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January 10, 2007

Thelma Golden

Paul Laster talks to Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, about the museum's current Africa Comics show.

AK:  What is the premise of the Africa Comics exhibition, and how was the work selected?

TG:  The premise of Africa Comics is to provide a primer on contemporary artists working in comic and graphic form on the African continent. This exhibition came about for me, curatorially, in a somewhat funny, serendipitous way. In 2000, Africa e Mediterraneo, an organization dedicated to bettering European understanding of African culture, decided that comic art was a project that could reach out both to African communities in Europe and communities on the continent. They began to offer prizes for the best unpublished African comic art and have published, in the last six years, individual and anthology volumes. They never had the opportunity to show the work in America and came to me for advice; I immediately saw the opportunity for an exhibition. The challenge of bringing the works to an American audience was that while they were picked for both aesthetic and narrative content, many of them are not in English. Given the complex colonial histories of Africa, "native" languages may combine French, Portuguese, and Afrikaans with Wolof and Swahili.

Africa e Mediterraneo and the museum worked together to curate a selection of work and then took on the task of translating them into a handout for visitors to take with them, so that they could not only appreciate the incredible graphic diversity, but also the content, which really gives a more personal window into the daily lives of contemporary Africans.

AK:  Were you a fan of comic art before organizing this exhibition?

TG:  Like most people in the art world, I appreciated the incredible synergy and connection between comic and visual art and didn't want to make a distinction between them. I had seen the work in the Masters of American Comics exhibition and knew many of those artists, but as a curator, I wasn't someone who had a particular expertise in the form. What drew me to this show were colleagues who had comics expertise and who advised me that we had a great opportunity to show a little-known body of work, which is so much a part of what the Studio Museum has always been about. When I spoke about the project with other curators who had done great work with graphic and comic pieces, they were amazed and said, "Wow, that's really a treasure."

AK:  Did you schedule this show around the time of the Masters of American Comics exhibition?

TG:  I want to say yes, because I would look like a brilliant museum director, but unfortunately, no. The show took a long time to be fully realized because of the challenges around translation. We had a few choices of when this could open this particular year, and when it was clear that the Jewish Museum and Newark Museum were going to have Masters of American Comics in the fall, I picked this slot over the spring.

AK:  South Africans Conrad Botes and Joe Dog (Anton Kannemeyer), creators of the underground-style comic book Bitterkomix , regularly show their art and comics in international galleries and institutions. Do the other artists have similar opportunities, or is their work limited to more local exhibition?

TG:  Conrad Botes and Joe Dog, at least in the context of this show, are somewhat unusual in that they are internationally well known both as individuals and as a collective. It was important for Africa e Mediterraneo to bring exhibition and publication opportunities to a range of artists and comics where there wasn't even a free press, let alone the possibility of newspaper distribution. With no free press, people will produce comics and distribute them independently or in magazine formats. Other artists should be able to work in the way that the Bitterkomix artists do, and part of the point of this show was to provide a greater potential for that opportunity.

AK:  Fifi Mukuna, who is working in collaboration with Christophe N'Galle Edimo, is the only female artist represented in the show. Can you speak to the limitations of social diversity in this exhibition and why some of those limitations exist?

TG:  We selected this show not out of the wide range of work being produced, but out of the more limited — though still incredibly comprehensive — range of comics Africa e Mediterraneo has archived. In their efforts for diversity, they have encouraged the work of female comics artists as well as the work of artists of both genders in countries that aren't being represented now because there simply aren't the resources. Also, we often have such a narrow view of contemporary African history. When you look at some of the comics and the countries they're coming from, you realize the challenging circumstances that everyone is working in, not only as artists but as people — people are living in places that have seen 20 to 30 years of civil war, countries where there is no kind of public infrastructure whatsoever.

AK:  Many of the artists on view studied art or illustration, while others are self-taught. What do you think it takes to be a cartoonist?

TG:  I think it's the same as contemporary art for me. I don't have a position on whether training or lack thereof creates a more authentic expression. I think practice can come from a number of positions, one of which can be the structure of a training scenario, but another can come out of the intuitive creativity that many people have.

AK:  Is producing comics a politically dangerous profession?

TG:  Yes, of course. Again, in reading some of these comics in translation, I have to really credit our translators. We worked with several people who not only knew the languages, but who were also attuned to, in some cases intimately, the specific cultures. There's one comic that deals with female circumcision; the translator not only knew how to translate the French into English but also knew how to think about the way that these things were spoken about in that culture and how to translate so that the reader could understand how dangerous speaking out about these issues was — and also how comics provided the opportunity to speak out. It's dangerous work because I think it shows how powerful information can be when disseminated in a form that is relatively egalitarian in nature.

AK:  Are any of these artists well known in their communities?

TG:  Yes, very much so. The museum is lucky to be here in Harlem because we are right in the middle of a very strong West African community. There are several comics from Mali and Senegal, and these comics are cult works in their communities. Visitors coming to see the show will look for their home countries and say, "Ah, yes, I know that comic"; or if not, they still recognize the visual style. People say, "I used to read that," or, "Oh, we passed those around." There is a sense of familiarity with these works.

AK:  A number of American artists who have exhibited at SMH, including Kerry James Marshall, Ellen Gallagher, and Gary Simmons, have used comic motifs and comic references in their work. Why do you think contemporary artists are so drawn to this popular form of expression?

TG:  With someone like Gary Simmons, I think it comes out of how pervasive those images are, generationally, as personal cultural references, and it then translates into one's artwork. In Kerry's case, I think it figures into a style that relies on a lot of figurative visual forms: historic, popular, aesthetic, etc. Comic art, if we look at it as a popular form, is so readily accessible that it's reference point and touchstone for all manners of figurative, realistic practices right now.

AK:  In some regards, the show catalogue is even more compelling than the actual exhibition because the comics are translated into English, making them more accessible to an American audience. How do you view the catalogue in relation to the exhibition, especially since comics are primarily a print media?

TG:  I was committed to raising the money to do a catalogue and translations. Also, graphically, our graphic designer, de.MO, did a fantastic job in keeping the integrity of the comics while replacing all of the text with the translations so that they could be read by an English audience. For me, the catalogue is really the document, the thing that will stand. Our mandate at the Studio Museum is to present and preserve the work of artists of African descent. We hope that our work and exhibitions will open up the possibilities for many of these artists to have other exhibitions, both their own and other group shows, and begin to be seen within the larger context. There's a great tradition of political and social commentary in comic art in the black community. Ebony magazine supported African-American comics for years, and often those comics would address issues about race, civil rights, and justice. And in the black newspapers all over the country — sadly many of which don't exist anymore — were African-American comics. Another reason for this catalogue is that it tied together these two very different traditions: the art-comic tradition and the tradition of comic art in the black community. The catalogue allows the show to be relevant to both those realms.

AK:  How did you go about choosing the contributing writers, including Okwui Enwezor, Valerie Cassel Oliver, and Calvin Reid, for the catalogue, and what do each of them bring to the discussion?

TG:  I chose them because I wanted the catalogue to provide a range of audiences with an introduction to the work. I asked Okwui because of his incredible sweeping knowledge of contemporary, 21st-century Africa as it relates to art, aesthetics, and philosophy — a contemporaneous analysis. I asked Valerie Cassel because she organized Splat Boom Pow! at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, one of the many great shows that looked at artists' relationships to comics and comic art, and I wanted her to bring a to bring a contemporary art viewpoint to these works. I asked Calvin, the co-editor of PW Comics Week, Publishers Weekly's comics and graphic novel email newsletter, because he covers this work in his professional life as a journalist, but also has a fantastic knowledge of graphic-novel culture. It's always hard to build a catalogue. I don't always love them, because sometimes they get away from the show itself, but in this case it was an opportunity to further educate the audience, and these writers made it work well.

Africa Comics continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 18.

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