Drawing the line

Garth Walker doesn’t look much like a graphic designer. He’s over 35, wears chinos and a faded red cardigan and uses an ordinary office chair.

But this is a fine disguise for one of South Africa’s most prolific and subversive graphic designers: Walker is both the director of Orange Juice Design and editor of Ijusi magazine, OJ’s radical alter ego. I’m visiting Walker in his modest studio off noisy Berea Road in Durban to discuss the magazine and his coming exhibition at the Saint-Étienne Biennale in France this month.

Ijusi is a ‘zine that Walker has been bringing out since 1995, hoping to encourage local designers to look inwards instead of to Europe and the United States for inspiration.
“It’s not to say that Ijusi has convinced every graphic designer that he needs to revaluate his work in the context of Africa,” Walker tells me, but its confrontational content makes it popular with anyone bristled by democracy’s patchy delivery post-1994. In an industry focused on coolness, Walker admits that design for social comment is a small movement.

Paging through the newest Ijusi —“South African Stories”—one finds design, photography and writing inspired by and interpreting local culture: muti markets, street-side barber tents and the signage of day labourers seeking work. With Ijusi, Walker has doggedly cultivated an authentically South African style that is beyond the “proudly South African” point, focusing on topics intended to provoke. Often inverting mainstream messages, the magazine is a novelty here and overseas and its three-part collaboration with Bitterkomix was recently acquired by MOMA’s permanent design collection in New York.

Although Walker is one of a handful of South African designers with a truly international presence, his work is less motivated by recognition than by the necessity to establish a new visual language for the country—a task that requires commitment from all sectors. “Business talks about the need to be more African and reflect the society in which we operate, but they don’t put their heart and soul and money into it,” says Walker.

Instead he notices that the country’s new elite takes direction from the West, suggesting that “all the emerging markets want to be a super Paris/London/New York. Everything is global brands, so they’ll buy a Jaguar, even if it’s a crap car, because it’s a Jaguar.

“There is that sort of thing happening in graphic design too. Our target audience is the people of Umlazi and Soweto, but brochures look like they come straight out of Milan,” Walker says. “Ironically the rest of the world is looking to us to be African and they’re endeavouring to be African because they are looking for new visual resources themselves. I foresee the time when some Swedish multinational is going to do its annual report in the African style and we’re gonna miss the boat —”

So what is African design? Walker’s looking into it. Literally. With camera in hand, Walker traverses sections of Durban most white guys wouldn’t dare drive through. He’s in search of Indian drag racing and Zulu memorial sites, anything that suggests the mixed-up hybrid identity that Walker believes makes South Africa so compelling. The material uncovered on these meanderings often appears in Ijusi as is, not sterilised in any way. For him, it’s imperative to take a hard look at the so-called “African renaissance” and move beyond simplistic notions of Africa, pervasive here and abroad.

“People want to see lions from the safety of their Land Rover, but they don’t really want to see the lion eating the zebra,” says Walker. “The naked Zulu dancers are fine, but then you end up with xenophobia, pangas and burning tyres, and people are like, hello, that’s not in the brochure.”

By relating it truthfully, Walker bears witness to South Africa’s living history and demonstrates that even by highlighting some of the country’s ugliness, he’s sensitised to what South Africa is and could be. It is exactly this that informs Walker’s approach to his exhibition for the 2008 Saint-Étienne Design Biennale from November 15 to 30 in France.

Working from the chosen theme of Africa in 2036, Walker shows a hardcore futuristic Africa in all its glorious wretchedness. Inviting two other South Africa designers—Wilhelm Kruger and Brandt Botes—the work takes a cynical approach, engaging directly with what the three perceive will still be threats in 18 years’ time: the spread of HIV/Aids, the never-ending war on terror, the hustling by the new political business elite, the self-perpetuating weapons trade and the neo-colonialist economic power of China and India.

Walker, Botes and Kruger employ a number of fictional characters to vitalise the politically incorrect narrative: Jabu Ndlovu, a young Zulu designer and disillusioned activist; the Betrayed Boer, a right-winger for whom everything went up in smoke; and the Cynical Columnist, a French African from Senegal living in France.

Turning the mirror to the West, Walker also critiques his host festival, the Saint-Étienne Design Biennale. “I discovered that Saint-Étienne is now primarily a textile region, having gone from arms to textiles, and I created a classic African print based on Saint-Étienne’s arms history. It’s quite subversive because it’s pretty to look at. I sent it over as the sort of tack that I’m taking and there was heart failure. But I let the curator fight that fight,” Walker says with a grin.

Read the full article in the latest edition of Design Indaba magazine. Website: www.designindaba.com

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