African Artists Display Continent in Comic Strips

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The Studio Museum in Harlem is showing a first-ever U.S. exhibit of comic strips from Africa. Three dozen artists deal with postmodern daily life and the problems facing 20 African countries: war, corruption, poverty, sexism and child slavery.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Grim news from Africa makes the front pages of many newspapers around the world, but the comics? Right now at the Studio Museum in Harlem much of the grim news in Africa is being presented in comic strips. It's the work of 35 African artists.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: The images and the words in the cartoon bubbles often seem familiar. The drawings might be simple and clear as in the Belgian comic strip Tintin(ph). At other times the images are closer to those in American action comics. But familiarity disappears when you encounter the content, which is sometimes surprising and often grim.

Ms. CHRISTINE KIM (Associate curator, Studio Museum): Sexism in Africa, genital mutilation, war, corruption, poverty.

ADLER: Christine Kim, associate curator at the Studio Museum points out the titles “Tribe of Darkness,” “Street Child,” “Visa Declined,” “Hard to be a Child Slave;” the colors are often vivid, the art expressive, and unlike some modern art, it's very approachable.

Ms. KIM: You have these beautifully drawn painted images with text in various different languages created with very inexpensive means - ink, watercolor, paper.

ADLER: The comics come from 20 African countries: from the Ivory Coast of South Africa, from Nigeria to Mozambique. The Africa Comics project was developed by an Italian group, Africa e Mediterraneo, which promotes the exchange of knowledge between Italy and Africa.

Organizers felt comic art might be an ideal medium to address the social and political issues facing Africa from refugees to poverty, to health, to tribal conflicts. So they held three competitions between 2002 and 2006 and the exhibit at the Studio Museum has many of the winners. Andre Marcaccini Ragani(ph) is the director of the Africa Comics Project.

Mr. ANDRE MARCACCINI RAGANI (Director, Africa Comics Project): This is the first exhibition about Africa comics in the states.

ADLER: The comics have been exhibited in Italy, Spain, Romania, Germany, Belgium, Mozambique and Senegal. At the Studio Museum a seventh grade student, Christian Foley(ph), points to a black and white series of panels showing two very small children running, taking food.

Mr. CHRISTIAN FOLEY: It's about two children who live in poverty and unfortunately they were both punished for stealing and they were burned and killed. But they go to heaven and sort of happily ever after.

ADLER: Although many of the cartoon panels show bloodshed and violence a few are optimistic. When you look at a strip called “All that Falls” by Almata and Sappi Gompez(ph) you see a plane and objects falling, but it's not war or a plane crash; the comic strip shows what happens when children find a piano that is dumped out of an airplane because it's too heavy. They find it, learn how to play, they become musicians and their lives are transformed. Shanta Jones(ph) who leads tours of the exhibit in Harlem says it's the one strip she most often shows to children.

Ms. SHANTA JONES: Something that begins as something totally random and just trash essentially becomes something wonderful in the life of these two children.

ADLER: The teachable moment is when American children visiting the museum say what's the big deal about a piano? Jones says that although comic strips date back to the 19th century the idea of sequential panels that tell a story goes back to hieroglyphics. Marcaccini Ragani says comics are a communicative tool.

Mr. RAGANI: They tell you that the stories of about the condition of modern Africa.

ADLER: He says comic art is very accessible making it easy to show the realities of Africa to the rest of the world. The exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem continues until mid-March.

Margot Adler NPR News, New York.

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