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Why “The Great African Character Design” is NOT a Disaster but the Makings of a Revolution

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

 

Princess Zahara. Image: John and Charles Agbaje

Princess Zahara. Image: John and Charles Agbaje

 

I realise that this response to Eugene Ramirez Mapondera’s  rather Afrophobic litany on all the things “wrong” with Afrikan comic book character design is delayed but I write it nevertheless because I believe the points I am going to highlight here to counter his assertions are quite crucial to any conversation on Afrikan art and its future as an influential player in the global arts and culture arena and as a trendsetter in global pop culture.

I must begin by saying that I do not disagree with everything that Mapondera postulated in his article because he is right, the field of comic books and their characters is essentially a popular culture thing and it needs to be relevant, particularly to the audience of this medium.

It needs to be progressive and/or modern so yes, urban cities, modern techno gadgets and gizmos and culturally diverse and integrated i.e. globalized communities in the story’s backdrop are all important aspects that a designer would do well to include in his/her creation and this includes in the character development and design process.

With that said, everything else about that article was nothing short of offensive and reeked of internalised racism and an unhealthy dose of an inferiority complex. The language Mapondera uses in his article (in relation to Afrikan character design and cultural influence) to make his point about the need for innovation in comic character design is so self deprecating I cannot help but visualize a freakishly weird creature that is a fusion of the character of Uncle Ruckus from the popular animated TV series The Boondocks, King Leopold II of Belgium and Cecil John Rhodes spewing all of that tripe. His ill informed but well-worth-the-consideration point is almost completely drowned out by the hot mess that is his tirade against the things that both inform a general/common Afrikan identity as well as inspire a sense of pride in these identifiers that are ultimately proudly Afrikan.

He ignores that all other cultures still hold onto certain elements they deem essential to their identity going forward and in the west they dub these the “classics” or declare their proprietors and ambassadors “cultured” and yet when we do this, hold on to aspects of our past that we would like to carry forward with us, it is, in Mapondera’s opinion, us being “unsophisticated” or “tasteless” or “backward” or “derogative”.

What is derogative is how he looks upon things such as spears, beads and animal skins in this way because although we now tog “skinnys” and hoodies, we also still wear beads and dashikis and kente, capulana, chitenje or mudcloth (all commonly known as “Afro print”) outfits, not to mention that spears and animal skins and drums are still very present in a lot of modern and if anything affluent spaces from our homes to hotels and offices all as part of what is considered “sophisticated” décor.

Mapondera appears to be so blinded by his apparent inferiority complex that he seems to confuse himself a little in his article when he uses conflicting strands of reasoning to praise western and eastern creations on the one hand and to tear down Afrikan creations on the other.

His adulations for fictional and very fantastical western characters like Superman, the X-Men and vampires do not call to question the unrealistic characteristics and qualities of these characters, neither does he interrogate the impracticality of Clark Kent’s “disguise”, the unrealistic indestructibility of Cyclopes’ eyelids by his own death ray or the ever changing vulnerabilities of the blood sucking (and nowadays “vegetarian”) undead for instance but he will challenge the practicality of the Afrikan comic character’s costume which involves being topless/bare breasted and argue “protection against the elements.”

He also uses Marvel’s famous comic book (now turned movie) The Avengers as an example of “sophisticated” characters in comparison to their “woefully” primitive Afrikan characters and yet he appears to ignore the fact that Thor, the Norse God of Thunder (inspired by Germanic mythology) is a part of the Avengers team, complete with his very archaic and somewhat impractical gear and arsenal which is solely made up of a non-battery powered hammer affectionately known as Mjolnir. Wait, there’s more, in addition to the Germanic man-god, the avengers team also boasts the skills of Captain America in his American flag inspired spandex, I repeat spandex, costume – he must share a tailor with Superman as he too has a costume that is inspired by the star spangled banner – but this, this, Mapondera does not have a problem with.

He does not consider these ever consistent trends a sign of tedious or clichéd unsophistication but he will bemoan the red, yellow and green colour scheme of Afrikan characters.

In his citation of the definition of sophisticated he conveniently omitted to include disambiguations of the term as sophisticated can also mean “to alter or pervert” and the antonym for this, which I suppose by implication would apply to the current nature of Afrikan design would be “unadulterated; pure; genuine” which in a way is a compliment despite the fact that he meant it as an insult.

I was particularly intrigued by Mapondera’s and the site administrator, Sigma Scribe’s responses to comments that called into question the author’s barrage against particular aspects of Afrikan character designs.

Sigma Scribe dismissively responds to a comment made by Shaudzirai Lowe Mudekunye Mawunganidze that calls into question Mapondera’s choice of words to describe what is inherently a lot of Afrikan peoples’ heritage using what appears to be sarcasm when s/he comments to the academic nature of the comment as though to imply that there is no room for that kind of analysis or rhetoric on that platform.

This dismissal of the intellectualization of the article in the debate exhibits a refusal to welcome practical criticism or to be encouraged to self evaluate and interrogate the flaws of the author’s argument for the sake of progress and the actualisation of the sophistication he and his supporters so audaciously claim to advocate.

In addition, the comment made by the scribe about him being “unapologetic” and “revisionist” almost as if to imply that he is a revolutionary of some sort is also a bit worrying because, again, it completely refuses to review opposing postulations that may or may not be valid from the get go.

It also negates the fact that if indeed Mapondera is viewed as some sort of post modern revolutionary of his “sophisticated” Afrikan ilk, there is a difference between being a revolutionary and just being stubborn and arrogant. Besides, it is not all self professed revolutionaries who make good/ideal revolutionaries.

After all men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Kony are considered revolutionaries in certain circles and I find Mapondera’s choice of words a little too close for comfort to the colonialist and Eurocentrist view of the Afrikan to be deemed a positive inspiration.

What I believe Mapondera misses completely in his article is an opportunity as an informed, experienced and articulate artist and instructor to advocate for an amalgamation of modern and urban Afrikan spaces with their respective heritages.

To challenge us, and more particularly his students, to set our own and possibly the rest of the world’s, standards on progress, advancement and development and inspire a resurgence of an Afrikan renaissance of sorts in this area of pop culture.

Instead he chooses to use this opportunity to pit modernization against cultural heritage and identity and in his article and subsequent responses to comments, he ignores the fact that Afrika does not need to turn itself into a quasi America or Japan in order to be a powerhouse in the global comic arts scene.

What he does manage to do is callously betray his own privilege and completely disappears the realities of the majority of the peoples of the continent, including those of the very same Zimbabwe he both hails from and presently resides in.

He completely overlooks the fact that Sub Saharan Afrika survives at approximately 60% (urban) and 14.2% (rural) access to electricity, or that access to computers and the internet and microwave dinners and Justin Beiber/ Miley Cyrus etc are still more of luxuries enjoyed (or suffered, depending on which side of the fence you stand) predominantly by the privileged or that majority of the people identify more with heroes like King Shaka, Mbuya Nehanda and Queen Yaa Asantewaa or Shango; Orisha of Fire and Thunder than they do Thor and Aqua Man.

In a bid to abate his fears that this will only serve to restrict Afrikan comic books to the continent and context specific locale I will point out that the Green Lantern was inspired by Irish folklore and heritage so if the Irish can successfully export their own culture via the Green Lantern why cant we do the same with our own heroes?

C. Matthew Hawkins so aptly put it when he said:

“Comic book heroes personify societal mythology, and mythology tells people who they are and what they can be. A society that only imports its superheroes, but never produces heroes of its own, is a society that will always look to others to solve its social and environmental problems.” 

We have been taught for centuries that we will never be better than the lesser and that Afrikans have always been primitive and backward and that it is only the global west or the global east that can set the tone for what is and what isn’t progress and sophistication. Mapondera’s article is a manifestation of the inroads that this dogmatic indoctrination and miseducation on the history of the world and its peoples have made in the minds of the oppressed.

Digital artists and creatives like Ghanian computer game designer Eyram Tawia and Zimbabwean designer, founder and director of Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts and author of Afrikan Alphabets Saki Mafundikwa (who applies the philosophy of Sankofa in his work) are in my opinion much healthier for the young minds of digital arts students because at least they, although keeping up with the times, still exhibit and encourage pride in our Afrikan (creative) heritages and the need to keep them alive in both our work and in our journey towards becoming leaders in the global digital arts world.

In my opinion, and if history is anything to go by, assimilators are neither inspirational nor influential. However, those that set themselves apart are. Afrikans need to thrive to be Afrikans, yes perhaps global Afrikans/ Afropolitans, but Afrikans all the same, not Americans or Japanese or Britons. We need to give our children s/heroes they can identify with and who look like them and sound like them. We need to create these s/heroes from the rich and full repository of our history, folklore and mythology not that of others and we also need to be selective of the kinds of international icons we draw our inspiration from.

Not all things trending are worth duplication. We need to give our kids roots with which to hold their identity firm in the ground in order to sufficiently nourish the magnificent plants they will grow and blossom into based on and informed by their identity and origins and yes inspired by the world around them presently. We need to use pop culture to change the negative narrative that Mapondera so obviously buys into and retell our own stories to share and inspire the rest of the world. There is a reawakening/ revolution a-brewing in these here parts of the world and it should be digitized.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Afritude, Art, Culture, Literature

 

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I am Afrikan! But What Does it Mean to be Afrikan? (Part 2)

In the past few months I have had to sort through some of the internal debates I had been having with myself on certain issues which in the whole look at interrogating our Afrikan identities, both as sub cultures and as a whole geographic culture. There is a plethora of sub themes to this of course that I will not get into here. In the first part I have already addressed the neo sub culture known as Afropolitanism and in this part I want to tackle the issue of language as an identity marker of Afrikaness that was addressed by one of my favourite Afrikan women writers and bloggers, Spectra Speaks.

In her post, Spectra unpacks the issue of Afrikan vernacular languages being used as the bar to determine one’s Afrikaness. She points out that Afrikaness is defined by a plethora of things and just because one does not speak an Afrikan language, it does not make them any less Afrikan than those that do. She also unpacks the reasons as to why some Afrikans today cannot speak their mother tongues. It is a well argued and balanced article and I certainly get where she is coming from. In fact, I can relate as I am an Afrikan, born and raised and still resides in Afrika and I speak and write better English than I do my vernacular languages Shona and Zimbabwean isiNdebele. My default setting is English. I dream in English, express myself best in English and when I phahla (communicate/pray to the emissaries of the Creator, my ancestors as I find myself on the path of ubungoma* ) I struggle with keeping to Shona or isiNdebele and often find myself reverting back to English.

I am often asked, be it here in South Africa or back home in Zimbabwe, if I have ever lived in the United Kingdom or the United States as I have what I can best describe as an Afropolitan accent. I have just recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe and while there a few fellow Zimbabweans asked me where I am from. This reality of my life is due to various factors throughout my upbringing which include my families (both natural and adopted), some of the schools I attended, my social circles and probably television as well. I have never consciously worked at developing this accent and if anything, any effort to manipulate my accent has occurred in recent years where I have found myself trying to make myself sound less “foreign” and more “Afrikan”.

However, in spite of all of this, I am inclined to disagree a little with Spectra. I believe that language is a very important and necessary identifier. This is not to say of course that we should then use it as an excuse to ostracize each other but I feel that we as Afrikans should acknowledge language as a very important aspect of our identity that needs to be preserved. I feel that making excuses for ourselves, especially as adults, is unacceptable especially if we have not made any feasible effort to learn that very important part of our identity.

I appreciate that our knowledge and command of global/western languages is important to our survival in this world that is increasingly getting smaller and smaller but this should not come at the expense of our own languages that have as much a right to survive and participate in the world as any other language. Spectra rightly acknowledged the important role that languages play in preserving what little has survived of our true history on the continent but I feel that she did not do justice to this. A huge chunk of our history was either distorted, stolen or completely erased and the very little that remains is mainly kept in the tradition of oral instruction.  The few secrets left are often found in the stories, proverbs and idioms that are often passed down from generation to generation orally and are often, or the impact thereof, lost when translated or over simplified in text which is also often translated.

For some Afrikans, the knowledge of languages like English or French is a sign of empowerment and makes them an equal deserving of respect. Why can our command of Afrikan languages not be as equally empowering? Upon starting on the book African Women Writing on Resistance edited by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Pauline Dongala, Omotayo Jolaosho and Anne Serafin recently, I was very disappointed to come across this piece by an Afrikan woman writer writing on “resistance”:

I remember crossing the border from Canada into the United States by car a couple of years ago. Since I was not Canadian, I was required to go through passport control, fill out forms and be finger printed and photographed as part of the US-VISIT security program. The officer who processed me, a white man, was patronizing and insulting. He spoke with exaggerated slowness, despite my Canadian accent, Western clothing and obvious ability to speak English…. Inside, I was fuming – ready to whip out degrees and a resume, thus proving my worth as an articulate educated woman of colour.

She qualifies herself and her right to respect based on her Canadian accent, her Western education and Western sense of style. Some might defend her and say that it is because she was in the U.S. and I will counter that by saying that I am sure that were she here on the continent she would still feel entitled to respect on the same grounds. Perhaps more entitled than the traditionally educated and traditionally clad Swazi woman with an excellent command of siSwati. My point is Afrikans are more ostracized, even by fellow Afrikans, for not speaking English or French or not adopting the appropriate accent than they are for not speaking vernacular. Afrikans will more readily ridicule a fellow Afrikan for speaking poor English than they will for speaking poor Chichewa. Poor English is often associated with stupidity and poor chiZezuru with affluence and progress. If knowledge and a good command of one’s vernacular language is good enough for the Japanese, the Italians and the English why is it not good enough for the Igbo, the Karanga or the Masai or any other Afrikan?  Why are we fighting for the right to not know our own languages while retaining the right to identify as “proud” Afrikans instead of fighting for the survival of our native languages as an integral part of our identity as peoples who have for centuries lived in a world that has tried to beat, chain, institutionalize and preach the Afrikan out of us?

Language is also a very important bridge between us and our ancestors. Of course, because they are spirits, they can understand us still, in whatever language we communicate to them and they will also adjust their messaging accordingly but this often times takes away from the weight and the depth of the message or the lesson. Communication is by no means one dimensional and the messages from the ancestors are very important to our quest to realizing an empowered future as Afrikans so when they are dumbed down, their value is in turn diminished.

In his poem Lament of the Images, Nigerian writer Ben Okri speaks of forgotten tongues. The tongues of our ancestry which were expressed in a multidimensional and interconnected fashion. The disconnection of which, has resulted in the Afrikan losing a significant part of their identity because they no longer understand their own language, no longer see its importance and subsequently no longer know how to fully communicate their value, worth and identity to anyone they wish to address or anyone who dares to listen.

A lot of things mean infinitely more or have a much bigger impact in our vernacular languages, not because our vernacular languages are anymore special than anyone else’s but because when we speak them we speak from our whole, from the sum of all our parts and not just from parts of ourselves i.e. the mind or the heart. I invite fellow Afrikans who find themselves in a similar situation (to mine and to Spectra’s) to not be content with justifying and defending the reasons they do not speak “Afrikan” but instead seek to rectify the situation imposed on them by colonialism, slavery and migration by learning their native tongues and doing a better job of teaching them to their children than some of our parents and schools did.

* ubungoma is the Zulu term for the calling to become a traditional healer and spirit medium. One is born with it and not into it

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2013

 

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A guy, a Girl, Fair Trade Apples and a (Two Eyed) Snake

“… His decision to expel Adam and Eve from paradise for breaking an arbitrary rule with no foundation in law: Of the tree of knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat.

If He had not wanted that to happen, why did he put the tree in the midst of the garden and not outside the walls of paradise? … Mari would undoubtedly accuse God of administrative negligence, because, as well as planting the tree in the wrong place, He had failed to surround it with warnings and barriers, had failed to adopt even minimal security arrangements and thus exposed everyone to danger.
… but God had proceeded quite differently. He had devised a rule and then found a way of persuading someone to break it, merely in order to invent punishment. He knew that Adam and Eve would become bored with perfection and would, sooner or later, test His patience. He set a trap, perhaps because He, Almighty God, was also bored with everything going so smoothly: if Eve had not eaten the apple, nothing of interest would have happened in the last few billion years.” 

Taken from Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho 

It goes on but I think you get the gist of it. You have to know that I was convulsing with hysterics when I read this the first time and again when I read it a second time to my best friend Shau. Dark humour aside, I found it funny because it was comforting to know that I am not the only person who is not afraid to voice these questions in spite of my deep love for and strong beliefs in God and the Goddess.I suppose I am luckier than Coelho whose parents had him institutionalized, three times, and I only got a faux exorcism from a zealous Christian aunt for my “heresy”. (Notice how the word her is in the word heresy  there? Kinda makes the analytical mind go “hmm” doesn’t it?)

Let the record show, that although I am not Christian or religious (not anymore anyway), I do believe in and love God, in all Her and His glorious wonder, but I do question and challenge God whenever I am moved to do so & in this line of work (human rights work) that’s almost everyday. There are claims that have been made about God and how things went down “in the beginning” that sort of, no, scratch “the sort of”, that REALLY contradict the “All loving” and “All knowing” notion of God, this, of course, operating on the whole tree of knowledge and paradise theory. Having pondered upon it at length, I have come up with three probabilities for the nature of the relationship between God and humanity according to Christianity.

The first probable answer being that God is not all loving at all if S/He went ahead and created Lucifer, the tree of knowledge, Adam & Lillith (whom Adam banished and had God replace her with the more demure Eve) and subsequently the rest of humanity knowing full well that we are all going to fuck things up anyway and S/He is going to be “forced” to punish us. I say so because let’s say for a moment that God is all knowing and God knew what the outcome would be even before it happened but went ahead and planted the tree in the garden anyway. There is no real reason that the tree should have been in the garden in the first place except for the argument presented by Coelho which is that God wanted humans to sin only so S/He would have a reason to punish them. Perhaps out of sheer boredom who knows? Either way, that does not sound like an all loving God at all.

If that is not the case then perhaps the second might ring truer and we can say God isn’t all knowing at all, otherwise our all loving (but not all knowing God) wouldn’t put us in these predicaments if S/He knew the outcome. I mean God and the Goddess are referred to as “the Father” and “the Great Mother” and although I am not a parent myself I still like to consider myself somewhat an expert on parent – child relationships and bonds (simply by virtue of having been in one such relationship myself at one point, coupled with decades of accumulated knowledge based on my intense anthropological studies of the fascinating little tribe called The Family).

In today’s world, for example, parents go to great lengths to baby proof their homes because they understand that a child will always be curious and no matter how many times they may warn or sometimes scare their children against all sorts of dangers, a child will not always take heed and will sometimes put themselves in harm’s way during an exploratory exercise so why didn’t God baby proof paradise? We know already that Adam and Eve were not exactly the brightest crayons in the Crayola box (because the bible tells us so, not because I am a cow). They were punished for eating from the tree that would make them smart: street name “tree of knowledge” (in other words, ignorance guaranteed bliss) so one must ask why God would think that those two would be wise enough not to eat the forbidden fruit at the behest of a talking garden snake? One answer to that is that God had no idea that would happen and thought tales of the boogieman would be enough to protect His/Her kids. Plus, perhaps they were going through a credit crunch at that time too and God simply couldn’t afford the prices the security companies in heaven were asking for to install some kind of security system around the tree.

Maybe it’s the last theory which is the one I prefer and that is there has been a great misrepresentation of God by the powers that be and their followers and no one really knows what this life thing is all about and what the real motivation for our creation really is. After all, what we have learnt and “know” of God is what we have heard from other people (and for the brown person in particular, other people who pointed a gun to our heads while they read the verses that made us relinquish our power) and not God Herself/Himself. One thing I know for sure is I am not going to get the correct answers from anyone, not even a book I’m very dubious about, outside of God and I look forward to that encounter.

Some might chime in (read: “come at me with pitchforks and clubs”) and claim that we were “gifted” with choice, that is how much God loves us, and that WE have been the architects of the “fall of ‘man’” and that it is all “that bitch Eve’s fault for seducing my bwoy Adam into making the wrong choice” to quote a friend (yes, I have an interesting collection of friends) that we are in this predicament. I am not even going to go into the misogynistic and ignorant things that are so obviously and tragically wrong with that comment but I will instead say that I don’t believe that there really is such a thing as choice or freewill, just the illusion of it and even then, that illusion is not as limitless as we are led to believe by religious doctrine. I say this because as far as I know people do not choose to be born and to exist. There in itself is the absence of choice and this is purely from the Abrahamic faiths’ perspective. Besides, us mere mortals are not so fortunate as to be all loving and all knowing like God so we are bound to slip up a coupla hundred thousand billion times while we are here.

Let me refrain, for a moment if I may, from speaking on behalf of all of humanity and speak of the very significant times in my own life where choice was not presented to me. I did not choose to be born (again operating from the Christian theory on creation, birth and death). I did not choose my father. I did not choose for my mother to die when she did. I did not choose to be involved in the car accident that almost took my life 7yrs ago (granted I chose to be in the car but had I been lucky enough to be all knowing and had known that the same car would have been involved in a near fatal accident I would have chosen otherwise). These are just a few examples of the times where I had no choice. I concede that I have had innumerable opportunities in my 27 years of existence (in this life time) to make choices, which I have done, some good, some bad and some a iffy but my point is that this whole schlep that God gave us the “gift” of free will is just that, schlep in my opinion. From a more general perspective, I hardly think that children who are abused and exploited have a choice, women who can’t conceive but want children have a choice, those affected by natural disasters or those born with a physical “defect” have a choice. Not completely or limitlessly.

I suppose at this point some of you are wondering whether or not I believe in the bible and creation story. The answer to that is pretty long but I will try my best (may fail drastically though) to give you the shorter version. I believe that the bible is not necessarily a historical text chronicling factual events as they occurred but it is more of a guideline, if you will, with a lot of “he said, she said” that should not always be taken literally or at face value. There is a lot of hidden meaning in there, a kind of subliminal messaging I think and the simplistic interpretations we see today and that form the foundations of the Christian faith are not particularly accurate. Pretty far from it actually, given that it was politics and not faith that was responsible for it being published, distributed, edited, translated and redistributed some more only to be rammed down people’s throats. Again, it is politics, both personal and public, that influences its interpretations today. Have I deciphered it? No, but neither have a lot of other people, even those who claim to have done so. Will I start a cult or my own religion if I do? There’s lots of money to be made in being a religious leader so damn right I will! (Not really. Not my kind of tea party).

As far as the creation story is concerned, well I do not believe it should be taken literally neither should it be viewed in isolation i.e. without looking at the scientific and archaeological evidence that exists, sometimes, to discredit the creation story. With that said, the modern scientist should also be careful not to dismiss, as they do, the mystical versions of creation as mysticism is also a science in its own right that has inspired some of history’s most revered scientists’ discoveries and inventions.

At the end of the day, we have various faiths, beliefs and religions in the world and the thing is, no one really knows what’s up. We could all be right, we could all be wrong, some or one of us could be right and the rest will be pretty much screwed but whatever it is, I think the most important thing is for us to be good to ourselves, to each other and to the rest of creation, whether you believe in the ‘A guy, a Girl, “Fair” Trade Apples and a (Two Eyed) Snake’ story or the exploding fire cracker in the big nothingness story or any other story you’ve heard about how and why we came to be. At the end of the day that’s what really matters.

 

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