TONY COX, host:
And now, from black activists in America to African artists on the continent and abroad. NPR's Farai Chideya talks with a museum curator about a new cartoon exhibition in New York.
FARAI CHIDEYA: If you think comic art is just for your newspaper's funny pages, then check out “Africa Comics.” It's an exhibit that features the work of more than 30 African artists who use comic drawings to make bold social and political statements. It's up at The Studio Museum in Harlem through the spring. And even if you can't make it to New York, the show's catalog is worth a look. It includes both simple black and white panel drawings and long colorful strips that tackle the issues of war, women's rights and corruption. Thelma Golden co-curated “Africa Comics.” She's also the director and chief curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Thelma, thanks for coming on.
Ms. THELMA GOLDEN (Co-curated Africa Comics, The Studio Museum): Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: I have to say, having looked at the catalog, this is an extraordinary array of work, of, you know, different levels of humor and pastels and different styles. What is the exhibit like and how did it - how did you decide to create it?
Ms. GOLDEN: Well, I decided to create this exhibition because of the fact that I really didn't know anything about comic art in Africa. But I got a call from a curator in Italy who said to me there's some work I think you should see. And just based on her enthusiasm over the phone before I had seen any images, we made a plan that when she was next to New York that she'd come and show me some of the work.
And I have to say I was blown away not just by the quality of the artwork itself but I was blown away at how these comics really were an incredible document about contemporary Africa.
CHIDEYA: What does it take to put together an exhibition like this, because there are people from so many different countries and some African artists working in Europe who were included in this?
Ms. GOLDEN: Well, I have to give credit to the organization that has been working around comic art in Africa since 2001. They are the Bologna-based organization called Africa e Mediterraneo. And they established a series of projects and publications looking at African contemporary art as a way to bridge and create a dialogue between Africa and Italy. And they realized that comic art was the perfect vehicle. So that they actually have been the ones, through competitions that they have organized in these last six years, that actually pull together all of this work.
CHIDEYA: Some of these images are so strong, and I mean there is humor but in some cases there's really not. There is just a very straightforward, grim depiction of worst-case scenarios. I'm looking here at this strip called “Enfant,” “Children,” and it basically shows at the end a child being necklaced. And necklacing is a term for putting a rubber tire around someone's neck, throwing gasoline on them and setting them on fire.
And there's one kid being necklaced and his friend runs up and grabs onto him. They both die and go to heaven. I guess that's a happy ending. But I mean, you know, this is stuff that I don't think you'd see in any U.S. paper.
CHIDEYA: No. And, you know, many of these comics are published in newspapers in Africa and in Europe. Some are published as books. But really what you're speaking to is the fact that many of these artists see themselves as contemporary historians.
You know, we have to imagine that across the continent often these stories, even in immediate communities, aren't as accessible. But these comic artists, in many cases, are documenting real lives and real incidents as a way to create a sense of the history.
CHIDEYA: There have been golden ages of comics in countries including the U.S. and Japan, different styles. What do you think stands out about the comics from Africa on a visual level?
Ms. GOLDEN: I think what stands out is that these artists work across many styles, and I think that's perhaps what is so fascinating. And because what you see is that in the various artists in the various countries there's a lot of individual style coming through.
To look at many of these comics, one of course is drawn into the stories. But, you know, at The Studio Museum in Harlem, we are a visual art museum and I am often amazed at the way in which many of our visitors are not only reading the stories but looking at these incredibly powerful visuals that the artists have created.
CHIDEYA: You also - this catalog that you have is beautifully laid out. The strips that are in color are rendered vividly in color. There are strips in black and white, and then there are a lot of essays. It seems that you're trying to bring a lens of understanding to this work. What are you hoping to do with the catalog and also with the exhibit in terms of giving people more of a depth on this type of art?
Ms. GOLDEN: Our mission at The Studio Museum is to present and preserve the work of artists of African decent. So it was very important when doing this exhibition, the first of this kind in the U.S., that we did a catalog that would not only reproduce the works of arts so people who'd have the opportunity to see them if they didn't see the show or even if they did, but also to bring a variety of voices to this project to speak about the impact of these comics socially, artistically, aesthetically, as well as politically.
Our hope is that there are some other museums out there in the U.S. that will want to take this exhibition. And so that we are now hoping for a national tour as this work has been seen widely in Europe and in Africa and even in Asia, but it hasn't been seen here on the U.S. So we're working really hard to try and have this exhibition go to some other museums around the country.
CHIDEYA: Well, Thelma, thank you so much.
Ms. GOLDEN: Thank you.
COX: That was Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem. She co-curated “Africa Comics.” The exhibit runs through the spring at the museum. Golden spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.
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COX: That's our show for today, thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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