Mandela Mandalas (and Other Garth Walker Artifacts from South Africa)

Posted inEllen Shapiro
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“What makes me African, and what does that look like?” That is a question that Garth Walker, a third-generation white South African of British heritage, tries to answer in his graphic design work for clients, in his personal work, and his photography.

Walker—Mister Walker, as his Durban studio is named—was in New York last month for his gallery show, “Confessions of a Design Thief” at St. John’s University in Queens. One chilly, rainy evening he made a stop at MAD, the Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle, to speak to members of AIGA/NY. The talk was different, funny, and gave a glimpse into a part of the world that deserves to be better known.

Walker gave an overview of his life as a designer since 1994, when the Population Registration Act—which since 1950 had segregated White, Bantu (Black African), Asian, and Coloured (mixed race) people—was struck down, a new constitution was enacted, and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. “Durban is now one of most multicultural, visually compelling cities on earth,” said Walker as he showed his photographs of its beaches, street scenes, markets, and vernacular signage, which have informed much of his work, especially his portraits of Mandela.

In 1990, after serving 27 years for treason for being an anti-apartheid activist and leader of the armed branch of the African National Congress, Mandela was released from prison. He then headed up the negotiations that led to democracy. “During that period I began collecting an archive of Madiba (Mandela’s Xhosa clan name), stuff,” said Walker, and over the years, I was asked to design covers, posters, and illustrations around his image.”

Walker’s Mandela portraits incorporate influences from African textile patterns, ‘struggle photographs’ (underground images of Mandela that were circulated during the period he was ‘banned,’ from his trial until his release), and iconographic symbols, such as brandmarks for South African beer and cigarettes. Several of the portraits resemble mandalas, concentric diagrams that have spiritual significance in Buddhist and Hindu traditions and which are used as aids to reach deep levels of consciousness.

“This January, a French magazine asked me to design a ‘Tribute to Mandela’ cover,” Walker said. “He was hospitalized and there were news reports that he was gravely ill. I produced a number of covers, trying to work out what they wanted (I don’t speak French, they little English). Then he recovered, so the project is now on hold—well, the cover is—until he dies, then I guess they’ll use it. Alas, the design is waiting for Mandela to die.”

Walker also showed a number of spreads—some of them X-rated—from his bi-annual, experimental studio magazine ijusi, (‘juice’ in Zulu), which he’s published from 1995 as a platform for artists to explore their own views of the African experience.

One of his public projects—intensely personal nonetheless—is the typeface and signage at the Constitutional Court complex in Johannesburg. He described wandering around three abandoned apartheid prisons on the site where the court was to be built and photographing all kinds of lettering: crude notice boards, “whites only” signs, and graffiti etched into the dirt walls of cell blocks where political prisoners had been held. “I had lettering from both the captives and their captors,” he said. Beginning with a loopy ‘B’ based on the handwriting of a court justice, he selected individual letterforms from the various artifacts and incorporated them into the typeface. In 2004, the words “Constitutional Court” in South Africa’s eleven official languages were fabricated in 3-D acrylic in Walker’s “Prison Font” in the colors of the South African flag.

“This was my contribution to the ideals of a nation of truth, dignity and freedom,” Walker asserted, “in a place that was once a bastion of incarceration, torture and repression.”