If you think Marvel superhero Thor is badass with his thunder and lightning, wait until you meet Mami-Wata, the goddess from the watery depths of West Africa.
Comic artist and illustrator Reine Dibussi is eager for new readers to be introduced to Mami-Wata and other sacred water deities, the miengu, venerated by the Sawa people of Cameroon. They come to life in full-colour adventure in her comic called Mulatako.
Dibussi is one of 16 featured artists in the Afropolitan Comics exhibition that is currently on at the National Arts Festival. This exhibition, along with the rest of the line-up for this year’s festival, has gone digital because of the Covid-19 imposed lockdown.
Afropolitan comics draw a thread between the works of African artists, including eight from South Africa, and their contemporaries, placing images “in conversation”.
It is also an exhibition that celebrates the genre of comics as an age-old form of frame-by-frame storytelling that is uniquely expressive. It allows the creator room to be as subtle or direct as they want while embracing myriad artistic styles. These include everything from black and white ink drawings to watercolours, digital graphic art and those adapted to animated film.
Knowing, reading and respecting African stories
For someone like Dibussi, growing up in Cameroon, comics were mostly relegated to a format used to “tell people about health issues or how to be in society”. Then in her teenage years she stumbled upon a comic about an Ivorian child who encounters aliens.
“It was amazing; the story was based in a village, but it was respectful and it wasn’t about the stereotypical issues of hunger or poverty of Africa,” she says.
Dibussi knew it was the type of work she wanted to produce after art school. Even though she pays the bills as an illustrator and graphic artist these days, comic books are her passion. She self-published Mulatako and continues to work on developing the series. Being able to combine science fiction inspired by mythology and belief systems that are ancient but also part of the everyday religious life of West Africans was an obvious storyline for her.
“We struggle with our history and the way we are portrayed in Africa, so with creating Mulatako I wanted people to be able to know our stories but also to be able to dive deeply in without having to struggle”. She says it’s borrowing from the way a giant comic corporation like Marvel Comics has repackaged the story of Thor. It is rooted in Norse mythology, but it is presented as pure entertainment by the time it’s in comic form.
Comics are a vehicle for this kind of escapist, fast entertainment consumed on the run, says Joëlle Epée Mandengue, one of four Afropolitan Comics curators. Mandengue says that in countries like South Korea and Japan comics are well supported. There are even niche spin-offs. Some comics are created literally to be read on a single train commute and are available in a mix of printed and online formats.
What does have enduring and universal impact though, she says, is that comics spark imagination and curiosity and have broad appeal. They make room to accommodate every kind of reader. She’s also confident that the genre is growing on the continent even with challenges like high data costs, and the reality that there are not many publishing houses that support comics.
“The aim of an online exhibition in the end was for the diversity of artists’ work to be shown as the tip of the spear that pierces open for a glimpse into what’s happening on the continent while honouring the hosts that is South Africa,” says Mandengue.
Intersections and echoes
The online exhibition’s landing page features an animated overlay of work by South African comic artist Loyiso Mkhize of Kwezi fame. It’s recognisable from the original work he created for last year’s Art of Comics exhibition hosted by the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) in collaboration with the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) under the theme of “French bandes dessinées and South African comics in conversation”.
This year’s exhibition follows 2019’s successful JAG and IFAS collaboration but with a focus on comics from the continent.
One of two South African curators, Tara Weber, says they did have to make a quick gear change in the first weeks of lockdown to be able to produce a virtual exhibition for the National Arts Festival. They had to cut the original inclusion of about 40 artists’ work down to 16. They’ve had to put plans to travel with the exhibition to France on ice but they remain an IFAS highlight featured as part of the French Ministry’s “The Year of Comics” celebrations this year.
Weber says: “It has been quite challenging to curate and conceptualise not for a physical space but for online. The four creators [Weber, Mandengue, Raymond Whitcher and Jean-Philippe Martin] settled on three broad themes of Autobiography, Heroes and History, and Folklore and The Future. They’ve matched up artists’ works side by side allowing the viewer to scroll through and also to click on videos and additional content.
“Working with the likes of Joelle based in Congo Brazzaville and with Jean-Philippe in France, we were all able to discover new comics and the enormous talent on the continent,” says Weber.
She adds: “Comics have so many points of entry but what was quite extraordinary was how well some of the styles and stories mirrored each other as we started to match up the works.”
There’s the story of King Shaka in South African artist Luke Molver’s Shaka Rising: A Legend of the Warrior Prince. It is set alongside a comic called Chaka (also a story inspired by the Zulu king), the creation of French and Ivorian duo Jean-François Chanson and Koffi Roger N’guessan.
There’s also South African artist Lesego Ditlhake’s Basadi Sadi. In it Ditlhake’s unique talent of incorporating factual information and poetry into the comic-strip format to honour female leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle shines. Her work is exhibited alongside the works of Nigerian artist Tayo Fatunla, whose Our Roots has been about looking at the lesser-known figures of Nigerian heritage as well as telling fringe stories of the African diaspora.
Fatunla talked to New Frame, from the United Kingdom where he is now based: “I have been doing these drawings for over 30 years and still there is African history that we need to learn about. I think comics are a visual way to communicate our story and to deepen the appreciation we should have about Africa.”
Fatunla says comics also offer a way to present provocative or confronting content with a soft landing. He also believes the online platform and virtual life of the Afropolitan Comics exhibition is an opportunity to allow for the works of African artists to have wider global reach, which he says is long overdue.
“We can let the drawings and the stories speak for themselves, and now people across the world and also on the continent can start to find these works online,” he says.
Weber agrees and says comics can make personal stories instantly relatable sometimes, regardless of language, geography or personal history.
South African artist Willem Samuel who created Mengelmoes tells the boyhood story of a white Afrikaans-speaking boy in high school after 1994. Samuel says the autobiographical graphic novel helped him confront some hard truths about racism and the legacy of apartheid segregation. He says it has helped him think about addressing absences in representation in his work.
Samuel says comics offer him this kind of freedom and breathing room to explore but also force him to be mindful and reflective.
“Comics can be filled with ambiguity and things that are unclear, you can leave the story hanging, this is the human experience after all,” he says.
The point for comic creators is that the story continues, while the art and whimsy of imagination compels the reader to stay the course, to stay for just one more frame.
Afropolitan Comics will run online for the duration of the National Arts Festival until 5 July and will include comics webinars and workshops. The exhibition will continue to be accessible online after the festival and the curators hope to develop the exhibition as an expanded pan-African project.
Amendment, 2 July 2020: This article was modified for clarification.