Past + Present = Future? The Potential Role of Historical Visual Material and Contemporary Practice in De-Colonising Visual Communication Design Courses



Graphic Design & Visual Art


  • identity, appropriation, African graphic systems, visual communication, postcolonialism

This paper suggests two possible approaches to researching and conceptualizing aspects of a de-colonized design education for Graphic Design/Visual Communication Design (VCD). Concepts from Post-colonial theory, such as Ngugi wa Thiongo’s decolonization of the mind, Afrocentrism, Homi Bhabha’s hybridity, and appropriation, along with aspects of Social Identity theory are drawn on as means of investigating these approaches.

The first approach suggests that knowledge of visual communication content from pre-colonial and colonial African societies (African Graphic Systems) can be employed as a means of contributing to a sense of both collective and individual identity, and either as African and/or as South African. Enabling such a sense of identity requires a greater inclusion of these indigenous visual traditions than may be common in South African VCD courses, and necessitates a re-definition of visual communication and the researching and construction of its history in this continent. In this regard examples will be introduced of visual communication traditions from the over eighty indigenous alphabetic and graphic systems identified in literature. This approach can enable South African students to broaden the definition of History of Graphic Design and contest the existing canon, which has been defined almost exclusively in Europe and America, in terms of scribal writing and typography, and for print. Recovery of these visual traditions is thus advocated as a means of validating and re-developing an independent identity.

Moving from the historical to the contemporary, a second approach discusses some separate and tentative steps towards such an identity. Examples of recent BTech projects in the Graphic Design Programme at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) suggest ways in which students can progress towards a post-colonial relationship with the hegemonic Graphic Design culture. These examples consider, amongst other aspects, the experience of young black designers in the commercial white-dominated design world; their concern about the loss or deterioration of aspects of indigenous culture; and the role of VCD in non-Westernized life and culture; as experienced by black students. Further development of these students’ approaches to their projects, as an explicit teaching strategy, could enable students to appropriate Graphic Design processes and technologies, and use these Westernized forms to articulate the perceived post-colonial realities of their lives.

The intention of the paper therefore is to suggest that rootedness in historical knowledge, combined with contemporary tactics, can enable students to construct design identities that are authentic yet capable of engaging with globalized industry, and of contesting a hegemonic disciplinary discourse through a South African-centred approach.

Keywords: Identity, appropriation, African graphic systems, visual communication, postcolonialism

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