New York

“Africa Comics”

The Studio Museum in Harlem

Comics have been cropping up in galleries with increasing regularity of late, with Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and others taking up the mantle of ambitious predecessors such as R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman. “Africa Comics” provided the US’s first comprehensive glimpse of the creativity and variety of comics published in sub-Saharan Africa, its European diaspora, and elsewhere. Organized in collaboration with Africa e Mediterraneo in Bologna, Italy—a nonprofit association concerned with promoting intercultural exchange—the Studio Museum show was small but still managed to feature work by thirty-two artists, and it packed a visceral wallop.

Comic art is not the subtlest of genres, but it can be an effective tool for satire and political critique. Much of the work in “Africa Comics” is timely in addressing urgent social and political issues, including corruption, poverty, state-sanctioned torture, inhumane IMF policies, abuse of children and women, and racial strife. In the introductory scene of Cisse Samba Ndar’s strip Oulaï: Pour que Cesse l’Excision (Oulaï: Excision Must Be Stopped), ca. 2005, excision being a term for “female circumcision,” a screaming woman carrying a blood-soaked girl runs full-tilt toward the viewer while a threatening crowd of men gives chase. The raw and disturbing imagery—somehow especially excruciating for being rendered in a style still customarily associated with lighter fare—conveys a sense of moral outrage yet ends with hope for the future. (Years later, a victim’s daughter swears that she will never let her own young daughter undergo circumcision.)

Many of the artists in the show live, work, and publish in Europe—often because of censorship or persecution at home—but some comics have a more local audience. Gbich!, an Ivory Coast weekly magazine of comic art and satire, has run color inserts for six years at a circulation of 20,000, and in Senegal, T. T. Fons’s (Alphonse Mendy’s) character Goorgoorlou appears on television, in advice columns, and in the theater. Though many comics rely on text, Kenyan Anthony Mwangi uses empty speech balloons, making his work accessible to a population with a high incidence of illiteracy. Fifi Mukuna and Christophe N’Galle Edimo also tell a harrowing story without words in Enfants, 2002, in which a starving boy gets stuffed in a tire and set alight for stealing a purse.

While the catalogue conveys the polish of published comics (though some nuances are inevitably lost in reproduction), it is fascinating to peruse the original artworks (which include drawings, watercolors, and collages), with their whiteouts, scribbles, and crinkled edges intact and clearly visible. A curator notes that many of the comics were sent in plain manila envelopes “neither padded nor protected,” with handwritten addresses and adorning doodles.

The forthrightness of the politics here is as arresting as the imagery. In the US, where the contingence of basic rights and needs rarely touches us with violent urgency, these comics are forceful reminders of some of the myriad ways in which postcolonial corruption, restrictive immigration policies, disease, poverty, and narrow-mindedness impinge on hopes and destroy lives. At the same time, “Africa Comics” refuses to succumb to Afro-pessimism. Rather, the works have a moral force—a crossover from traditional forms of African art—and humor permeates many of the strips. In a bitingly funny strip by Didier Viode called Visa Rejeté, 2005, a French man is praised for applying for a visa in order to do “humanitarian work.” Later, we see him sunning under the palms while the Beninois hero, Yao, struggles to obtain the same document, only to be turned away because his passport photo doesn’t show both of his ears.

Allison Moore