Tales of the Dark Continent

Maxwell Mutanda illustrates surreal scenes of Africa in a series he titled “Postcards”, which he describes to us here in his own words.

Studio [D] Tale co-founder Maxwell Mutanda has created a series of illustrations that journey through Africa, disorientating the viewer with scenes from a world in which they do not belong. The series is entitled “Postcards”, but be warned – these do depict idyllic scenes of a perfect reality. Instead, they tell the stories of the challenges and constraints of Africa’s people, and the everyday journeys and magic that characterise the continent.

Mutanda tells Design Indaba about the thoughts behind his Postcard illustrations, which he began to show his younger brother the mysteries of Africa, in his own words.


These illustrations began as a correspondence with my 10-year-old half-brother Liam, who lives in Barcelona with his mother. For him Africa is as mysterious as the moon. Our daily lives and built environment may very well be fantasy to him. However he has a curious, adventurous mind. After watching Spielberg’s Temple of Doom, he soon fashioned a whip from a jump rope and was affecting the lifestyle of Indiana himself. Hopefully these short stories will bring him and others closer to Africa. Since our firm is preoccupied with designing solutions for the majority of Africans who live in either rural settlements or urban slums in fast growing cities, these snapshots are rooted in that reality of the continent.

Our tales of the so-called Dark Continent also employ some of its rich oral history, which includes (but is not limited to) water spirits, vengeful ancestors and shape-shifting animals – elements of magical realism and Afrofuturism intended to appeal to Liam’s sense of wonder and adventure.

This Africa that is part of a growing world of over seven billion people, is teeming with some of the youngest demographics on earth. What horrors await these young impressionable minds as they wake up to increasingly urban situations – megacities of over eleven million inhabitants that are now becoming the norm? These urban jungles are more likely to be urban slums for over 60% of their inhabitants.

Like any good tale, we must sometimes warn of likely dangers. But our journey is not going to take little children "Into The Woods" where they could encounter bears enjoying a picnic, or wolves whose innocent puppy dog eyes, similar to those of sweet ol’ gran’mamma, mask sinister intent. Instead, these drawings highlight different regions and situations in Africa, mapping out a collection of stories like Scheherazade and her One Thousand and One Nights.

Children in Africa and beyond should be warned not of bears and wolves but of darkness resulting from lack of electricity that will prevent them from being able to read at night. If they do manage to steal away some light from this darkness, it could possibly slowly choke the life from their lungs in the form of polluting kerosene lamps.

Equally hazardous to our young is water, or specifically the lack of access to clean and safe water. This danger can find them travelling great distances to fetch small amounts of water that then needs to be hauled back home through the urban jungle. It can also harbour unseen diseases and lead to dangerous illnesses.

Postcards was present as part of Studio [D] Tale’s recent involvement in the exhibition "AFRICA - Architecture, Culture, Identity" at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Watch the Talk with Maxwell Mutanda