Home / ATypI All Over 2021

Revival of Nguni Symbol Writing

This session examines a study of the indigenous knowledge of Nguni Symbol Writing and how it may be revived in South African contemporary visual practice and passed on to the next generations. Symbols are a means to convey messages, emotions, needs, and desires to each other—writing is a technology that facilitates these transmissions. It is one part of a broader spectrum of visual communication in contemporary society.
Both writing and pictures are what we call part of visual communication. But there is more to it than that. The most powerful, meaningful, and culturally important messages are those that combine words and pictures. And sometimes, they are one and the same.

PLAY: The visual identity for the *madímì project integrated the original Nguni symbol meaning conversation, because graphically bringing back the beautiful, colorful symbols into contemporary visual society could be seen as a civilization with our ancestors—and perhaps with future generations. *madímì is a reconstructed word in Proto-KiNtu. Proto-KiNtu is the reconstructed ancestor of all KiNtu languages. It consists of two parts: ma- (a plural noun prefix) and -dimi (a noun root meaning “language” or “tongue”). The * indicates that the word is reconstructed. The letters are written in the International Phonetic Alphabet, which tells how to pronounce the word, not how it is spelled. The vowel ‘í’ has a different sound from the vowel ‘i’; the little marks on top of the vowels indicate the tone. KiNtu languages are tonal languages—meaning whether you pronounce the vowel with a high or low tone, it can change the meaning.

LEARN: This book endeavors to join in the decolonial assertion that Southern Afrikan people have, indeed, always had their indigenous writing systems. However, through the process of colonization in line with the Western construct of “civilization,” projects enforcing the Roman alphabet as a literary standard discouraged the wider use of indigenous writing cultures and effectively disinherited many Afrikans of this heritage. There have been many movements around the continent to reinstate indigenous written heritage, however. These pages serve as a gesture in that spirit, recataloguing the indigenous symbology described in the classic works of Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa in the context of both ancient and modern indigenous symbolic cultures of the region of Southern Afrika. Moreover, this book offers some ideas for how this expressive tradition can once again become part of the everyday visual culture of Afrikans like ourselves, as game objects and storytelling tools. This is so that young Afrikans may access the creative tools of their ancestors and feel their place in a great cultural history going back generations, in order to build a new Afrikan future that is not yet imagined.

TELL A STORY: The children tell a story through stamping in a book or poster that can be shared with friends, or the parents take a photo of their child’s story. This encourages parents to engage in this awareness project—thereby learning the symbols themselves—and further encourages the broader community to participate. The aim of this project is to promote awareness of indigenous visual culture, bringing our origins to the fore, and making the symbolic vocabulary of our ancestors available to today’s young generations as a creative tool to develop their skills and express themselves as Afrikans while understanding their place in a great cultural history, so they feel part of something exciting that goes back generations.


Taurai Valerie Mtake

"Taurai Valerie Mtake is a multi-award winning visual communicator who is particularly interested in the potential of design in contemporary Afrikan visual culture, where traditional cultural practices often become a staged authenticity in which the history of meaning in the objects and designs is often lost, sometimes even to the producers themselves. It is in this way that important indigenous systems have been transfigured in contemporary society, merely as elements of decorative art or a curio for mass consumption. Mtake sees the potential of design to halt this waste and abandon our most valuable cultural resources. Owing to her undying passion for Afrika, in February 2018, Mtake co-founded Nhaka Creative Agency @nhakacreative_agency, which aims to fill a gap in the market producing edutainment material (edutainment and educational). Not only is this material innovative, but it’s also authentic and significant to Afrikans, their identity, and their cultural heritage. Mtake also owns TaVaTake Designs @tavatake_designs, which she started in 2011.