Masking

This fear was also one of the reasons to opt for making the actors in the novella wear masks, even though people in Kaoko have no tradition in that sense. Neither do tourists or filmmakers. Inspiration I drew from a longstanding tradition in comics (say, Spider-Man, or Will Eisner’s Spirit) and graphic novels (such as Sokal’s Canardo), but also from the work by Sammy Baloji (who photographed his subjects wearing African masks) or by the Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo (who bodypaints his models with white line drawings), famous nowadays for his collaboration with Beyoncé Knowles on the video for her Lemonade album.

But these masks also serve a purpose beyond a mere aesthetic choice. First, some of my older interlocutors expressed their reservations as to them being portrayed (see Six Circles, page 2), so I needed to find of way of picturing them that would take their objections into account. At the same time, I also wanted the drawings to be somewhat realistic and not too cartoonish, also because African characters –as quite a few comics on my shelf illustrate, including a few titles set in Kaoko– are all too often presented in a rather caricatured way.

But there is more. Scott McCloud (1993) points out that what he refers to as “masking” –the iconic abstraction of figures and especially faces so common in graphic novels and (early) mangas– is a crucial feature of graphic story-telling. Abstracting facial features, especially when set against more realistic backgrounds, allows the audience get involved in the story and to identify with the characters, to “mask themselves in a character” (McCloud 1993, 43). In his words, “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts” (McCloud 1993, 41). So as part my graphic experiment I decided to interpret this concept rather literally.  By using masks rather than faces, I wanted to invite the reader to get involved in –get drawn into– the dialogue and visual narrative. Again an afterthought: is this process of masking that different from the ways anthropologists usually introduce the persona (Narayan 2007, 134) or characters (Pyne 2009, 156) that populate their accounts?

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