The Designer Elevating the Present and Future of Photobooks

Photobooks – February 19, 2021

Nontsikelelo Mutiti draws on experimental publishing and archiving to create expressive platforms for Black images and stories.

By Camille Crain Drummond

3. Lydia Monroe of Lingold
Lydia Monroe is a student nurse at Provident Hospital in Chicago. From the United States Office of War Information booklet Negroes and the War (1942). From Waiting Room Magazine (Creative Time and Tilton Gallery, 2014)

Discourse around archives as a site of erasure is a persistent part of contemporary design and art practices. Using the book format to establish dominant and authoritative narratives of the historical and cultural record of entire peoples is as old as the book itself. For Zimbabwean-born designer and artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti, this fact—that the book “produces an author”—is a central entry point into publication design. With a conceptual approach informed by her background as a painter, Mutiti’s multidisciplinary design work draws on experimental publishing and archiving practices to elevate Black peoples of the past, present, and future.

Clockwise from top left: Nontsikelelo Mutiti, A-A-A (folded poster; self-published, 2012). Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti, eds., Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats (Black Chalk & Co., 2019). Bisi Silva and Stephanie Baptist, eds., Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa (Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, 2017)

Interpreting the book as a time-based medium, with bold attention to narrative sequencing that considers images as text, she tasks herself with a grand act of bringing to form that which has been previously omitted. Never is this more evident than in Mutiti’s high-concept design for Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats (2019)—the most recent project from Black Chalk & Co., where Mutiti is artistic director—which stitches together anecdotes, aphorisms, and excerpts gathered from interviews with 150 Zimbabwean writers, editors, academics, and publishers. Another book designed by Mutiti, Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa (Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, 2017), documents the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos’s innovative program addressing outdated or nonexistent artistic and curatorial curricula from institutions across Africa, communicating a bold, expansive vision of how to document spaces in art history that have yet to be filled. As a graduate student at the Yale University School of Design, Mutiti developed Sovereign, a typeface based on letterforms found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial bibles. Giving form to that which does not yet exist—and the journey there—is a process rooted in endless probing, through which even the finished project is, for Mutiti, just the beginning of the story.

Kunle Sonuga, Traditional hairstyles for the Blackwoman, 1976, from Nontsikelelo Mutiti, A-A-A (folded poster; self-published, 2012)

Camille Crain Drummond: Is the book an essential format for you?

Nontsikelelo Mutiti: I work in many modes. The book is a possible format, it is an option. A lot of other modes can do similar things, and they also do things that the book can’t. It’s interesting to think about whether something needs to become a book. Could it be a lecture, could it be a film, a series of prints? Why a book, why pages ordered in sequence, bound? I will say that the book is exciting, because it’s a challenge. I’m motivated by things that challenge me, by things that I know the least about. That’s why I came to graphic design. I really believe in learning while doing, and so with every book project, I try to learn something new, try something new, approach it from another angle. Each decision is pushing you forward in terms of wrestling with the book. For me, a book is a fight, and I like a good fight.

The book has become a standard for us, culturally, of authoritative voice. So, I can understand why people would come to me and ask me to make a book. Because they’ve got some content that they want to be framed, they want it to be packaged, and the book has many advantages because of its format, the fact it can be put on shelves, put on a table, put in a bag—it is designed in a way that it can be moved. This cultural marker is key.

The gutter of the book is one of the most important things to me. The spine of the book—it’s what allows for the sequencing—it is also one of the places that you design for the least; it is one of the most neglected parts of the book. Bound books tell us that things happen in a particular sequence, and that for the best reading you have to follow that sequence (though you can jump around in a book if you want to).

Drummond: How does your own cultural background inform your approach to the book?

Mutiti: I’m from Zimbabwe. We were a British colony, then Rhodesians, who created their own system of governance separated from Britain and held onto power until 1980, two years before I was born. The book was such an important thing in my upbringing, and in the biography of my people. The book was used to program and reprogram us. To take away our culture and give us things to stand in for values that were already embedded in our culture. It created a hierarchy between a culture that had been brought to us and what was already sacred to us. It gave us new things to hold sacred. It gave us Christianity. It gave us new names, a new language. Photographs of our ancestors were taken and put in books so other peoples could know about us. Our names were spelled out by other people, and those names and categories were then put into books. So, the book has framed my people. It has been a culprit. And if you want to know about “the culprit,” open a book: that’s the scene of the crime.

Anti-segregation demonstrator repelled by firehose, Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963, from Simone Leigh, ed., The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2019)
Courtesy Charles Moore/Getty

Drummond: Can you speak to how you explore patternmaking in your work?

Mutiti: For me, it’s about sequence. And sequence does not necessarily mean things have to be repeated in exactly the same order, or that things need to be ordered and predictable; but there has to be some kind of rationale, even if that rationale is my own. I think about the module. I think about what something can be reduced to and still be potent, and then what to do with that module when we repeat it. I think pattern exists in our lives—culture is a pattern, it’s a set of rules, and again, something that attracts me. My work with patterns is teaching me to think about what structure can do.

A pattern is something that you can be given, as with sewing. So, I also want to acknowledge that there are patterns that were made for me even before I was born—as a woman, as a Black African woman, as a Black woman born in Zimbabwe. There are patterns that have been made for me as someone that is a professor, a designer. I’m interested in those patterns. I want to understand what makes them up: Why do they hold up? What’s so strong about them?

Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti, eds., Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats (Black Chalk & Co., 2019)

Drummond: Your practice is often research-based. The books you have produced with Black Chalk & Co., founded in partnership with the author and scholar Tinashe Mushakavanhu, incorporate many contributors, vernacular images, and references to historical and archival material. Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats, for example, brings together a multitude of writers’ voices on writing—stories, excerpts from interviews, as well as family photos and other images. What role does bringing all of these pieces together (the creation of a new archive) play for you as a designer?

Mutiti: The multimodal, polyvocal nature of the piece is evident in the foundation of this book, in that it is many voices, many voices of different tonalities, many voices speaking to similar themes. It is a portrait of an intergenerational and international community. It is really an extended conversation between people we would like to see in the room together. The work with Black Chalk is about surfacing submerged narratives.

Publishing is a privileged position. It takes a lot to bring a publication out, and SWCGYTH was our first substantial publication. With every publication, you can make it if you have the resources, if you have time— writing takes time, research takes time, being able to be close to the resources that inspire or inform or become the content, having the financial resources to produce the work. I’m in the academy, so that allows me to more easily access archives, to get research funds to travel. We went to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which has a huge, huge repository of material around African literature. Most of the archives that we are looking at have pieces of ephemera—printed pieces of moments in time—so we’re reading the surface of all of those things.

Clockwise from top left: Mickalene Thomas, Muse (Aperture, 2015). Simone Leigh, ed., Waiting Room Magazine (Creative Time and Tilton Gallery, 2014). Simone Leigh, ed., The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2019)
All images courtesy Nontsikelelo Mutiti

In the book, we draw on our family photo albums in a way that is not ironic. Biography can be a very powerful tool. We put our family photographs in the book, because we didn’t have access to images of the authors or other leading figures to represent those moments; we didn’t have an image of the person speaking about exile. Our personal biographies mirror those voices, and we went through the same things. So, we also put ourselves in there as subject, as author, as archive, and that is important to us. When I’m looking at the archive, I’m looking at myself.

A lot of my work in graduate school was dealing with this, because there were laws passed in Zimbabwe that you could not photograph outside of your own personal property. You couldn’t just go and snap a building across the road, you couldn’t film as you were driving, you can’t document. I felt lost. When I came to grad school, I really wanted to make work about home but could not access images from the past ten years unless they were images sanctioned by the government—and those were already manipulated, even if it was a real scene. What is documented and not documented creates a manipulation in the archive.

No archive tells the complete story. Those gaps have always inspired me. This is what leads me to create an institution, like Black Chalk, that is really preoccupied with gaps and omissions. I think when you’re doing this kind of work, at times, people make the assumption that you are trying to address those omissions by making sure that everything is made visible. But sometimes, the most powerful thing you can do is point and say, “Look, you left me out.” That is content too.

This piece originally was published in Issue 018 of The PhotoBook Review.

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