Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats is an instantly captivating book for the singularity with which it distils and threads the multi-valent narratives pertaining to the evolution of Zimbabwean literature and its visionary design that speaks to the interventionist nature of Black Chalk and Co’s archival work. The group is made up of writers, artists, designers, academics and technologists.
Graphic designer Nontsikelelo Mutiti talks us through the process of establishing a design language for the book and how these choices spoke back to its content and the crew’s ethos.
Preston Thompson is the other credited designer on this project. Could you give us a sense of how the collective process of establishing a design language for the project came to be?
Black Chalk & Co already has quite a strong aesthetic, which is based around a number of values but also inspired by print media that we grew up with. Much of that media was black and white with a single spot colour or two spot colours. We also had been looking at a few publications with interviews that we liked.
We started sketching and working on the grid and colour scheme, ideas for image placement and the initial direction for chapter openings before bringing Preston on. In our early meetings, we spent a lot of time looking at other publications to help express what we were looking for in the typography.
Ideas around image placements were one of the first things we nailed down. I am a very visual person and tend to focus on what is happening with those first, using them to anchor the personality and dynamism of the piece.
Because we are handling several projects at once it has become necessary to work with other designers. Collaborating is very important in our work, so is mentorship. Through this project and others we’ve been able to give younger artists opportunities to learn and grow. I learnt through making and with the mentorship of peers.
A detail of writer Dambudzo Marechera’s floral print jacket appears in the beginning of each new chapter. At what point did you land on the design possibilities of the print?
We have been preoccupied with this motif for quite some time. This rose pattern features in many of the most well-known images of Marechera. For myself, I grew up around a lot of roses. My mother grew them in our front garden.
It is wonderful to see a Zimbabwean man wearing that kind of pattern. You do not see much of that self-determination within our community with regard to men’s fashion. The jacket is a provocation.
We recreated this pattern using collage techniques.
It is becoming a kind of signature of our work, appearing as wallpaper in installations, such as our presentation, Marechera: The Rose That Grew From Concrete at the art fair Underline, as well as our two presentations of Beautiful Words Are Subversive, an iterative presentation of aspects of our research from the past five years.
The bitmapping imbues the book with a nostalgic feel. What aesthetic and practical purposes did it fulfil for you?
Bitmapping is a register of particular technologies. It can also be attributed to an economy of means, to quick fast reproduction at a low cost, and high quantity. This is the goal for much of our work. We are working on projects that we primarily fund on our own. Full colour is quite expensive, but I think we’ve been able to do a lot with colour in simple and strong ways.
How did the subject matter, or the manner in which it was initially presented, influence how you thought about space, where this project was concerned?
Music influenced the way colour and placement works in this piece. There are some rules related to rhythm that I established as the last level of design. This is what holds the book together the most and keeps the reader flipping through. Levels of consistency with creative deviations from foundational rules rather than inversions.
There is something about the number two in the layout. Halves and doubling. The power of two colours, the dynamism when two pages meet at the gutter.
Juxtaposition is a powerful mechanism. This is how we make sentences.
To what degree were you thinking about the manner in which memory functions when designing the book?
Material has a lot of residue. This is the beauty of working with photographic images, paper cuttings, receipts, handwritten notes. If not memory then the imagination connects with these elements bringing them to life.
In this publication we also play with degrees of mediation. This produces the hierarchy and narratives that unfold through sequencing and scale.
While dealing with memory, how do you make something memorable?
Nostalgia and memory in the book is not faded or soft. It has texture, it has high contrast.