Africa Comics edited by SAMIR S. PATEL(africa e mediterraneo/ The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2007) 276 pages, softcover, ISBN 0-942949-32-3
Many stories are told in Africa Comics, the artfully published catalogue of the exhibition of comic art from Africa. recently held at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. It was the first major American exhibition of African comic art, and the catalogue is probably the biggest compendium so far of African comics in English. If existing reviews are anything to go by, the show was something of a revelation for New Yorkers. While most critics see comic art as a discipline reinventing itself, the average Joe still expects either slapstick humour or spandex-clad superheroes. There is not much humour in Africa Comics. Not a single superhero materialises to rescue the suffering protagonists of these grim stories, which recount a lot of suffering: girls are press-ganged into servitude; innocent citizens, framed by corrupt police officers, are tortured; prisoners are raped; beautiful young women are subjected to genital mutilation; and in one horrifying tale, two children are necklaced for stealing a handbag. It is always irritating to encounter sanctimonious reportage in the northern media presenting Africa as a seething cauldron of conflict and corruption, but there is no gainsaying this collection: these storytellers are all Africans, with little incentive to exaggerate. Based on their testimony, Africa is in trouble. Curiously, despite the appalling conditions the comic artists from 19 countries bear witness to, the stories in Africa Comics are not mired in Afro-pessimism. The illustrations are crammed with closely observed detail – marketplaces, crowded streets and local fashions are all lovingly portrayed – and the narratives abound with finely realised characterisations. It is in these depictions rather than in the conscious construction of the narratives that the haunting power of the African myth – and the beauty of this project – resides. For the featured artists, many of whom produced work especially for the show, the opportunity to present their work in an international exhibition of this stature must have been compelling. And in this sense the whole project is something of an intervention. Some of the artists are living in exile in Europe, and, throughout the collection, a sense of a need emerges: to bear witness, to place on record the appalling conditions under which most African people are living today.Much of the work featured here was previously unavailable in English, and when read in translation provides the reader with a much clearer idea of the diversity and extent of African comic art. Behind the myriad stories in the catalogue, another very interesting story emerges: it is the diffuse story of comic art in Africa. There are several distinct schools of comic art in Africa, the most dominant being the Francophone school that holds sway in West Africa. In Central Africa, the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa has produced several highly accomplished artists, such as Al’Mata, Pat Masioni and Fifi Mukuna, all living and working in Paris, while a similar academy in Abidjan produced the impressive Amanvi, as well as Mendozza y Caramba, founder of the Ivory Coast-based weekly satirical magazine Gbich!. The South African segment of the catalogue presents a story that, on reflection, the custodians of our international artistic reputation might have wished to avoid. Three of the four South Africans documented in the catalogue are white, suggesting that local comic art, well into the second decade of democracy, is still a white-dominated affair. While the works of Joe Dog (Anton Kannemeyer), Conrad Botes and Jonathan Shapiro are, as usual, impressive, the choice of artists does give the impression that there is not much else happening on the South African comic art scene, and it is left to Themba Siwela to represent the rest of the country’s comic art output.