African cartoons is another fantastic digital platform that is archiving African artistic practice. We had a chance to interview Tejumola Olaniyan, the founder of African Political Cartoons an online archive of African political cartoons.
What was your motivation that led you to create the “Encyclopedia of African Political Cartooning?”
The primary motivation for starting Africa Cartoons was to stimulate more scholarly interest in African cartoons. The secondary motivation was to entertain enthusiasts of cartoons and cartooning in Africa. I wanted to compose an encyclopedia that is comprehensive in its continental coverage. I originally planned it as a book but I decided on online web for easier accessibility. I am also writing a book on the history and styles of political cartooning in Africa.
“Digital archive is part of the wave of democratization of the last two and half decades. It is not just democratization of politics but also of media and its resources.”
Your site features an interactive map that displays a large collection of political cartoonists of over 180 cartoonists. How did you go about amassing this collection?
I developed an interest in clipping and collecting political cartoons from the newspapers during my secondary school years in Nigeria in the 1970s. Often, I bought the papers because of the cartoons. I was not consistent with the collecting, but what that interest did was to teach me to value the cartoon as an art that could educate and entertain well beyond its topical theme publication date. Two decades later when I became a scholar of literature, I naturally gravitated toward popular culture as an area of related interest. I wrote on popular music, then my dormant interest in cartoons resurfaced forcefully. I was already in the US then. From my university library and through interlibrary loans, I borrowed boxes and boxes of microfiche films of early and old African newspapers, went through them page by page and printed out the cartoon pages. It was a laborious process, and research assistants ably assisted along the way. Collecting is much easier now, thanks to the internet. But carefully preparing the images for web upload is still labor intensive and again, I have very able research assistants.
“African cartooning is a very transnational and cosmopolitan art.”
What do you think is the importance of political cartoons in Africa, Why are they important? Why do you think it is important to have a digital archive? Do you think political cartooning has had any influence on African visual culture and arts? How?
Politics is the art of managing the way we organize ourselves in society, how we marshal and distribute resources and responsibilities. Politics, as such, will never cease to be a contentious business, and political cartoons are everyday in-the-moment commentaries on how we could still do better, all things considered. In this sense, the political cartoon is a most utopian art in the most heroic and selfless way. It never praises us, because it believes we can always do better, and it pokes fun at us for not aiming higher. It does all the goading in the most hilariously entertaining way. The particular targets of a political cartoon may not always see the humour or irony, but the political cartoon is a foundationally humanist art, so its attacks are never as absolute enemies who must destroy one another but as fellow human beings sharing the same space, in competition, a competition between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, a competition we must continually struggle to manage better. This is the big significance of political cartoons. The world would be much poorer indeed without them.
Digital archive is part of the wave of democratization of the last two and half decades. It is not just democratization of politics but also of media and its resources. Take a look at the expansion of the telephone in Africa, not to mention online access and social media that have revolutionized social relationships, education, commerce, politics, and more. There is still a long distance to cover, of course, in terms of easy and affordable access in Africa. Digital archive needs hands-on continuous management, of updating database tools as newer and more enduring—often costlier—models become available. Many newspapers in Africa today publish online versions, but a well organized and accessible archive of past issues–even if you have to pay for them—is hard to find. All these are reasons why dedicated and well-funded digital archives are necessary.
“Ah, there are truly great and terrific cartoonists working across the board. Influence is in large part determined by a tight combination of factors such as artistry, productivity, and circulation or mass accessibility across borders. The higher the levels of these factors, the more influential the cartoonist.”
Yes indeed, political cartooning in many African countries has always had a significant influence on popular visual culture and the arts, and vice versa. In some instances, many cartoonists started out as graphic artists for newspapers—designing advertisements and so on—before shifting to cartooning, and in fact before going to art school and getting any significant formal training in the arts. The post-1990s explosion in political cartooning has also encouraged the growth of allied arts such as standup comics, and forms of street tourist art.
Who are the most influential African cartoonists today? Why do you think they stand out and what specifically make their work important?
Ah, there are truly great and terrific cartoonists working across the board. Influence is in large part determined by a tight combination of factors such as artistry, productivity, and circulation or mass accessibility across borders. The higher the levels of these factors, the more influential the cartoonist. According to these measures, we could name the most influential currently practicing cartoonists as Zapiro in the south, Gado in the east, Ali Dilem in the north, and Tayo Fatunla in the west. Sorry, it’s a gentlemen’s club, for historical reasons we won’t go into here. Within each region or country, there are, of course, many influential cartoonists.
“Africacartoons.com is contribution to these forms of wider access for our cartoons by providing a one-stop site where you can learn more about who is working where, see samples of their work, and see links to their personal websites, the papers they work for, and other useful information about them.”
African cartoonists have had a strong tradition in print media, do you think there are any opportunities for cartoonists in the digital sphere? Have you noticed any movement to the digital space by cartoonists?
Yes indeed, there are now many opportunities for African cartoonists in the digital sphere. They still need more resources and support to make them take full advantage of those opportunities. First, many newspapers now also publish online, so, that is a much wider access for the cartoonists. Anyone anywhere in the world with an internet access could view their work. Second, many cartoonists now have Facebook pages and publish cartoons there directly, in addition to the news venues they work for. Third, many cartoonists now have their own independent web pages—you can see samples of their work there and contact them. Africacartoons.com is contribution to these forms of wider access for our cartoons by providing a one-stop site where you can learn more about who is working where, see samples of their work, and see links to their personal websites, the papers they work for, and other useful information about them.
Are there any specific visual styles or differences in cartooning based on regions? Are there any themes or patterns you see in your archive across Africa?
The cartoonists’ visual styles seem to be determined less by region than by the early influences on the cartoonists, and those influences are generally cross-regional. As fellows in the same line of work, they keep abreast of developments in cartooning locally and internationally; they also come across different styles in their formal training. It is from this composite that each cartoonist develops his or her own unique style.
One interesting stylistic issue is the use of single versus multiple panels for political cartooning. Because a political cartoon is part of a paper’s editorial decisions and there is a specific space allotted to it, it has historically been in single panel across the board in most of Africa. Multi-panel political cartoons began to appear later, but it remains a minority practice in each of the regions; it remains the prime tool of comics and development-oriented cartoons, and there seems to be more of those in eastern and southern Africa. There are other important visual styles we could look at such as how abstract or close to reality the images are, the relationship between words and images in the cartoon, or the visual perspective, which is how a cartoon situates the viewer in relation to the subject and images in the cartoon. In all these instances, we could find affinities and differences across the board rather than regional divisions. African cartooning is a very transnational and cosmopolitan art.