Graphic Activist

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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.

Motivated by a desire to portray Africa through a lens that sees more than just war and famine, Maviyane-Davies created a poster series that celebrates the essence of 12 articles in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights from an African perspective.

“His work defies a lot of the expectations that we often have about design coming from non-European sources,” says Nieto, citing a Maviyane-Davies human rights poster in which a man’s dreadlocks morph into chains. “He’s employing Western technology in ways that are surprising and striking.”

When Maviyane-Davies was a teenager in the 1960s, posters from Cuba and the U.S. black power movement helped put the anticolonial struggle of his home country, then known as Rhodesia, in a global context. This global perspective continues to inform his work, which often uses African proverbs and cultural symbols to illuminate present-day concerns about human rights, the environment, and other social justice causes.

 “Design has been taken over by marketing and capitalism,” says Maviyane-Davies, who received an international design award in 2004. “You can take that discipline back and use it for what you need it to work for.” His poster commentary on the global dominance of American corporate brands, Coca-Colonization, is featured in the book The Design of Dissent: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics (Rockport, 2006).

He’s now at work on a book that anthologizes his art and tells his life story. He also hopes to secure funding to complete posters for the remaining 18 articles in the Declaration of Human Rights poster series.

Maviyane-Davies hasn’t given up on returning to his homeland someday with his wife and their 8-year-old daughter, he says, and he envisions Zimbabwe as a place where basic human rights eventually will be respected. Until then, he holds fast to his art, which gives him hope and a platform for pushing for a more just world.

“Maybe in this Internet age, people have forgotten,” he says, but “the power of the poster is still pertinent.”

To see more of Chaz Maviyane-Davies’ work, visit www.maviyane.com. A shorter version of this article appeared in ColorLines (Sept./Oct. 2007). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 900 Alice St., Suite 400, Oakland, CA 94605;www.colorlines.com.

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