The use of humour, wit and undaunted creative license in African design is a powerful tool that we employ to reclaim agency and shape identity, and as a way of re-owning Africanness. It acts as a counterbalance to the West’s imagination of ‘the African story’, and it also plays an important economic role in how we stand out in the midst of all the chaos. 

Words: Binwe Adebayo

Laser beams shoot from a kitten’s eyes in a creative take on an Austin Powers film poster from Ghana. A wide, gold-toothed mouth leers from the back window of a matatu in the streets of Nairobi, on its side, the words “thug life”. Decades before, the scene of a man parachuting into a Nigerian village forms the cover of Fela Kuti’s Johnny Just Drop CD cover. Whether it’s apparel, music, fantastic film posters of a quintessentially African take on American brands and personalities, there is something distinctly chuckle-worthy quality to much of Africa’s modern approach to design.

Writing about the South African linograph artist, Tommy Motswai, researcher Bavisha Laxmi Panchia (2011) argues that humour, or rather, levity acts as an important counterforce to the oft-told ‘sad story’ of Africa. Writing about Motswai’s mischievous drawings of post-1990s South Africa, Panchia remarks that humour in African visual art “offers viewers optimistic human relations in a society wrestling with a haunting history of humanity”.

But it’s not purely about speaking back against history, it’s a way to speak about identity too. Often relegated to broad, universal categories like “slave”, “worker” or “mammy” character, design has long been one of the ways Africans have self-styled themselves. Beyond being simple subjects of history and environment, comedy and levity in design connote a lightness and a playfulness so often removed from stories about Africa and Africans. Without access or control over mainstream media messaging, Hollywood’s often dismissive depictions and even in Africa today, limited access to material resources, objects like posters, T-shirts, minibus taxis have acted as conduits for the stories of local African communities, and the unique perspective of African artisans when handling glocalised pop culture.

One of the areas where humour, imagination, and fantasy have found a home is in the much-loved craft of handprinted Ghanaian and Nigerian film posters. Painted to entice audiences to local screenings of local films, artists have taken serious creative license - transforming the generic Hollywood posters we’re used to into dynamic, sometimes impossible works of art. For the African artist, for whom realism is a limiting and frankly morbid artistic path to take, the design offers the opportunity to seek adventure through iconography, colour, and imagining a world that is bigger and brighter than most urban African settings.

But there’s also an important economic function - and in this scenario, humour must not be conflated with buffoonery. In some cases, a good laugh is the difference between a commuter choosing your taxi, stepping into your hair salon, or buying your t-shirt. Humour makes its way through these visual properties to create a light break in the day, and secure favour. Similarly, playful stylisations of Western brands act as a way to re-own Africanness in the midst of a global world. On the outside of a Durban hair salon, Beyoncé gets a handprinted makeover, adorned with traditional beads and a speech bubble of isiZulu language. Elsewhere, outside a seamstress’ stall in Accra, the beloved Tinkerbell character is remade with dark skin, cornrows, and her signature sulky expression.

While on one level, these are tongue-in-cheek reclamations of pop culture shipped to Africa, they are also in some ways, an indication of the ways in Africa embraces the world, but must always retain its inimitable creative stamp, and unbeatable flair for the funny.

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