Digital arts: Uncaped Crusaders

By Kamaria Balkisson in Johannesburg
Posted on Friday, 27 October 2017 11:14

On the weekend of 15-17 September social media was flooded with artwork – drawings, paintings, portraits, illustrations, cartoons – with one thing in common: all the artists were black. It started with the hashtag #drawingwhileblack, a ‘snowclone’, or play on words, based on ‘driving while black’, which calls out racial bias by American police.

The arty hashtag was created by 19-year-old Annabelle Hayford, also known by her Twitter handle @sparklyfawn. As a young Ghanaian-American animator and illustrator in the US, Hayford didn’t see herself fittingly represented in the global art industry.

So she launched the virtual campaign as a means to prompt artists to showcase their work and be recognised for their talent. The internet has no borders, and art flooded in from all over the globe, but particularly the African continent.

It ranged from portraits carved with a razorblade on burnt wood by Nigerian Alex Peter (@alexpeter_art), to @pengrapher’s hand-printed Banta jean-jacket backs, @koke_xavier’s Yoruba-influenced body art, and all manner of comic book and digital art.

The campaign gave artists a chance to link to their own sales platforms, visibility to cooperatives like @arteasynigeria and @chococitycomics who promote black artists’ work, and most of all encouragement from the chorus of ‘likes’ and comments.

Many of the contributors are not professional artists. One of them is Princess Karibo (or @princess_kay__ to her followers), a 23-year-old illustrator from Nigeria. “I’m still a long way from where I want to be,” she says. Karibo has refined her illustrative talent by watching YouTube tutorials and engaging with other artists that inspire her.

Her dream is to eventually publish her own art book, featuring unseen artworks and how-to guidelines to help others improve their drawing. Currently, she sells her art on her society6 store for purchase and accepts commissions now and then.

Young artist Denzel Oduro, whose portrait of the model Angel Johnson opens this article, also uses Tumblr as an online gallery for his work. “Social media has been really helpful in building a following. The online engagement and interaction, in terms of likes and followers has been massive,” he says.

Another artist enjoying thousands of followers is IT student Benjamin Kwashie. When he is not programming, he works on custom portraits but says trusting customers online is tricky.

“I usually take at least 50% of the payment upfront but many customers suggest I draw before a payment is made. I’ve actually had some bad experiences where they claim they don’t have money at the moment or just do not reply to my mails.”

Despite this, the internet and social media has helped. “[The internet] is a free space and has a greater audience. At galleries, or other physical exhibition spaces, people have to be available to see my works.”

Multi-pronged presence

The hashtag lives on, and as The Africa Report went to press #drawingwhileblack had 3,806 Instagram posts. One thing that is striking from the online gallery is that the work is not only by, but 99% of the time also depicts black people.

It reflects a need to assert a multi-pronged black presence in a world where diversity and inclusion are still lacking in both commercial and fine art. Black and African characters with European features will not do.

The pressure is twofold: big publishing houses, animation producers and advertising agencies unwilling to put the money into what they see as a minority audience, and an older generation of Africans not viewing art as a viable profession.

“There was a time in Ghana where artists were seen to be unemployed, uneducated people who were just looking for an easy way to make money,” says Xane Asiamah (@xaneasiamah), a 20-year-old self-taught realist artist. “[Now it’s been realised] that most of these artists actually have a strong educational background and pursue art out of their own interest and passion.”

Asiamah’s thoughts are echoed by Ayodele Elegba, the 38-year-old CEO of Spoof Animation and founder of Lagos Comic Con, which brought together comics, gaming, animation and film fans in Lagos for its sixth edition – coincidentally on the same weekend that #drawingwhileblack hit social media.

“Back then, someone like me reading a comic book would make me look like a layabout without a job,” says Elegba. “In the first year of Lagos Comic Con only 300 people attended. This year we’ve grown to over 3,000 people.”

Since childhood, Elegba has enjoyed reading comics: “In secondary school I used to make and sell comic books for fun. I use comics as an outlet to share my ideas and tell my stories without any hindrance.

As an adult I realised Nollywood wasn’t ready, or resourced in terms of CGI, to depict the stories I wanted to tell. In a comic book you can draw whatever you imagine with just a pencil and a pen.

It’s an alternative for me to share my stories and ideas with the public,” he says. Jinx, one of Elegba’s creations, centres on an orphan who is bullied. In the story there are rumours that she is cursed and no one adopts her but the curse turns out to be a special gift.

The story follows her as she grapples with her power, and learns to use it for good. “I didn’t have the joy of growing up with both my parents,” says Elegba. “I also relate to Jinx because growing up I had many talents.

I could draw, sing, write and play sport, but I had no one to guide me and show me who I was.” Through his African superheroes, Elegba intends to instil awareness in African readers of their capabilities and power.

His only setback, like many other artists, is financial: the profit margin in making comics is still very slim. “Nigerians are still not comfortable with buying things they can’t hold in their hands. Readers will prefer to pay for a hard copy and wait a week for delivery, than reading an e-copy,” he says.

Zimbabwe, too, is going crazy for home-grown comics, and celebrated the third year of its own digital arts convention, Comexposed, on 14 October. One prominent participant is Bill Masuku, the 24-year-old founder of independent publisher Enigma Comix Africa and ­author of Razor-Man and Arcadia Knights.

Though the former is his most popular comic, it is Arcadia Knights, his newest creation, that Masuku confesses to being most excited about.

Looking for sponsors

Masuku’s comics, based on the modern lives of everyday African people, tell stories that elicit a deep connection to the generations that came before.

He sees comics as contributing to an already rich culture of oral storytelling, utilising both image and text. “I often draw a parallel to how advanced Japan is. Their culture of honour and heritage of samurais and shoguns isn’t seen as backward. This is what I want to see for Africa,” he says.

Masuku notes that a major challenge faced by young artists, especially those self-published, is a lack of sponsors and local marketing. “The African market is tied to its own societal bias. Things made in Africa are still seen as not good enough. In contrast, sales from overseas have been more favourable,” he says.

The internet has helped with the distribution of work, with outlets like Kugali Media, an online database of comics, gaming and animation from Africa and the African diaspora. Their website includes a YouTube channel, podcast and a blog which assists artists with networking and engaging on industry-related topics.

Another online platform is Accra-based Squid Mag, which publishes the latest comic, animation and gaming news, interviews, reviews, jobs and opportunities from and for creators and audiences across the continent.

The rapid growth in enthusiasm for African comics shown by the turnout at the two conventions suggests this is just the beginning. Nigeria alone now has 10 major comic book publishers. And Marvel has taken note, introducing the Nigerian comic book heroine Ngozi in September, written by sci-fi novelist Nnedi Okorafor.

The US comic behemoth is also busy making a big-budget film of its 1960s black comic superhero Black Panther, which has been criticised by African comic creators for “cherry-picking” African motifs and presenting a Western view of the continent.

By delving deep into pre-colonial history, creating characters that resonate with young Lagosians, Harareans or Jo’burgers, and confronting African problematics through their soaring imaginations, African comic authors are doing something other than simply colouring Western superheroes brown.

For Elegba his work should go beyond the pages of his comics into communities and society. “Africa needs more heroes without capes,” he says. “I hope my comics inspire someone to be a hero in their circle of influence.” And in his mind he hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he intends to accomplish.

From the November 2017 print edition

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