African political cartoons have a subversive edge

Dec. 14, 2005

by Barbara Wolff

The politics of subversion, and the people who risk everything to shake up the status quo, fascinate Teju Olaniyan.

Olaniyan, professor of English and African languages and literature and a fellow this semester at the Institute for Research in the Humanities, is working on a book about a particular form of subversion: the political cartoon. He is focusing on cartoonists working in English-speaking African countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Later, he will expand his scholarly inquiry to cartoonists working anywhere in Africa.

Olaniyan predicts that his subject will resonate with just about anyone of any nationality or political stripe.

“My current work pays homage to the heroic people who put their visionary ideas that our society could be better than it is into committed practice, often at a great personal cost,” he says.

It cost many of them dearly. Olaniyan says that Algerian cartoonist Guerrovi Brahim was murdered in 1995. His countryman Lamari Chawki received a suspended three-year prison term for mocking the Algerian flag in one of his cartoons. Tony Namate of Zimbabwe has been the subject of verbal attacks for the last five years.

“From Egypt to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, there have always been more or less overt threats to cartoonists, leading to internal censorship in the newspaper houses as a pre-emptive measure against state harassment,” Olaniyan says.

Still, it doesn’t always work, he adds: “In Zimbabwe, the Daily News has been shut down a few times by the government of Robert Mugabe.”

Olaniyan conceives of his book as a comprehensive history of various cartooning traditions on the African continent. He says that cartoonists typically address issues ranging from the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor to the high cost of food, inefficient utilities and dilapidated infrastructure. He has discovered insights about the cartoons that will find their way into the book, he says.

“Cartooning styles range from the most accessible to the most abstract. In almost all instances, the abstract styles are to be found in the most elitist newspapers, although the reverse is not necessarily true,” he says.

Olaniyan began his work by wading through cartons of microfilms of old newspapers and magazines.

“I wanted to know the history of political cartooning in each country and the context of production, dissemination and consumption. Cartoonists are extremely popular, and many people in Africa trust them to reveal the unstated underside of political actions, policies and events. Cartoonists hold the status of teachers, teaching the people that most important ingredient of civil disobedience: irony,” he says.

The next research stage took Olaniyan to bookstores in quest of collections of cartoons by individual artists.

Stage three was interviewing the cartoonists themselves. He started with those working in Nigeria and Ghana, and has made some inquiries to cartoonists in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Olaniyan invites visitors to a companion Web site, already online but not yet complete. The site, he says, is related to, but different from, the book.

“I conceive of the site as a stand-alone accompaniment to the book. It’s basically an encyclopedia with entries on cartoonists in all African countries and showing samples of their work. It also will have links to newspapers that publish cartoons, and links to essays, articles and books on cartoons, in Africa and in general.

“On the other hand, I see the book as a historical and critical analysis of cartoons and cartoonists in selected countries. The Web site will set a large context for the book,” he says.

Photo of Olaniyan holding open a book of political cartoons.

Olaniyan reads political cartoons from the book “Democrazy” by Kenyan cartoonist Gado. “Studying cartoons gives good insights into a country’s political culture because cartoonists often have wider, more robust views of political events, and because of their wide audience. Everyone loves cartoons,” says Olaniyan.

Supplementing a book with a Web site is not common practice in humanities research, he says.

“There are a lot of possibilities, though. The site could treat a subject interactively, deeper and more extensively than a book can, though sitting in front of a computer for hours is not yet many people’s idea of doing ‘serious’ reading. The hard copy book still wins out here, limited as it is in formats,” Olaniyan says.

Political cartoons grabbed Olaniyan’s attention in high school when he was growing up in Omu-Aran, Nigeria.

“I really love sarcasm, and if you have the skill to appreciate sarcasm, the resulting thrill can be addictive,” he says. Regular Wisconsin Week readers will remember Olaniyan’s book “Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics” (Indiana University Press, 2004), which explores the life, music, politics and death of another subversive, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, one of the world’s most militant and controversial political musicians. Olaniyan says that any civilization owes its subversives a huge debt of gratitude and should make a point of treasuring the ones still alive.

“Without their relentless questioning, prodding and critiquing, we and our society would decay morally,” he says.