Designing Africa

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'Do', 're', 'mi': A Visual Narrative on Origins and Geography

WRITTEN BY: Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman


We discussed with Clari how the series portrays and maps out her relationship with her place of origins, and how her sense of identity and history evolves into a visual narrative. 

Clari, I’d like to start by exploring how one’s personal history translates into graphic representation… The pieces that you created for ‘Where I was from’ are quite personal, and I wonder how you employed the representational capacities of graphic design while you produced work that has such an emotional weight… How did you approach the concept of ‘origin’ and ‘identity’ in these pieces? 

I used shape, size, colour and texture to explore the link that exists between concept and language. By connecting with, and then applying these design elements in various capacities I was able to build meaning into the pieces. So, I have placed emotion and geography side by side; this would appear to be a very simplistic approach to the concept. However, the texture, the overlapping, the use of type, and the colours - all key into the bigger narrative, and in this way tie all these pieces together. 

Given your educational background and your experience in living in different places around the world such as USA and Switzerland, how do you feel your perception of identity has changed or evolved?

When I lived overseas I felt more open to my cultural heritage. Being far away from home, you find yourself with exaggerated thoughts of what you left behind. This has always been my experience, though these thoughts have varied with age.

I think the pieces in the series weave together and attempt to map out the geographical aspects of your origin with some parts of your emotional landscape. You are from Rivers State, which has water in close proximity, and also resources of crude oil. How did the geographical aspects of Rivers State translate into the pieces conceptually and interact with your own set of perceptions on Rivers State? 

For example in ‘Do’, the blue speaks to the water that has been a consistent presence in all the places I’ve lived. I am Ijaw from Bonny, an island off the coast of Nigeria on the Atlantic Ocean, and water is life to Ijaw people. However, oil has become bigger than Bonny itself and has essentially pushed the water to the side; this is why Bonny people are now struggling with life: everything we did and still do centres around water. However, it’s contaminated now; the fish are dead and oil has overshadowed any other means of making a living. Drilling of crude oil has fundamentally change a people’s way of life. So, in ‘Do’, I have translated this imagery into the piece by using colour: if you notice, the blue frames the imagery; this represents the water being pushed to the side. The smallest shape is a map of Bonny, the bigger shapes are oil blocks found within the area.

However, I relate more to Bonny than to Rivers state as a whole; I feel the state has been diluted as a result of the changing times where there are no tribal borders and so all gets mixed up. Bonny, I feel, is still pure as regards the people and heritage.

In ‘Do’, the name of your ancestor ‘Balafama’, is quite central both visually and conceptually, and is further supported with a brief text at the bottom. Where do ‘language’ and ‘prompting’ stand in this piece? The second piece, ‘re’, with just ‘Don’t be afraid’ as text, seems to be extracting the essence and centrality of Balafama…So how does your emotional connection with Bonny, and ‘people's way of life’ that you refer to, evolve through these three pieces, from ‘Do’ to ‘mi’?

The beauty of graphic design is that one can combine words, symbols and images to communicate an idea – all eventually becomes one image. The type draws you in and the text leads you towards your own understanding of the piece. This is similar to commercial advertising where the headline captures your attention and the body copy breaks down the headline by painting the bigger picture.

I use representational objects, shapes and language to form a narrative. In the first piece, I guide the audience, and with the subsequent pieces I had the shapes in different arrangements, concentrating more on the aesthetic experience to create a different experience based on the initial narrative. I hope that everyone can come to his/her own understanding of the series.

Looking at the series and also at your previous works, I understand that you question the relationship between representation and meaning by using different strategies of communication and narrative-formation. Can you tell us how you addressed the relation between narrative and history in these pieces?

The work I have created is a reflection piece that depicts my understanding of the changes that have happened to Bonny, and how it has affected my connection to my heritage. I prefer to remember Bonny in much simpler times; I am not happy with all the chaos that now exists. However, I am hopeful, and this is why I use warm colours to represent the joy I still have when I think about my hometown.

In your ‘Speaking Objects’ project that you produced in Switzerland, you problematized the relationship between everyday objects and the meanings attached to them, and challenged the categorical definitions of function and materiality by using a pair of scissors as the narrator and letting it interact with other everyday objects in an intuitive manner. How do you address the relationship between ‘object’ and ‘meaning’ in the series, especially in ‘mi’, which builds onto the visual language prominent in the other pieces, yet stands out as it features images of objects?

‘Do’ is more about representation and meaning. If I was to go the route in question, the object would be the work itself and how one relates to it. However, with this work I explore my own reaction to the word ‘Balafama,’ I actually have this word tattooed on my wrist as a thing of pride and a reminder of my family and my heritage. I have tried to visually translate how I feel when I look at my tattoo “No shaking!”.

In ‘mi’, I introduce objects that relate to my culture as a way of orientating the work and delving deeper into the subject of my heritage and how I relate to it from a visual standpoint.

How did you approach the relationship between time and place in the series?

This was a nostalgia piece for me – a reflection on the changes and transformation that have happened as time passed.

Since the second issue of ABA is titled ‘Designing Africa’, I would like to know about your thoughts on design’s role in social change. Both as a designer and also as a working professional, how do you envision design’s capacities in the process of social change? 

Design has the ability to stimulate discussions that charge us to rethink the way we approach social and environmental aspects of society. Design as a practice is quite broad with many areas that relate to one another, it is always interesting to see how design adapts to the culture of it’s environment – in architecture, in furniture, in print and now in the digital space. 

As a professional brand manager, how do you think the contemporary design discourse in Africa relates to the idea of branding?

The relationship between meaning and representation is a huge focus in the world of brand management. I am constantly trying to communicate meaning using signs, in the form of symbols or language, organized into various relationships based on the need at the time. Cultural context plays a huge role, however, the design discourse in Africa is so spread out, it can usually be divided across geographical zones and colonial ties, this is usually reflected in the output.