Zeno’s Paradox: the making of

As I explain on the introductory page to the short comic on Zeno’s Paradox, this one was a hard one to make. Not because of the technicality of the drawings, or the twists of the plot (it is, after all, a rather simple story), but because, precisely, of the fact that it is pretty straightforward (at least, at first sight).

It basically started when I was thinking of drawing a short comic to get familiar with my new drawing pad, and as so often I got carried away by the possibilities offered by this new gizmo. For a week or two, I spent my evenings drawing tortoises and antelopes (in a way, according to my housemates, that reminded them of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining), and brushed off my knowledge of Namibian flora and fauna.

Mr. Tortoise, by the way, is modelled after a serrated tortoise (Psammobates oculifer); Mr. Duiker after a grey or common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia).


Makalani nuts, expertly carved and personalized to sell as souvenirs.

But a realist approach did not really work, in the sense that it did not serve the narrative. I was stuck, until I remembered my collection of carved makalani nuts –the souvenirs that vendors try to sell to tourists and that usually depict animals and geometrical motives. This tourist art also inspired me to, besides the black and white original, come up with a colour version using the basic colour triad of black, red, and white.

These nuts, by the way, are the fruit of the real fan palm (Hyphaene petersiana). 

The next step then was that I threw out most of what I already had and instead turned towards a way more stylized, almost abstract drawing style, using heavy, straight and angled lines and throwing overboard most of the background detail, exception made for the palm trees. The thickset lines, the simple colour scheme, large frames and overall “flatness” of the graphics also serve to underline the fact that it concerns a story or parable, with a simple –though unclear– message.

Therefore, this little story served as a powerful reminder that it is often way more difficult to reduce and cut unnecessary detail than to hide behind complexity and convolution.

Never let reality come in the way of a good story.

Or not quite: what this means (and I am not talking here about our friends of the popular press) for anthropology is that narrative style, or even genre, should be functional to the message or analysis you want to bring. At the same time, what you say is highly dependent on how you say it (and vice versa).


The making of: moving from rather realist to highly stylised ink drawings…


On drawing

Hyamakuma’s six circles underline that ethnography (the production of ethnographic knowledge) always is collaborative (or, at least, intersubjective). But it also forced me to look at my photographs, field drawings and notes in different ways (see, in this regard, Causey 2016; Ingold 2011). In that sense, drawing also started to function as a heuristic device. I started to wonder how, for instance, I could represent the ancestors in a way that does justice to this ageing man’s worldview. After all, Hyamakuma’s drawing visualized a form of knowing: the ancestors are real, and are as much part of society as are the living. But how do you communicate this? Taking this idea one step further: can fiction contribute to knowledge? Undoubtedly it can lead to understanding, but would this suffice to rank it along more traditional scientific output?

Drawing, obviously, is a form of fiction. It forces you to more consciously frame, add, delete, arrange and combine visual elements (which I tried to emphasize by using heavy, black frames rather than the more traditional white spacing –the “gutter”– between panels). Compared with, for instance, photography, it also allows you to bring in semantic relief (Causey 2016, 8), to highlight specific details or manipulate the background. But is this not rather a difference of degree than one of kind? After all, when photographing or filming you also frame and compose, zoom and create (an excellent and confronting example of this in the context of Kaoko is the film Authenticized, Kraak 2013). Likewise, when you insert direct speech or a diary excerpt in your text, you also select, translate and edit. Is the latter then fundamentally different from composing a fictional dialogue based on interviews and conversations you had (see, for instance, Fassin 2014; Taussig 2010; Narayan 2007; Pyne 2009)?

For the record: I do think there are significant differences, and that these come with important ethical and epistemological implications. One of the motives behind opting for drawings and behind some of the aesthetic choices in Six Circles, was then precisely to underline the fictional character of the narrative: even though perhaps I am fascinated by the “chimeras and monsters” (Pyne 2009, 33) born from the cross-breeding of fiction and non-fiction, they also frighten me.