Articles

The Studio Museum in Harlem Presents Africa Comics

by Jennifer Ciotta

Days of the Harlem Renaissance still haunt West 125th Street with sites such as the Apollo Theater; however, another landmark goes virtually unknown amidst the pharmacies and discount shops of today.  The Studio Museum in Harlem has spanned nearly four decades, featuring world famous artists from the American and international black/African-descent community.  Exhibitions by these talents have been showcased over the years: Faith Ringgold and Chris Ofili as well as Harlem historian-photographer James Van DerZee.

Upon entering the Museum on West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, the modern gray building is quietly tucked away in its commercial surroundings.  I realized immediately that photographs are not permitted to be taken once inside, yet this proved to be a surmountable feat since the impressions I received from the artwork provided me with lasting impressions of which I am able to describe at this moment.

The present exhibition running until March 2007 is Africa Comicsput on by the nonprofit Italian organization, Africa e Mediterraneo.  As stated by the Museum, this exhibition is the first of its kind in the United States, dedicated only to comic art from another continent. Spanning the gallery walls are contemporary comics from the various countries of Africa, mostly in French, yet translation leaflets are provided for guests’ convenience.  Political messages radiate from the pages, exploring the themes of racial divide, motherhood, tribal life and law.  Even without glancing at the English translation, I could understand that the characters were immersed in struggles yet at the same time sustaining hope for the African future.  Keeping to their true comic roots, the stories also depict sarcasm and humor toward internal corruption within the continent while illustrating the wrongdoings of the IMF, World Bank and George W. Bush.

In today’s prosperous America it is hard to intimately fathom what the African battle consists of: AIDS, poverty, starvation, etc.  Through this exhibition I noticed the details which evoked a sense of African identity and culture.  For instance, in one comic, a pregnant woman and her husband sleep naked in bed–something which is taboo in the United States or at least not mentioned.  In the same story an indigenous tribe hands the expectant mother a spiritual gift, and later on, a serpent slithers into the woman’s dream, causing her to awaken in fright.  These beautiful images bestowed upon me glimpses into what it is to be an African woman as she represents spirituality and complexity.  Everyday life for a woman in Africa, as shown through this exhibition, seems to be focused on mothering and domestic chores, although there is an underlying force, which promotes the arising power of women.  In fact, in another comic, a woman scares off intimidating, muscular tribal men with her villainous mask and ritualistic dance.

A South African comic told the political story of a boy who robs from others.  When taken to jail, under the new justice system of South Africa, he is provided a lawyer.  At the same time he also understands the error of his ways thus redeeming himself in society.  In the last panel the boy sings the praises of the new legal system which gives juveniles a second chance.  In the American world we take our legal process for granted whereas in South Africa the scales of justice have tipped toward the people in recent years.  The boy’s actions of stealing a television while climbing out of a multi-story building or holding up a victim at knife point put forth an unfortunate reality which is not only true of Africa, but of the United States as well.  Noticeably, the vernacular heard throughout the comic resounds in South African street language, yet does not need much translation since the defeated or elated expressions of the boy speak for themselves.

As Africa can be forgotten amongst the bureaucracy of wealthy countries, it was an enlightening break to view the current issues of the real people who reside all over the continent.  I left with an impression that hope resides alongside with despair, even in the most dire of circumstances.  It is a theme that can be lost in first world countries today, a theme which was representative of 1920s Harlem.