BHM profile | Zimbabwean roots: Graphic design professor draws inspiration from hair salons

Nontsikelelo Mutiti is a assistant professor of graphic design at VCU. Photo by Dominique Sindayiganza, courtesy of Nontsikelelo Mutiti

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor 

Sporting bright turquoise eyeliner in a brightly lit office with a ceiling-length shelf filled with colorful books is VCUarts graphic design professor Nontsikelelo Mutiti. 

Long before she came to VCU, the Zimbabwean-born artist grew up taking art classes, which gave her the opportunity to learn art via a hands-on curriculum from age 6 to 18. She learned different painting techniques but was very interested in design.

Mutiti taught painting and drawing after high school and continued for eight years. She decided to leave in pursuit of a career in graphic design, which came after noticing the brightly colored posters, billboards and flyers in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

“I started to wonder what it would be like to produce work that people would come upon just by walking in the street,” Mutiti said. “There were always these posters tied to street lights and trees, taped to wire fences, and I thought they were so fascinating. They were always in very bright colors.”

Between finishing high school and coming to the U.S. to study graphic design, Mutiti noticed a huge disconnect between the content she was producing as a painter and the audiences that frequented the spaces. 

“I wanted the luxury of being able to paint whatever I wanted,” Mutiti said. “I didn’t want to paint or make artwork for the art market that we had that kind of automatically privileged the white community.”

Mutiti started to lose interest in the fine art world; instead, she realized she’d rather make art that would be accessible for her peers and people in her community. Because of this, she started to think about other ways to present her work.

“There’s a lot that we’ve [Zimbabweans] gone through, and there’s a lot to say. There’s a lot that we need to kind of exchange and reflect on,” the artist said. “And I didn’t feel it was productive to be putting that work in the space of the galleries that were there at the time.”

Mutiti’s recent work play with braiding patterns, which she believes is just as complex as graphic design. Illustration courtesy of Nontsikelelo Mutiti

She believed she could help her friends in the art scene as a graphic designer by elevating their content, while also making herself known as a painter. 

“Because I was involved in the art scene, there were a lot of poets or musicians,” Mutiti said. “So I actually thought ‘let me go and learn to be a graphic designer, and I can make really nice posters and really nice CD covers for my friends.’”

Even though she would be making posters for musicians and concerts, she still thought it would be more interesting than painting. With this, she decided to leave teaching.

After leaving painting and teaching behind, Mutiti started taking classes at the Ziva School of Vigital Arts in order to pursue the field that she found more interesting. 

“It was not the intention for graphic design to be the main way that I express my ideas, but I’m really glad that I learned,” Mutiti said. She continued to study at Ziva and then went on to attend graduate school at Yale. 

Mutiti’s identity as an African immigrant is reflected in her work. Her current projects analyze hair salons as a social space significant to the African American community; the physical environment and the art of braiding are integral parts of the culture.

“Hair braiding is seen as something that is fully embedded and embodied by the identity of a black African woman,” Mutiti said. “But it is a skill that is being passed down in families and between friends.”

To Mutiti, braiding is just as technical as graphic design and coding with its meticulous movements and complex patterns. She makes a point to represent the connections in different ways through pattern and repetition. 

“I wanted the luxury of being able to paint whatever I wanted. I didn’t want to paint or make artwork for the art market that we had that kind of automatically privileged the white community.” — Nontsikelelo Mutiti

Elisa Slaton, a senior graphic design major, works alongside Mutiti as her research assistant through a program in the art department. 

As a black graphic design student, Slaton says Mutiti is an inspiring mentor — someone she wants to emulate further down the line. 

“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of, like, black people in graphic design or let alone in the arts,” Slaton said. “She’s a really nice person to look up to … somebody that looks like you, that’s doing amazing things.”

Slaton said graphic design was the best major for her because of its creative freedom.

“I’ve kind of like, dipped my toe into pretty much everything so far, but I think graphic design really — especially this program — allows you to, like, do really anything you want,” Slaton said.

Mutiti says teaching at VCU introduced her to learning and teaching spaces that were different from those she experienced as a 19-year-old art teacher in Zimbabwe.

“I think there’s respect for each other as community members, friends, peers, before there is respect for the institution and for hierarchies,” Mutiti said, “which is very different to, you know, my engagement with education back home.”

As a professor, she says she admires her current students’ work ethic and drive. 

“Everyone’s very invested, everyone’s very hard-working,” Mutiti said. “And being creative is not just about talent. You have to put enough time and effort, and you have to be looking at a lot of things, and you have to be exchanging. … It’s wonderful to be part of that.”

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