Kenyan Artist Nzilani Simu on Creating Designs for NCC

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Nzilani Simu, a digital artist, graphic designer and illustrator, born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, prefers to speak with her hands. Her portfolio pages abound with colorful designs and bright patterns of work completed for community-based organizations, NGOs, and businesses along with brief proclamations of loving “tea, cats, and drawing”. 

Nzilani is a self-made creator with a passion for illustrating social justice movements - particularly feminist and pan-African - as a way of unearthing the complexity of these experiences. In launching the inaugural Narrative Change Collaborative (NCC), a 12-month creative program where nine social innovators (3 Architects and 6 Weavers) will collaborate and unveil diverse interventions on Richmond’s racial histories, we pushed outside the bounds of the U.S. to demonstrate the reach of this process. Initiatives of Change USA is part of a global network that spans more than 100 countries, including Kenya. Furthermore, systemic racism and inequality is a global condition that requires a global response. In collaborating with Nzilani on a design process to announce the NCC, this partnership also signals a fresh, external Black lens on U.S. history, through the specific place of Richmond.

Nzilani’s lens culls out the similarity of structures of oppression that have shaped the cities of Richmond and Nairobi - including manifest destiny; the capitalist trade of enslavement; the scramble for Africa; Jim Crow laws and racial segregation; colonization and disenfranchisement; resistance movements for self-determination and independence; and the everyday violence, insecurity, and abuse of power experienced by marginalized communities. 

As a Kenyan, interpreting the rich history of Richmond into this artwork - it was a learning experience, challenging and exciting. The opportunity to create something to represent a movement that is looking to break down dominant institutions and social systems highly resonated with me because although the history of our regional struggles is very different - they share the same roots and the desire to create new narratives - and in this case a visual narrative - are alike.
— Nzilani Simu

In designing the posters for the Architects and Weavers, as well as the illustrations of the three NCC architects, Nzilani speaks in layers. She combines symbology from the Ga ethnic group of Ghana; Berber codes from Niger; innovative architecture from Mali; three hand mudras used in meditation practices in India; and pan-African cosmograms (developed by spiritualists from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Trinidad) reconfigured to reflect important dates in Richmond and Virginia’s journey towards racial equity and justice. Together these codes illustrate the repelling of negative and chaotic energies; the importance of self and community awareness; the capacity of healing, wellness and regeneration to take shape; and the deep insight that social shifts are in the works. 

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The Weavers poster reflects three hands (of the NCC architects) on a drum, the communication technology used between African communities to share critical messages of support, subversion, and preparation. The drum unearths a multitude of symbols that speak to the creative transformation of community action that is currently taking place in Richmond and Nairobi.

In January, Nzilani will visit Richmond for the first time to take part in IofC’s 2-day event on the National Day of Racial Healing. During this time, additional illustrations by Nzilani will be unveiled for the Narrative Change Collaborative and she will share about her experiences as an artist living and working in Nairobi. She will also lead two free masterclass workshops during the event on hand lettering and pattern making. 

We invite you to join us for the National Day of Racial Healing on January 21-22 at Studio Two Three (in Scott’s Addition) and learn firsthand about the Narrative Change Collaborative and Nzilani Simu.

#NarrativeChangeCollaborative #Weavers #Architects

Follow Nzilani on Twitter @nzilani

NCC, NDORHAmanda Buffington