Africa Comics is a landmark exhibit that introduces American audiences to the work of comic book illustrators from the continent. Staged at the Studio Museum in Harlem, it is the first exhibition that celebrates the innovative groundswell of comic book art created by Africans.
There is a range of work on display: some reminiscent of the funny page comic strips familiar to every American school child, some works the stuff of legendary muscled Marvel heroism, but many- whether they are rudimentary ink on paper etchings or fully realized watercolor palettes- concern themselves with the daily plight of the African everyman.
No issue remains unexplored in this dense and highly affecting assemblage. Poverty, political corruption, ethnic conflict, and female circumcision are but a few of the stimulating subjects that help the works transcend their obvious visual appeal to touch and educate the observer.
Africa Comics features the work of 35 artists- solo practitioners and two-man collaborative teams- arranged by region and nations that span the motherland. Most of the illustrators are relatively unknown- indicative of the new-found popularity of this art form- yet there are some famed standouts.
Alphonse Mendy a.k.a. T. T. Fon's Goorgoolou is a wildly popular comic strip- as well as serialized television program and magazine- that recounts the exploits of Goor, a sly, average Kojo negotiating the perils of modern day Senegal. His wife Deka and he comically bicker a la Flintstones' Fred and Wilma. The cartoonist brilliantly distills the sentiments of his nation. Fon and his creation were lauded at the recent Dak'Art - Dakar's biennial art show.
The term "comic art" may initially seem oxymoronic to a nation accustomed to the genre's delegation to the back pages of newspapers or underbelly of teenage boys' beds but the works in this exhibit are as provocative and compelling as any by Warhol or Lichtenstein.
Of course there are the pieces that are just plain entertaining. For instance, the work of Mozambican artist Laercio George Mabota features a braided, warrior-heroine in action packed panels that are as reminiscent of D.C. and Marvel comics as is the cross-hatching shadow technique in which the artist rendered her. As the heroine fights against marauders one can see that even this piece can be easily placed in the wider thematic interplay of justice/injustice prevalent in the exhibition.
Nigerian Kola Fayemi's Monster in Khaki lampoons the government corruption that riddles society. An unscrupulous police officer extorts money from the families of falsely accused and imprisoned inmates by threatening executions. He receives his karmic comeuppance when he himself is arrested after killing a young man who, unbeknownst to him, was his own son. Fayemi's work is in the tradition of his countryman, Ghariokwu Lemi, a famed artist who painted 26 Fela album covers and often lambasted the political corruption of those in power.
The powers that be aren't the only villains. At times the antagonists are monstrous - a slick businessman transmogrifies into a man-eating snake and a petty aunt vengefully possesses the body of an unborn baby in Le Chasseurs d'Ames and Le Bebe Mysteriux. Witchcraft is presented as a cheat sheet to make sense of the evils of this world. But more often than not, the everyday injustices wrought by ordinary people - family members, neighbors and friends- against their fellow African are critiqued.
Material like Pahe's Un Enfant Esclave , Fifi Mukuna & Christophe N'Galle Edimo's Les Enfants and Amanvi's Madjalia all indict societal mistreatment of its most vulnerable citizens- its children. In Madjalia a young girl is sold by her aunt for a pittance into a life of servitude. She is denied an education and eventually rendered sterile after a cruel punishment from her mistress involving rubbing of pepper-- "je vais te pimenter" --onto her genitals. The piece ends hauntingly with the moot excerpt from the UN's declaration of the rights of the child.
The styles and techniques employed by the artists are as varied as their subject matters and reflect the international influences of these craftsmen. The majority live and work in Africa-though a substantial minority works abroad. With the legacy of colonialism and prevalence of globalization it is no surprise to see foreign references points: French pointillism in D'Dikass's Le Chasseurs d'Ames or a trace of Frank Miller in Mendozza y Caramba's blue saturated and yellow accented shadow world.
That reference can be deliberate as is Joe Dog's harkening back to perennial children's classic, Tin- Tin. In 1974 he subverts the earlier cartoon's racial stereotypes to portray the scene of spear-grasping Africans rising up against white oppression.
Oulai: Pour Que Cesse L'excision, by Cisse Samba Ndar, is also stylistically distinct. Rendered in a color-soaked fashion that highlights the tension of this tale of female genital mutilation, right from the opening panel's bright red bloodstains on the loincloth of a child lying limp in the arms of a wailing woman, the color choices shock the senses.
The entire body of work assaults the senses. One is constantly engaged- whether it be in deciphering the meaning and context behind the foreign language text or struggling with the harsh realities portrayed.
The exhibit is well worth the effort. Its images will resonate with you long after you leave the mezzanine gallery.
Africa Comics, staged in partnership with Africa e Mediterraneo, is at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 18.
View images from the Africa Comics exhibit in our photo gallery