Are There Superheroes That Look Like You?

Milumbe Haimbe addresses the diversity gap through digital art.

Sequential art can be a stealthy vehicle to get a message across. There is something penetrating in the dichotomy between an expected lightness, given the comic format, and a storyline dealing with weighty topics.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Photo © Aida Muluneh.

 

Ananiya the Revolutionist, is one such artwork. It was shown earlier this year during the Dak’Art biennial of contemporary art and garnered its author, artist Milumbe Haimbe the Blachère Foundation Prize.

The graphic novel format is said to best suit projects that are simultaneous dark yet optimistic, and that is the case with this saga centred on a young female covert operative, Ananiya. The seventeen year old is fighting a patriarchical mega conglomerate called ‘The One Conscious Corporation’. They are about to release to market a robotic “perfect woman” – Freja.

Haimbe digitally paints in 15 panels a dark and conformist dystopian world. There she deals with issues such as gender politics, representation and racism and in it Freja comes in only one model: she is caucasian, blonde, green-eyed, thin, with a perky set of breasts, a brazilian wax job and is branded with the conglomerate’s logo.  In Ananiya’s near future the complex, varied and unpredictable human woman is deemed obsolete and slated to be culled.

When I spoke with Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, a co-curator of the exhibition where the series was shown, he described the project as “a great woman narrative” that resonates on numerous levels, particularly in light of the dearth of black, female, and genderqueer heroes. He remarked “This is Africa saving the world. It’s like the classic case of ‘The Empire Writes Back’!”

Ananiya the Revoluntionist is an instance of art’s capacity to re-imagine identity. Like Nzewi, emerging artist Bogosi Sekhukhuni explains why a re-imagining of self, particularly within the paradigm of the hero can be powerful.

 

I think art has a responsibility to help introduce a radical interpretation of self awareness that is engineered by its circumstances, particularly for Black and Brown people or whatever. Historically, representation in media and culture has played a role in forging a set of negative archetypes around the Black body that desperately needs to be reversed, for instance, I think not recognising yourself in the image of 99% of all fictional heroes or positive role models one is exposed to growing up must have some kind of impact on one’s sense of self?

 

Representation of women including their exclusion in media is an ongoing issue around the globe. Narrow portrayals and omissions illustrate the proverbial pink elephant in the room:  they are a barometer on whose voices apparently don’t matter within a society.

Looking at the Hollywood spectrum of things, the parity reality is grim. As of 2013 a survey on on-screen representations indicated that female roles only made up 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking roles in the top 100 films of that year. Furthermore of those female characters, 14% were African American, 5% Latina, 3% Asian and 3% otherworldly, the majority of 74% were Caucasian.

Things are not faring any better over at American comic industry leader, Marvel Studios. As of this month their president announced that they have no plans within the foreseeable future (2017) to release a female-led superhero movie.  Even Zoe Saldana, who plays the character of Gamora in their latest release, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, an American actress who identifies herself as black Latina is cast as an “otherworldly” character.

In light of this, Haimbe’s project can be viewed as radical for its female narrative which negotiates what she terms a “culture gap.” It goes against the graphic novel grain which typically objectifies women, and depicts them as villains or vampires as well the general invisibility of characters of colour. Furthermore, the story engages with hetero-normativity. Freja is designed to meet a hetero male expectation of beauty, and womanhood.

In the essay ‘Providing a Space of Freedom: Women Artists from Africa’ curator N’Goné Fall describes how artists from the late 1990s onwards have been transgressing the expectation that their art should be “pretty, and never disturbing or challenging.” She goes on to write how that generation “raised questions about male versus female, submission versus control, tradition versus modernity, and the local versus the global. They took on the challenge of questioning their society – how they fit into it as women, and how they relate to the world as Africans.”  As this artwork illustrates, Haimbe is part of the next generation of female artists to pick up the mantle. Together with artists such as Mary Sibande, they are using a new trope – the super heroine.

Given the narrow definitions of femininity which extends into a homophobic climate in many parts of the continent, presenting a project on emancipation, tolerance and diversity through a radical character with a butch/femme appearance is both timely and courageous. Anti-gay laws exist in 37 of 54 countries, including Haimbe’s own Zambia as well as Senegal where the work was shown.

Art can intrepidly be on the front lines and reflects the responsibility that Sekhukhuni alludes to, however how it is received is also a point of interest – whether it is met with violence, engenders discussion or is relegated to zones of silence.

Back in May at Dak’Art, when I asked Haimbe what the Zambian climate for discussing the issues raised in her work was, she was frank and said that it’s frustrating and typically a non-discussion. She has had more engagement in neighbouring South Africa where she’s exhibited and done numerous workshops, at venues such as at the Centre of Historical Re-enactments and more recently at the Institute for Humanities in Africa. We pause to agree that the situation seems to parallel the Japanese maxim of the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The legal and overall public sphere in Zambia is far from conducive, and despite the constitutionally legislated right, free speech is even coming under scrutiny. The punishments meted vary, however same-sex intimacy is punishable by 15 years to life imprisonment, and mob justice is not uncommon where the public is incited to out and turn people in.

The Zambian artistic and intellectual community does not seem to fare too much better. “I think we are a bit lacking on the critical aspect of art, to sit down and openly have a discussion” Haimbe tells me.

Despite the harsh realities, Haimbe continues to develop this diversity project where her characters of resistance come in all shades, sizes and temperaments. Ananiya’s tale is evolving into a 200-page long graphic novel scheduled for release in 2016.

 

Ananiya the Revolutionist

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist. 1

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Milumbe Haimbe, Ananiya the Revolutionist : 15 digital illustrations, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

 

About

Milumbe Haimbe (b. Lusaka, Zambia 1974) has a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture (Copperbelt University), and a Master’s in Fine Arts (Oslo National Academy of the Arts). Haimbe is interested in the idea of the collective psyche, its associated social trajectories and current psycho-socio trends and systems. Drawing on a background of painting, her current art practices are based in digital illustration, including sequential art as an intermedial process that combines and integrates illustrations and written texts into narratives. Milumbe asserts that these intermedial concerns are related to intercultural issues, with a focus on the forms of representation of cultural minorities within the context of popular media. She has exhibited her work in numerous shows both locally and internationally, including FOCUS 10 – Art Basel in Switzerland, and is an alumnus of the Art Omi International Artist’s Residency in New York. In 2014, at the 11the edition of Dak’Art biennale of contemporary African art she received the Blachère Foundation Prize.

 

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