Préserver la tradition orale dans un monde moderne et transmettre l’héritage culturel de l’Afrique à des jeunes par le biais de l’audiovisuel et de la rencontre des cultures, telle est ma préoccupation fondamentale en tant que réalisateur.
To preserve the oral tradition in a modern world and to transmit the cultural heritage of Africa to the young through audiovisual media and the meeting of cultures, this is my central concern as a director.
(Jean-Michel Kibushi interviewed by Ngwarsungu Chiwengo, 181).
Like many aesthetic ventures and experiments of twentieth-century modernism, the history of animated films has a fraught relationship to primitivism and the prime site of primitivist projection: black Africa. Beyond animated films referencing colonial ethnographic films or minstrel performances, the medium itself has been underwritten with the language of the primitive since Sergei Eisenstein’s theorized animation’s plasmaticity, its metamorphic quality, as a primal force that conjures a “folkloric, mythological, pre-logical” — that is, pre-modern — worldview (36). It is with this history that African animation grapples.
A surprising affinity exists between scholarship on animation and scholarship on African film. Both fields are often marginalized or tokenized within larger cinema and media studies, reductively imagined as children’s content or mass media in the case of animation or serving political and ethnographic purposes in the case of African film. In an effort to defend the heterogeneity of animation and African film, disavowals of these popular associations often occur. Animation is not just children’s media; therefore, we must highlight alternative uses of animation. African film is not always a document of tradition; therefore, we must turn our attention to less legible works. Indeed, this essay participates in rendering the complexity of these two fields at their intersection, African animation, but my objects of study are precisely the disparaged objects of folkloric children’s animation. My argument is, however, that the films I study synthesize oral tradition, generational knowledge, and modern technology in a way that necessitates new considerations of African animation in both the fields of animation and African film.
The films of Jean-Michel Kibushi Ndjate Wootoo, a Congolese artist and pioneer in sub-Saharan African animation, exemplify this melding of inherited local traditions and novel transnational forms. In his animated films, Kibushi does not shy away from traditional African visual and narrative art-making in order to assert a modern identity. Instead, he views modern technologies like animation as a site for continuing older modes of historical accounting and oral storytelling. More specifically, he works in a tradition of African filmmakers who align themselves with the history and afterlives of the griot, the oral historian and living archive of many West African cultures.[i] Directors, including Cameroonian documentary film-maker Jean-Marie Teno and Senegalese film pioneer Ousmane Sembène name the filmmaker as kin to the griot, continuing this role of preserving histories and stories, and delivering them through a medium that invites communal gatherings of people across generations, ethnicities, and social positions.[ii]
Kibushi, similarly, speaks of animation as bridging generations and geographies. He names a desire “to bring the mythical and fantastic world of a place in Africa, where tradition and modernity meet, to a wider audience” through his films (Callus 2017, 182). Over the course of his decades-long career beginning in 1990, Kibushi has directed seven animated short films, two documentaries, and one feature-length animated film, most of which were shown via his mobile studio/theater or in film festivals. The films are diverse in technique—utilizing puppet animation, paper cutouts, digital SFX, and 2D drawn animation techniques—and in content—including fables and animated documentary. Kibushi’s body of work explores the range of possibilities under the umbrella of animation, rather than limiting it to a genre or technique. In this essay, I analyze three of his films, The Toad Visits His In-Laws (1990), its sequel The White Orange (1993), and Prince Loseno (2004), as experiments in translating animistic myths into animated films that complicate the dialectic of primitive and modern. I argue that these films express a material animism not through their unfettered plasmaticity but rather through combining the oral traditions of the griot with the material specificities afforded by stop-motion. I read Kibushi’s complex engagement of tradition and modernity as exemplary of what Dilip Gaonkar calls “alternative modernities.” According to Gaonkar, modernity is not an idea emergent from and exported by the West, but rather develops with cultural and site specificity: “people ‘make themselves’ modern, as opposed to being ‘made’ modern by alien and impersonal forces” (18).[iii] In considering both the carefully crafted form and matter of his films as well as their contexts of production, this essay examines how Kibushi explores the resonance between animation and the griotique.
Methodologically, I combine close analysis of Kibushi’s films with a variety of theoretical materials across disciplines owing to the lack of scholarship on African animation as its own entity. This includes texts from anthropology, film studies, animation studies, African studies, literary-cultural studies, and their many overlapping spaces. While I do cover a wide range of materials, my aim is not to be totalizing. In fact, I hope to hold distinct these varied disciplinary approaches rather than try to produce a unified picture of what studies in African animation should look like. Reading against the tendency to view African film only through an ethnographic lens or reducing folkloric forms to their didactic message, I argue that Kibushi’s fables revise existing understandings of animation’s relationship to animism and vitalism. In framing this analysis as one of the poetics of African animation, I highlight both the ways Kibushi animates forms of language and the ways he brings forth new modes of conceiving the still-growing space of African animation.
Kibushi in Context
The history of animation in sub-Saharan Africa begins in the Belgian Congo, where in the 1940s missionaries funded by the Congolese Center for Catholic Action Cinema (C.C.A.C.C.) began producing films for a local audience.[iv] Among them was a series of seven cartoon fables, Les Palabres de Mboloko, produced by Father Alexandre Van den Heuvel and Roger Jamar between 1953 and 1955. These films were revolutionary as some of the first films that centered actual African stories (in this case folktales about Mboloko the antelope), but they were also produced because Van den Heuvel thought of Africans as “children who were not mature enough for regular feature films” (Diawara, 17). Historians of cinema like Victor Bachy have named Belgian missionaries as the first African filmmakers, the first creators of films directed towards an African audience rather than created of Africa for a Western audience, but as Manthia Diawara rightly criticizes, these films, like those of Van den Heuvel, were paternalistic, casting the African audience as a primitive, childlike, and ready only for overtly pedagogical fables (Diawara 15). Despite their racist conceit, these films remain a key part of African animation’s history and were broadcast on Congolese television as recently as 1980 (Mpay). Kibushi himself cites these films as one of his introductions to animation, and even created a documentary in 2015 titled Roger Jamar and the Palabres de Mboloko that focused on Van den Heuvel’s collaborator as one of the first animators in Africa.
As for independent African producers of animation, most historians recognize Nigerian filmmaker Moustapha Alassane as the first sub-Saharan African animator. A pioneer in Nigerian live-action cinema as much as in animation, his pair of short films, La Bague du Roi Koda and Aoure in 1962, are considered the first Nigerian films. In 1963, he then directed the first sub-Saharan African animated film, La mort du Gandji. First trained in live-action filmmaking as an assistant to French documentarian Jean Rouch, Alassane took an interest in animation after meeting Norman McLaren during a training program in Canada. Like Kibushi’s animated films, Alassane’s feature a variety of themes ranging from social criticism to political satire to folkloric preservation and employ varied techniques from frame-by-frame drawing to puppet stop-motion. He has gone on to make dozens of films, among them the animated films of Sim the frog (Bon Voyage Sim, 1966; Au Revoir Sim, 2000), Samba le Grand (1977), and Kokoa (2001).
Unlike Alassane, Kibushi’s body of work consists entirely of animated films or films about animation. Kibushi can be seen not only as a pioneer but a true champion of spreading animation across the African continent. He received a formal education in film and theater production at the National Arts Institute in Kinshasa and then went to Le Centre Wallonie in Brussels to study animation exclusively. Kibushi is unique among African animators of his generation, most of whom are self-taught, and he has made numerous efforts to make animation and animation training more accessible to African youths. In 1988, he founded Studio Malembe Maa (meaning “slowly but surely” in Lingala), a mobile studio through which he produced his first films. In 2004, he began the Sankuru Mobile Cinema Project (SMCP), a mobile cinema that brought his films and other African films to rural communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). From 2009 to 2014, he also ran Afriqu’anim’action, a training program for young animators in the DRC and Burundi, which culminated in the release of numerous short films through Studio Malembe Maa. In each of these roles—as director, distributor, and teacher—Kibushi fashions himself in a griotique modernity, an alternative griot for the modern, multimedia world.
Kibushi has received many accolades from Francophone and African continent film festivals, but for decades, festivals, his mobile studio, and local television broadcasts were the limit of his works’ reach. In 2017, five of his animated films were anthologized in Palabres Animées du Griot, a DVD produced by Documentary Educational Resources (DEC). The included films are: Le Crapaud chez ses beaux-parents [The Toad Visits His In-Laws] (1990), Kinshasa, Septembre Noir [Kinshasa, Black September] (1991), L’orange blanche [The White Orange] (1993), Muana Mboka [Child of the Country] (1996), and Prince Loseno (2004). Since the release of these DVDs, some of the work has also been digitally released on streaming platforms like Vimeo and Youtube.
These translations and digital archives have drastically increased access to Kibushi’s work, but they also impact the interpretive frame. Unlike the griot, who speaks to a public, or Kibushi’s mobile theater, these films can now be private encounters, removed from a sense of locality. Equally important, subtitles can change the viewer’s relationship with the depicted Africa. In Prince Loseno, for instance, the film opens “Voici un royaume lointain au couer de l’Afrique profonde.” The English subtitle translates it as “This is a faraway kingdom in the heart of deepest, darkest Africa.” “Au couer de l’Afrique profonde” directly translates to “the deepest heart of Africa,” but this translation adds “darkest.” This blatant edit racializes the space, perhaps reflecting the anticipated Western Anglophone audience for whom the heart of Africa would not conjure a central place but one that bears a specter of Joseph Conrad’s modern novel Heart of Darkness, where the heart of Africa is also a site of absolute Otherness and opacity. Similar translation issues exist later in the film: “Dans la respet de la traditions, il a perpétué la culte des ancêtres” is translated as “Out of respect for the traditions of his land, he continues to abide by the cult of the ancestors,” despite a more standard translation of culte being “worship.” These subtle changes reflect a Western gaze on Africa, but it is important to note that these are often external impositions rather than qualities native to the film. In writing this essay, I have tried my best to mark my own positionality as well as those of the scholars and theories I bring to bear on Kibushi’s work in an effort to render transparent the interpretive frame and resist uncritically centering a Western gaze.
As with essentializing the otherness of Africa, there is also a danger in writing about African film—from both creators and scholars—of essentializing a genealogical link to the griot. Alison Murray Levine suggests that this is part of a tendency to try to find an innate difference between African and Western film, thus producing “a mythification of the oral narrator and a lack of critical attention to other strategies in film and literature that do not necessarily fit the myth” (154). Kibushi does explicitly center the griot, as can be seen in the title of his collection Palabres Animees du Griot, but his exploration of animation as continuing the work of the griot extends beyond merely finding a vessel for the griot’s oral tales. This can be seen in the contrast between the title Palabres Animees du Griot and the earlier “African” animations of Van den Heuvel Les Palabres de Mboloko. While the latter is also an adaptation of folklore and oral tales, it presents only the subject of the work. In contrast, Kibushi’s Palabres highlight the colliding mediations: of animation and of griot. Throughout this essay, I aim to show the depths of Kibushi’s engagement with a griotique tradition, which extends beyond the content—the oral tales the griot tells—to also include the embodied way the griot bridges and builds communities. His mobile studio and efforts in animation education in particular show his vision of animation not merely as a tool to illustrate or remediate the griot’s oral tales but to continue the griot’s work of creating communal spaces of knowledge.
Despite Kibushi’s status as a well-known figure within African animation, the marginalization of the field itself means that limited scholarship exists on his work. Paula Callus, the preeminent scholar of African animation, has written extended treatments of his two documentary films, Muana Mboka and Kinshasa, Black September. In focusing on these sophisticated documentaries, Callus presses back against reductive readings of animation and African film that see them as genres of the mythical, childish, and unmodern, compounded by animation’s association with these same terms. But this also plays to an impulse to legitimize African animation through value structures of seriousness and authenticity, which Callus herself acknowledges is a double-bind:
An African artist, or in this case animator, can be caught between these two diametrically opposed points. If animators resort to utilizing methods and techniques that derive from the West, they are accused of mimicking or of being un-authentic; if they succumb to creating images that pander to this mythical notion of authenticity, then they risk being accused of being naïve or crude in their execution (Callus 2012).
By studying his explorations of traditional fables through the animated medium, I show how his works targeted towards a popular audience are no less complex in their theorization of what it means to create African animation.
The Oral Tale and Animated Analogs: Kibushi’s Early Works
The Toad Visits His In-Laws and its sequel The White Orange feature Tetela fables rendered in paper cut-out stop-motion. For Kibushi, stop-motion is a technique that first and foremost allows him to work within limited resources, but, as I argue in this section, these limitations also serve to complement the patterned structure of a folktale. On his choice of process, he explains in an interview,
The classic cartoon utilizes a technique that requires a steady team of animators (for a 1-minute animation, for example, it takes 1440 drawings). Since I am not a draftsman, the paper-cut technique allowed me to realize the characters quickly, and to animate the characters directly under the camera on a bench. Although this technique has limits with the breakdown of movement (walking, expressions of the face, mouth, and arms), it is more accessible than drawn or cel animation, and still a very expressive form (Chiwengo 181). This tale of animation’s labor intensiveness is a well-rehearsed one. However, rather than dividing labor to create smoother animation, Kibushi leans into the material affordances of a limited mode of animation.[v]
In The Toad Visits His In-Laws, Kibushi, as griot, narrates the journey of a toad and the large cast of characters he meets along the way: a snake, a stick, a white ant, a chicken, a civet cat, a trap, a fire, rain, and the sun. A classic structure of accumulation and repeated dialogue unfolds with each character (“Where are you going?” “Ask the stick,” says the ant. “Ask the snake,” says the stick, and so on). Upon arriving at their destination, the band is greeted with a bowl of food but only one spoon, causing a fight to ensue. The unlikely group finds it easier to devour one another, and one by one their paper armatures are torn apart. The snake swallows the toad, the stick beats the snake, the ant consumes the stick, the chicken the ant, the cat the chicken, and so on down the line. The first installment concludes with the explanation that this is the origin story for many natural antipathies. Despite being the narrator, the griot is never represented within the film, hovering between the diegetic world and the medium of presentation.
This tightly structured tale, characteristic of oral traditions that must be easy to memorize and repeat, is visually echoed by the material construction of the cut-out animation. The “breakdown of movement” that Kibushi describes in his interview involves articulating and separating different parts of the puppet and connecting them with mobile joints, giving them a limited range of movement. The limited movement, however, is adequate and in fact fitting for the task of representing repetitious dialogue, the steady accumulation of characters marching in unison across the screen, and gestural battles. They are not meant to be fully fleshed-out characters but rather symbolic and two-dimensional, just as the material suggests. The structured grammar of the oral tale with its repetitions and symbolic figures finds its analogues in the limited armature and iconic figures of the cut-paper animation.
Beyond playing with the structural similarities between narrative grammar and material form, Kibushi also exploits one of the seeming limitations of paper-cut animation, the fixed joints, to de- and re-animate his characters. The separated joints and individually articulated limbs are precisely the device necessary for the disassembly of bodies at the end of the first film but also their reassembly in the second (see Fig. 2). The sequel White Orange turns to Toad’s wife, or rather, widow, who embarks on a solo journey to bring back her husband by seeking out a wise sage. The sage requests relics from all the deceased, plus a single white orange. When Toad’s wife completes this quest, all the characters are reanimated, their disassembled bodies pieced back together into wholes. The antipathies between individuals are again enumerated but this time in reverse order to indicate their amelioration. Order—both narratively and skeletally—is restored, and the characters rejoice with a dance around the originally prepared feast.
This arc of disassembly and reanimation plays out not just in the fable’s plotted narrative but also in the performances of the materials themselves. The deaths of the characters—at least all the animal ones—are exemplified by the stripping of the device that allows them to be animated: their pins. Other puppets, like the stick, are rendered defunct by cutting the figure where there is no joint, a variation on the same act of disassembling the whole. Death equates to the removal of what allows the character to be animated, and the limitations of the medium become part of the film’s expressive cleverness.
These two early films, though performing their animation through paper cut-outs, are not entirely two-dimensional in fabrication. The many backgrounds of the film include found print matter, ornate floral prints repurposed as trees and foliage, photographed three-dimensional sculpted dioramas, and photographs of the actual sky standing in for itself. The collaged matter creates a world rich with dimensional texture even as the forms of the puppets and the structure of the tale are simple and pared down. This is not to say the film is three-dimensional in a traditional understanding of Cartesian space. It opts for no illusions of depth, turning vast skies into a surface pattern and leveling all elements—the environment, the set dressings, the characters—into discrete signs. But, it would also be wrong to refer to the film as completely two-dimensional, as all its surfaces communicate tactile information that indexes a world beyond the screen of the film. This tactility contributes a sensory dimension to the otherwise abstract, form-driven narrative, creating tension between the local and specific and the universal and abstract.
Ultimately, animated media and the griot medium co-create the liveliness of Toad and White Orange. The limited puppets become a way of visualizing and bringing to life the highly structured grammar of the oral tale, and introducing an additional sensory domain. Rather than merely illustrating the story, they add textural information and reveal the rhyme between the symbolically and gesturally rendered puppets and the poetic repetitions and parallelisms so often employed in oral tales. Unlike the films of Belgian missionaries which prescribed cartoons to the Congolese audience based on the assumption of their shared naïveté, Kibushi’s films explore a structural affinity between a mode of animation and the oral tradition of the griot, which Kibushi himself embodies as he both animates the characters and voices the griot.
Prince Loseno and the Animating Hand
The tensions between tradition and technologized modernity continue in Kibushi’s later films. Of the films anthologized in Palabres Animées du Griot, Kibushi’s Prince Loseno is the film with the widest appeal, but also the most in danger of perpetuating the myth of an anachronistic Africa. In a review of Prince Loseno among Kibushi’s other films, Veronica Ehrenreich writes, “something is lost, raw emotion, while something is gained, watchability” (242). The critical tendency, exhibited by Ehrenreich and Callus, to see Loseno’s popular appeal as less ripe for analysis is aptly summarized by Callus’s critique of the double-bind of African animation either being seen as derivative of Western animation and thus inauthentic or imagined as raw but more expressive. These judgments and debates are also characteristic of those within African cinema since the establishment of the field as reflected by Manthia Diawara’s African Cinema: Politics & Culture, one of the first extended studies of the complex growth of sub-Saharan African cinema. In it, Diawara identifies the various pressures for African film to be ideologically legible and realistic.[vi] While Loseno is not an overt sociopolitical critique or portrait of local life in the DRC as some of Kibushi’s other films are, it is an intervention in imagining a uniquely African animation, one that absorbs local matter in the raw materials for stop-motion and in the represented art forms within the film. If Toad Visits His In-Laws and White Orange use animation to amplify the structures of oral folklore, Prince Loseno reverses the direction of elaboration and uses African folk traditions to rethink the lineages of animation.
This film, despite sharing with Toad and White Orange a griot narrator voiced by Kibushi, does not share the structure of the oral tale. It is, rather, a film that attempts to present a self-enclosed narrative world. The film opens outside the walls of a city where a griot sings and beats his drum.[vii] In contrast to the flatness of Toad and White Orange, Loseno takes the viewer beyond that wall with snapshots of life within the city, already creating a sense of a life that occupies three-dimensional space. Eventually, the camera arrives at the three gossiping wives of King Ngolo, who reveal that he is once again looking for someone to try to bear him an heir. This is the main storyline. After the first wife volunteers her young niece, Dipepe, as a candidate to bear his male child, Ngolo seeks out the court witch doctor, Mama Yakumba, to try to guarantee his fertility. Yakumba, who is also a former lover of the king, agrees to support this birth on the condition that she raises the child to adulthood. An agreement is made and promises are delivered upon. Years later, when the grown Prince Loseno returns with Yakumba for his coronation, Ngolo, having fulfilled his life purpose, dances to death while the drums of the griot announce his departure. Among Kibushi’s animated films, this film most resembles what one would expect of a popular animated film in technique and content, with its three-dimensional stop-motion world and lively, plot-driven narrative. However, it does not neatly subordinate an African story to popular animation conventions, but rather, imagines the way that inherited Congolese cultures might be reanimated through the material affordances of stop-motion animation.
Before addressing the vital material difference of this film—a three-dimensional “claymation” in contrast to the earlier cut-out animations—a brief discussion of the framing, audience, and reception of the film is warranted. As mentioned earlier, the film opens with a line that sets the scene as the “coeur de l’Afrique profonde” [the deepest heart of Africa], which was translated by DER as “the heart of deepest, darkest Africa.” In my critique of this translation, I suggested the translation pandered to a Western gaze that othered the African subject. However, there remains a mythicizing universalism in the phrase “the deepest heart of Africa” that may seem to conjure a mystical, non-specific Africa. Boukary Sawadogo explains this universalizing gesture as one native to the pan-African oral culture of the griot:
As with most African oral stories, the storyteller starts by setting the story in a distant past and contextualizes it geographically but often with no clear territorial boundaries that would correspond to contemporary African nation-states. This way of introducing the story helps establish its universality, or at least makes it relatable to people across many countries despite any cultural specificities (83). This is significant because the abstraction of “the deepest heart of Africa” is not an invention on Kibushi’s part to make the film appeal to a global audience inclusive of the West, but rather is embedded in the tradition of the griot, who already anticipates translating across cultures.
Kibushi’s investment in animation as a successor of the griot comes further into focus in Prince Loseno’s representation of the griot. In this film, two griots appear. One is the omnipresent narrator, and the other a represented puppet character. The former translates the story for the film’s global audience and the latter performs the role of a griot immersed in a local community. Kibushi explains the significance of containing not just the concept of the griot but a performance of the griotique, describing this film as “Un conte fantastique sur l’art de raconter. Un film où la « griotique », le langage tambouriné et le poids des mots de la tradition orale seront pilés, détournés et retournés dans la bouche du griot [A fantastic tale about the art of storytelling. A film where the ‘griotique,’ the language of the drum and the weight of the words of oral tradition will be pounded, turned around and returned into the mouth of the griot]” (Chiwengo 186). The sensory language of his description—the sound of the drum, the weight of the words—and the rhythmic repetition of “turned” and “returned” highlight how the form of the griot’s delivery cannot be separated from the contents of the words. He acknowledges that the griot is not just a vessel for stories, but a person among people.
Though communicating in different modes and even at times in different languages, the omniscient and performed griot work harmoniously rather than dissonantly. In the opening moments, quietly in the background under the opening narration, one hears the drum of the griot who appears in the next shot. The elocutions of the narrator and song of the character sound over each other, each with a different intended audience: a transnational viewing audience and a diegetic audience in the locale of the film. Throughout Loseno, one has a sense of multiple worlds: one that the film creates, one that the film encounters, and one from which the film borrows.
On this final point, it is the film’s character and set fabrications that a sense of a specific site from which the film draws its materials. Like the collaged paper of Toad and White Orange, the material make-up of Loseno is heterogeneous, employing both found and purposefully fabricated objects. Characters are adorned with a variety of elaborate braided hairstyles, their costumes equally impressive with an array of patterned fabrics, necklaces, bracelets, and headpieces. The royal palace is decorated with wood carvings that could be standalone artworks and graphic drawings adorn the walls. Additionally, the miniaturization of the stop-motion set provides its own novelty, often showcasing textures that one would not notice in the everyday. Woodgrain, the weaves of fabric, the way a bead refracts light—these material surfaces are all made more evident through the film’s miniaturized, stop-motion world. Whether or not the costume design or the architecture reflect a specific locale or history, the raw and found materials that constitute the world does. Photographic film and digital effects are also used throughout the film, the former to represent the sky and occasionally plant life, the latter to animate smoke, water, and fire, incorporating legibly digital technologies into the filmic world. Kibushi even employs simulated camera movement, rack focus, and continuity editing, constructing a distinctly modern, montaged, and mobile visuality that is difficult to achieve in stop-motion. The craft of Loseno takes no shortcuts and its world teeming with material information demands as much of the audience’s attention as its narrative.
Within this collaged and composited world, the silicone bodies of the characters have a unique material expression. While, in comparison to the paper cut-outs and hand-drawn techniques, scholars like Ehrenreich speak of the claymation as technologically sophisticated and lacking the rawness of some of Kibushi’s other approaches, I contend that the silicone actually tells a story of fleshiness and embodied labor. Sianne Ngai, in her essay “Animatedness,” writes about the odd excesses of claymation as it is applied to racialized and animated African American subjects. The key term of her essay, “animatedness” captures “a crucial ambivalence embedded in the concept of animation […] that takes on special weight in the case of racialized subjects, for whom objectification, exaggerated corporeality or physical pliancy, and the body-made-spectacle remain doubly freighted issues” (101). She suggests that the styles of caricature and what she calls “comic” animation—exaggerated motion and expressions—when applied to the already over-animated cultural image of African American bodies often results in the reproduction of this stereotype. In this sense, animation reanimates dead cultural stereotypes and tropes, making them seem innate to the bodies of animated characters. Ngai turns to stop-motion and the materiality of animation to offer up an alternate reading to the “over” of “over-animatedness,” where material expression of over-animated stereotypes can also invite a critical eye. Studying The PJs, an American stop-motion TV show featuring an all-black cast, she notes how the foam-latex characters battle the limitations of the medium, where, over time, the models distort and “create surplus movement apart from those originally scripted for them” (116). Through this reading, she suggests that the clashes of the “material elasticity” of the foam-latex and the “conceptual rigidity” of racist tropes “call for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body” (124-125).
Kibushi’s subject is, of course, not African American, but Ngai’s reading of how material expressions can create surpluses of animated meaning over conceptual forms is helpful for understanding the silicone puppets, which also create surpluses of meaning that frustrate any single lens for interpreting them.[viii] On the one hand, the silicone puppets demonstrate Kibushi’s most sophisticated work on the level of production, fabrication, and technology. Characters’ faces and gestures perform much more organic movements than the paper cut-outs could allow. On the other hand, the film revolves, diegetically, around traditional crafts—the creation of clay vessels and their conversion into fetish objects. The proximity between the sculpted characters and clay vessels who are animated by the labor of animators and a witch doctor respectively explore animation’s proclivity for animistic stories through a uniquely African lens.
Loseno thematizes the molding and animating of bodies through Mama Yakumba’s magic, offering a unique spin on the much-studied “hand of the artist” tradition in animation.[ix] Yakumba manipulates spirits, clay, and human bodies alike, mediating between them. Throughout the film, there are several shots displaying her hands doing this work. These include shots of her holding and caressing her magic pots and her tending to the royal family through massage to promote their happiness, health, and fertility. In a scene where she is massaging King Ngolo, a close-up shows her hands working the silicone flesh, as though in place of the sculptors and animators who actually rendered these characters (Fig. 3). As Yakumba works her hands into silicone flesh, one can also see the texture on the silicone, where an animator once performed a similar task. Throughout this scene, Ngolo and Yakumba converse about Ngolo’s infertility and eventually make the deal that Yakumba will raise his heir. Again, there is a sense of multiple worlds, and in each of them, a different kind of labor is required to bring Prince Loseno to life. While Ngolo’s young wife Dipepe is the one who goes through labor, this is not depicted on screen. Instead, it is Mama Yakumba’s laborious hands, and the traces of the animator’s hands to which she directs the viewer’s eyes that are pictured doing the work of bringing life. Reproduction, magic, and labor collide in Loseno’s conceptualization of life-giving forces.
This analogy between animating labor and the witch doctor’s magic is further brought out by Yakumba’s magical device: the clay pot. Naturally, the clay pot lends to a reproductive metaphor, being a vessel for magic that will in turn make the body a vessel for a child, but it also carries a cultural history. Though not named as such in the French narration or English subtitles, it invokes the Congolese practice of making minkisi, vessels and sculptures that can hold spirits, and thus, like the animated character, is brought to life by an external force.[x] Minkisi are no longer a dominant part of culture in the DRC as of the latter half of the 20th century, though they do still appear in a vernacularized form in everyday objects charmed to bring luck or ward off evil.[xi] What is interesting about their appearance in this animated film is that the work of animation itself substitutes this fetishistic animation of objects.
The source of animation of Yakumba’s pot, like everything in an animated world, is a palimpsest. The pot’s movement can be attributed to Mama Yakumba, the spirits she calls upon, and the animator. But, there is also a sense that the pot itself is self-animating. This can be observed in a scene where a clay pot is seemingly revolving on its own accord (Fig. 4). An interesting ambiguity appears when witnessing the turning object. Unlike the puppet characters, which very obviously must be repositioned frame by frame, the revolving clay pot evokes the automated pottery wheel or turn table. There is a sense that perhaps it does not need the animator’s hand in making it turn frame by frame, but is rather live-action footage animated by a motorized turn table. The perceived mechanized spinning, the laborious frame-by-frame stop-motion, and the narrative attribution of movement to magic offer different ways of thinking about not only the pot’s source of animation, but also its mode of production.
The turning pot, in referencing the pottery wheel, conjures a sense of the pot’s self-generation and invites viewers to dwell not only on the magic of animation but also on its labor. I read the spinning pot through Suzanne Buchan’s theory of animation’s “vitalist machines.” She writes that vitalist machines “perform self-generating repetitive movements that are closely bound to their design and construction” and “their material forms are extant in the physical world” (Buchan 148). The revolving pots are not perfect examples of Buchan’s vitalist machines, which usually have multiple components—for example, a sewing machine—and which do not interact with other agents in their cinematic worlds. Nonetheless, her key conceit that vitalist machines express a fantasy of the artist’s ability to make “spontaneous generation machines that make manifest matter’s will” is present (154). While the nkisi clay pot becomes more of an agent in the narrative than Buchan would ascribe to the vitalist machine, all of its roles serve to facilitate reproduction (of itself and others.) Most obviously, it is involved in the ritual assuring the preservation of Ngolo’s genetic line. The turning pot also suggests the continuation of its own production, an older form of craft finding new life through animated means. Both nkisi pot and Ngolo’s storyline serve as allegories for the continuation of tradition through new life.
This close reading of the nkisi pot reveals how ancient craft and modern technology meet in the matter of Loseno and merge in a vision of how traditional forms might be reanimated through new media. Like Mama Yakumba uses magic to animate the pots with the spirits and wills of ancestors, the animators of Prince Loseno use stop-motion to animate their puppets, pots, and sculptures with older narrative and artistic traditions. It is worth noting that pottery and puppet-making themselves are old technologies that far pre-date their usage in stop-motion animation, but what the animated film offers is not only the representation but reanimation of these older crafts through new media technologies. While magic and the craft of stop-motion animation might not occupy the same ontological domain, animator and witch alike can animate an object for a common purpose, in this case, keeping alive tradition.
Mobilizing African Animation
My description of Kibushi’s poetics serves only as a small entry point into a diverse ecology of African animation, which includes a burgeoning studio system in Nigeria’s media production capital Nollywood; a growing body of animation being represented in the African festival circuit like FESPACO, which included animation as a category in 2017, and even festivals specifically for animation like Animafrik in Ghana and Fupitoons in South Africa; and, perhaps most well-studied in scholarly venues, exhibition artists who employ animation like South African artist William Kentridge. Kibushi himself works across all of these spaces, but his work and writing also attempt to imagine ways of creating African animation beyond Western institutions and infrastructures.
Kibushi’s reanimation of the griot through animated media can be observed in both the narrative forms he invokes and the way that he positions animation in the world, as a medium that bridges generations and creates collectives. In my readings of The Toad Visit His In-Laws and The White Orange, I have shown how Kibushi combines traditional and modern technologies and media, exploiting the structural affinity between cut-out animation and oral fables. Like the griot, who moves across geographical and national boundaries, animation brings these fables to a larger audience; but also like the griot, the characters still carry the textures of their origins through Kibushi’s use of found matter in cutting out their forms. In Prince Loseno, a more overt theorization of not just oral storytelling but the medium of animation occurs through the animated representations of the griot and the witch doctor. The classic hand of the artist motif is transmuted through the witch doctor, who molds and moves the bodies of other characters, imagining how animators might be the successors of older artistic and cultural practices.
Among these traditions, of course, is that of the griot, which Kibushi enacts not only through his actual films but his investments in production and distribution. His mobile studio, caravan theater, and pedagogical facilitation all carry forward the ethos of the griot, not just as a medium of stories, but as a mediator of generations and spaces. Kibushi finds new motion and mobility in animation and takes it, literally and figuratively, towards new horizons.
JS Wu (she/they) is an interdisciplinary scholar and artist. They are a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where they hold the Kelly Writers House Poetry and Poetic Practice Fellowship (2023-2024). Their research focuses on the racialized, animated body and transpacific cultural exchange. They write for scholarly and public audiences and have been published in ASAP/j and The Believer. They have also worked as a storyboard artist on Sorry to Bother You (2018) and in collaboration with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko on numerous film installations and performances.
Buchan, Suzanne. “A cinema of apprehension: a third entelechy of the vitalist machine,” Pervasive Animation, New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 143-171.
Callus, Paula. “Animation as socio-political commentary: an analysis of the animated films of Congolese director Jean Michel Kibushi,” Journal of African Media Studies 2: 1, April 2010, pp. 55–71.
— “Reading Animation through the Eyes of Anthropology: A Case Study of sub-Saharan African Animation,” February 2012, pp. 113-130.
— “Animating the DRC: An Interview with Congolese Animator Jean-Michel Kibushi,” Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, December 2017, pp. 179-183.
Chiwengo, Ngwarsungu. “Jean Michele Kibushi Ndjate Wooto, cineaste congolais et le film d’animation africain et congolais: une interview”, Journal of the African Literature Association, 9 (1), 2014, pp. 180-186.
Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics & Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Driskell, David C., and Sylvia H. Williams. Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renee Stout, National Museum of African Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
Ehrenreich, Veronica. “Congolese Animator Jean-Michel Kibushi: Subverting the Western Gaze.”African Studies Review, 61 (1), April 2018, pp. 239-243.
Eisenstein, Sergei; ed. Jay Leyda. On Disney, York: Seagull Books, 1986.
Gaonkar, Dilip. “On Alternative Modernities,” Alternative Modernities, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
Kibushi, Jean-Michel. Palabres Animées du Griot. Watertown: Documentary Educational Resources, 2017.
Levine, Alison Murray. “Words on Trial: Oral Performance in Abderrahamane Sissako’s Bamako.” Studies in French Cinema 12 (2), 2012, pp. 151-167.
Mpay, Anne, “Anne Mpay : Point de départ du cinéma d’ animation (animation en volume) en terre africaine.” Afrik ‘anim – afrik ‘ art. April 2009. https://superkruma.kanak.fr/t13-anne-mpay-point-de-depart-du-cinema-d-animation-animation-en-volume-en-terre-africaine
Ngai, Sianne. “Animatedness,” Ugly Feelings, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005, pp. 89-125.
Sammond, Nicholas. Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Sawadogo, Boukary. “The African Animated Film,” African Film Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2018, pp. 72-88.
Teno, Jean-Marie. Sacred Places. Les Films du Raphia, 2009.
[i] For more on griot traditions remediated in film see Diawara, Manthia. “Popular Culture and Oral Traditions in African Film.” Film Quarterly 41.3, Spring 1988, pp. 6-14; Tomaselli, Keyan G.; Shepperson, Arnold; Eke, Maureen. “Towards a Theory of Orality in African Cinema”. Research in African Literatures 26.3, 1995, pp. 18-35; Fisher, Alexander. “Modes of griot inscription in African cinema,” Journal of African Media Studies 8.1, 2016, pp. 5-16.
[ii] At the end of his documentary film Sacred Places, Teno as the narrator says of the film “This journey is a step towards rediscovering the heritage of our ancestor: the griot, condemned to the wilderness of technological progress; whose modernity has returned to haunt these places, even the most sacred.” This is followed shortly afterward by a quote from Sembene: “Le cinéaste africain est comme le griot, qui ressemble au troubadour du Moyen-Age : un homme de savior et de bon sens, qui est l’historien, le raconteur, la mémoire vivant et la conscience de son peuple…” [ African film-makers are like griots, who are akin to the Middle Age troubadour, men of learning and wisdom, historians, storytellers, the living memory and conscience of their people” (subtitled translation)] (Sacred Places 2009).
[iii] Gaonkar’s Alternative Modernities (2001) is part of a turn to “new modernist studies” in the late 1990s that decenters the West as the progenitor of modernity. Kindred texts include Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowtiz’s Bad Modernisms (Duke University Press, 2006). This expansion of the terms modernism/modernity has also been critiqued more recently on the grounds of potentially subordinating different situations to the ever-larger category of modernism/modernity by Paul K. Saint-Amour. See Saint-Amour, Paul K. “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25.3, 2018, pp. 437-459.
[iv] Boukary Sawadogo dates the first instance of animation production on the African continent to 1935 in Egypt (72).
[v] In using “affordances,” I implicitly reference Caroline Levines’s use of the word in Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015), where she defines them as “the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs” (Levine, 6).
[vi] Diawara identifies three typologies of African cinema from the 1990s onwards: the social realist film, the ‘return to the source’ film, and the colonial confrontation film, which grapple with social/economic justice, identity, and history respectively (164).
[vii] In the English translation, no translation of the song is provided. I was unable to find information on the language spoken, but it is not French.
[viii]In discussing Prince Loseno alongside theories of animation that focus, if not entirely on a Western body of works, then through a Western philosophical paradigm, there are risks of projecting these theories onto a work that exists independently from these concerns. I have tried to be attentive to Kibushi’s own accounts of his work and indicate authorial intention where it has been documented, but to suggest African animation cannot be understood through broader theories of animation and race would also be to exclude its participation in these discourses and continue to perpetuate a notion of its essential difference, locality, and thus marginalization.
[ix] For more on the “hand-of-artist” motif, see the following: Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1982, p. 30-33; Hodge, James J. “Out of Hand: Animation, Technics, History,” Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019, p. 27-70; Sammond, Nicholas. “Biting the Invisible Hand,” Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, p. 1-32.
[x] An early twentieth-century ethnographic notebook originally written in KiKongo by Kavuna Mfwandani describes them as follows: “They receive these powers [ to afflict and heal] by composition, conjuring, and consecration. They are composed of earths, ashes, herbs and leaves, and of relics of the dead. […] The way of every nkisi is this; when you have composed it, observe its rules lest it be annoyed and punish you. It knows no mercy” (as quoted in Driskell and Williams, 21).
[xi] Some examples include “little plastic packets discreetly worn, ballpoint pens medicated to help schoolboys pass examinations, and special sunglasses that taxi drivers hope will protect them from accidents” (Driskell and Williams 29).