicated sketch of different symbols. It actually tells a story.

“In the rainforests of the Congo, the Ituri community, men made cloth from tree bark and women sung to it using the same polyphonic structure…it is like a musical score.” He moves on to show many geometric patterns women used to paint their homes with in bright colours. It is called the Bantu symbol writing. The Zulu women used them to shape the stones for their bracelets. Ethiopia has had the longest tradition of writing with the Ethiopian script that was developed in the 4th century AD and is used to write Amari which is spoken by over 24 million people. Saki also shows us a writing system developed by King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum kingdom at the age of 25 in 1896. Shu mom is a syllabary. There are more traditions of syllabary like among the Vai people and the Mendes.

Saki comes to the problem prevalent in all third world countries…designers are using that which the outside has to offer, not develop what is found within.

Web link: http://www.ted.com/talks/saki_mafundikwa_ingenuity_and_elegance_in_ancient_african_alphabets.html

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 5:34:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/symbols-within/article5025856.ece

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