Graphic Activist

A Zimbabwean designer’s political posters hit you in the gut

| January / February 2008

When controversial Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe announced in May 2000 that elections would be held in June, giving the opposition party little time to launch a campaign, Zimbabwean graphic designer Chaz Maviyane-Davies began a month of “graphic activism.” Each day, he created one or two politically charged posters to counter ensuing voter intimidation by Mugabe’s government.

Maviyane-Davies’ posters helped inspire an international community of support for fair elections in Zimbabwe. His works were posted daily to the website of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. They were also published in magazines and newspapers from South Africa to Sweden, made into screen savers, printed on T-shirts, and thrown out of vehicle windows in parts of rural Zimbabwe where the threat of state-sponsored preelection violence was high.

“I found it was the only way to keep my sanity in the center of an absurd and dangerous situation,” Maviyane-Davies says. So effective were the posters that Maviyane-Davies soon began to fear for his safety under the Mugabe regime, and in January 2001 he moved to the United States, where he is now a professor of graphic design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston.

Aiming to reclaim the power of the poster from corporate advertisers through “creative defiance,” the 55-year-old designer creates posters that he believes will inspire hope for a more just future not only in Zimbabwe but wherever human rights violations occur.

“If design can be used to sell jeans and perfume, then I will use it to fight for democracy and against injustice,” says Maviyane-Davies, who is a curator of an exhibit of international sociopolitical posters, The Graphic Imperative, that next appears in February at the McDonough Museum of Art at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

At a time when cool postmodernism is the trend in graphic design, Maviyane-Davies’ work “hits you in the gut,” says José Nieto, a senior graphic designer at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.