Alliance Française Maputo
Work made for the page doesn’t necessarily translate well onto the gallery wall. This is because the artist has already made a choice about how the viewer is to confront the work – in book form – and presenting it as a framed image ignores that choice. But this country is starved for comics, so I was delighted to encounter the main exhibition of the Comics Brew festival at the Alliance Française in Maputo. The festival is hosted every two years in cities around Southern Africa, including Windhoek, Johannesburg, Durban, Grahamstown and Cape Town. In some cities the main exhibition is accompanied by exhibitions of young or established comics artists, and provides a platform for the launch of a number of new, locally produced comics. It is supported by the Swiss, Dutch and French cultural agencies, with the intention of creating cross-pollination between the small but growing local comics scene and the European comics industry. This year the exhibition features the work of several European artists, and three Africans: Pat Masioni (DRC), Leonora van Staden (SA) and Aderito Watela (Mozambique). It is a pity that most of the artists, including Masioni and Watela, are only represented by a handful of pages extracted from much longer works. This allows us to examine their working processes, but not much more, and it’s hard to get a sense of the state of comics in the rest of Africa from what’s represented here. For example, only a fragment of Masioni’s ambitious comic about the Rwandan genocide is presented, an apparently straightforward novelization of the events. It would be exciting to see something closer to Joe Sacco’s first-person comics reportage. Though Van Staden’s comics are entertaining, they seem stylistically and thematically formulaic. Her strip Depressie is about the various ways that men disappoint her. It’s amusing, but none of her characters seems like a real person (perhaps because every set of eyes that she draws looks the same). Her strips feel like a female counterpart of Bitterkomix, but her comics wouldn’t make men uneasy in the way that Bitterkomix discomforts women. On the other hand, Dutch artist Maaike Hartjes’s hilarious cartoon diary is even more visually stylised, but gives the sense that it emerges from a particular individual’s experience. I especially enjoyed the strip about her enormous “poep”.The most gripping work is by Swiss comics artist Helge Reumann, who uses his strips to construct beautiful and violent little worlds. The violence is enacted for no particular reason, on a series of cartoony figures and anthropomorphised objects – in one strip, sticks of wood run in terror from a gang of brutal lumberjacks. One of his most disturbing strips, exhibited in Maputo but unfortunately not in Johannesburg, simply depicts a series of car crashes in pretty Swiss landscapes. Smoke rises from the crumpled wrecks, mingling with the clouds. Smoke also rises from the chimneys of factories, which in Reumann’s work are sites of mechanised death. For Reumann, violence and the twisted metal of destruction do not represent failures of a system, they are the machinery of the system. Reumann’s work deserved to be more widely seen, and I can’t help returning to the point that exhibitions are hardly the ideal vehicle for showing comics. A previous Comics Brew festival was accompanied by workshops and talks, which may be one way to expand the impact of the project. Did the curators consider setting up a comics reading room instead of an exhibition, which would get around the problem of limited wall space? Alternatively, perhaps they could have distributed the selected works in a free publication. The festival is enormously important to the development of comics in the region, but in order to achieve its aims it needs a more imaginative and appropriate realisation.