Black Chalk & Co. Is Building An Archive Of Zimbabwe's Stories
They’re introducing a new form of digital repatriation.
Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Tinashe Mushakavanhu of Black Chalk & Co.
Nearly forty years have passed since Zimbabwe gained their hard-won independence in 1980. In that time, citizens of the southern African state endured the mercurial weather of a fierce, authoritarian leader who only recently ceded the presidency following a successful coup d'état, complicating the already turbulent aftermath of colonial occupation that preceded Robert Mugabe's term.
Within this framework, the task of organizing a Zimbabwean cultural identity comes with a tricky set of challenges, which range from recovering lost and forgotten texts that survived tectonic shifts in power, to situating the materials in critical contexts that yield more questions than answers. And that's where Black Chalk & Co. is hoping to come in, an art collective of two working to centralize the country's intellectual production throughout time in a collaborative, publicly-accessible archive called Reading Zimbabwe.
Much of what should populate the archive, co-founders of Black Chalk & Co. Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Nontsikelelo Mutiti told the STREAM, has either been destroyed or is simply nonexistent, leaving considerable gaps in cultural memory that mire attempts at developing narrative continuities. What's more, Mushakavanhu says the literature and media that are available tend to frame Zimbabwean legacies from perspectives that rarely reflect the people's integrity and experiences. This absence, he explains, is a telling indication of the project's importance.
At its prime, Mushakavanhu and Mutiti would have Reading Zimbabwe take on a life of its own, running on the contributions of scholars, artists, and researchers like themselves to expand and deepen its scope and reach. In fact, the founders even imagine this model as a working-template that, in time and with more refinement, other groups can adopt for their own cultural agendas.
In their interview with the STREAM, Black Chalk & Co. detail the privilege and precarity of constructing a historical foundation for generations of Zimbabweans worldwide, and describe the urgency of cultivating such an archive as a shared responsibility.
1. Tell us about Reading Zimbabwe. Where is it coming from?
Tinashe Mushakavanhu: Reading Zimbabwe comes from a place of neglect and necessity. Zimbabwe does not have strong record-keeping controls, and finding information is really difficult. It is important to point, however, that this was not always the case. Upon attainment of independence in 1980, many Zimbabweans who had been exiled in Europe, North America, and other parts of Africa, returned home with so much enthusiasm and ready to work to build the nation. These individuals were intellectuals, politicians, medical doctors, businessmen, and educators, and their level of intellectual productivity was really astounding. They were eager to write themselves back into history. The 1980s were a purple patch in Zimbabwean publishing, and in less than a decade Harare quickly established as the book capital of Sub-Saharan Africa. But as that generation started to grow old and die in the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed history stopped, archives stopped. The sense of urgency in the early days of independence were coming from a place of deliberate sabotage and nothingness. Julie Frederikse’s book, None But Ourselves (1984), opens with a shocking exchange she has with an ex-Rhodesian army soldier:
Whew! A lot of stuff went up in smoke in this country in early 1980. A helluva lot. Salisbury was surrounded by a little cloud of black smoke = from all the army camps, government offices, police stations. And shredding, too. The Special Branch shredders were working overtime. You’ve never seen so much paper, in some of these police posts, cartons of files, all being carted off to the incinerators and shredders. When the city incinerators were all full, they sent us off to the crematorium for more burning.
What was destroyed? The past. Records of interrogations, army set-ups and strategies, profiles of people, personal records, guys involved in this, guys involved in that. TV films and radio tapes, too. All the propaganda. Anything that had to do with the conflict, that had been used against the enemy, was destroyed, starting with the ceasefire, and then reaching a kind of fever pitch at the time of elections.
So this is the preamble to Reading Zimbabwe’s investment in establishing a genealogy of local intellectual traditions and how they are implicated in global knowledge production, a kind of salvaging the past, making meaning from ashes. There is such a curiosity and thirst to know about Zimbabwe and its place in the world right now. After the removal of Robert Mugabe from power, there was this huge pent-up demand from so many years of repression and censorship.
Nontsikelelo Mutiti: This project comes out of a personal desire to know more about the history of Zimbabwe, but also about the lives and stories of Zimbabweans. Even before leaving home to study in the United States I felt disconnected from these narratives. The education I received in Zimbabwe was phenomenal, but it did not foreground the voices of Zimbabweans and experiences of Zimbabweans. I am working to close the gaps in knowledge about my culture, who we have been over time. I also realize the importance of my own story and trajectory in all this. My practice as a graphic designer has been on archiving content and practices within the larger context of the African diaspora. Living in the US became a way for me to connect to home. All my previous work has helped me understand the importance of documentation. There is so much culture and pride to recover and preserve. Being able to point to information that gives you a greater sense of self and the world is the foundation we all need to build on.
Collecting and drawing and writing process for mapping project, "Home Means Nothing to Me," which documents the life and movements of author Dambudzo Marechera in the the city of Harare between 1982 and 1987 upon his return to Zimbabwe after forced exile in the United Kingdom.
Courtesy Black Chalk & Co.
2. What are the ideal audiences for Reading Zimbabwe?
TM: As an archival project, Reading Zimbabwe is a repository of diverse and multiple experiences, permutations, dialectics, geographies, and objectives. Its mission, as I see it, is to network and present our ‘archival holdings’ in ways that are politically, culturally, and linguistically accessible and empowering to people who have need of those records from wherever they are in the world. A generation of disillusioned young Zimbabweans need access to those records to document their identities, to assert their rights or seek reparations, to (re)claim property, or to hold perpetrators of past actions to account, or purely for education and entertainment. Everyone has their own use for these archives.
NM: Zimbabwe has such an important and unique story. Our authors, leaders, and citizens are extraordinary people who have lived through extraordinary challenges. Zimbabwean citizens are an important part of why this project exists, but we are sure that there are many other people that are interested in and can identify with the streams of content we are documenting. This work is a great resource for personal and academic research. My hope is that people do and find things through the project that we did not expect. As we continue to grow past the online archive the kinds of ways we will be able to engage audiences will change. We encourage participation in growing the repository and producing conversation and other works.
3. Reading Zimbabwe works to excavate the precarious histories of a specific nation. Can you see this model being adapted to other situations?
TM: Indeed, Reading Zimbabwe primarily promotes and elevates Zimbabwean culture, but in a way that challenges the global information infrastructure. Zimbabwean archivists have not participated as much internationally, and as a people we are mostly spoken for. So the desire for us was to create our own archival structures without feeling pressure to rationalize or theorize our processes. We needed this information and had to do whatever is necessary to get it or to get to it. Thank goodness, record-keeping is now designed into the technologies we use and rely on such as Twitter or Instagram. However, we are also aware that records almost always have two sides: a liberating or empowering side, and a controlling or disempowering side, and our archival practice anticipates both.
NM: Definitely. I think we can also learn from work that has been done before. As we grow and learn, I'd love to see some collaborations with people from other backgrounds who are interested in archiving and documenting literature, music, visual art, languages. Cultural preservation and innovation are so important.
Above: ‘Home Means Nothing to Me,’ the first zine Black Chalk published in collaboration with Keleketla! Library in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Courtesy Black Chalk & Co.
4. What do you see for the future of Reading Zimbabwe?
TM: Reading Zimbabwe is only the beginning. What archives have to do now is to think of the fact that they don’t have just an institutional audience, a local community audience, or a national audience. They have a global audience and a global responsibility, and the materials that they’re working with are globally created and shared and stewarded. And that is a consequence from the realities of our colonial pasts. Besides the digital mapping of this content, simultaneously, we’re building a physical archive of books, films, posters—material that we are documenting and finding in our research process. The physical archive will eventually be housed at a dedicated Reading Space in Harare that will function as a library, archive, gallery, and laboratory, to dream, read, write, create.
NM: Reading Zimbabwe could become an institution. One of my greatest desires is to see this project supporting artists and researchers as they continue to deepen their work. For example, we go on to facilitate programs that encourage writing and publishing. We continue to think about a physical manifestation of the work we are already doing.
5. Is Reading Zimbabwe a unique project in your practice?
TM: Our practices, our outlooks, our ambitions—individually and collectively—are very cosmopolitan. We happen to be part of that privileged group of young Africans who have studied abroad. We work and travel between places, and while Zimbabwe is at the core of our sensibilities, it is not the sum total of who we are. We do other work besides Reading Zimbabwe. We met a few years ago in New York and decided to co-found Black Chalk and Co., a hybrid creative agency that brings together creatives and technologists to produce work that ranges from experimental publishing, graphic design, coding, photography, DJing, filmmaking—all different mediums of authoring and reading ourselves.
NM: The values of Black Chalk are what make Reading Zimbabwe possible. Through this imprint we have published a number of experimental works in print and multimedia.
Black Chalk & Co.'s Reading Zimbabwe is one of the biggest digital repositories documenting the past sixty years of Zimbabwe’s published history. Symbolically, the project uses 1956 as a starting point, since it was the year black Zimbabwean writers started publishing books in Shona and Ndebele.
Editor: Daria Harper