The Curious Case of Congolese Comics

I had to wait for the librarian to let me into the archivists’ room at Smathers Library on the University of Florida campus. The building has a particular gravitas, with its vaulted ceilings and enormous windows letting in beams of Florida light that illuminate the stretches of study tables and unique library paraphernalia designed to facilitate the handling of sensitive papers and ancient books. And yet in the back rooms, unseen by the average student, was where library magic truly happened.

As an eternal student, I was quite familiar with libraries, and so greeted Dan Reboussin, the African Studies librarian, in hushed tones. He greeted me with a warmth that defies the stereotype of the shushing librarian, and beckoned me into what I imagined was a top-secret lab for librarians. Upon entering, I drank in the rows of manila folders and stacks of cardboard boxes are filled with polypropylene sleeves and simple copy paper, among which hide one of Smathers’ — and the world’s — most unique collections. The work of Papa Mfumu’eto le premier, a comic artist and illustrator from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, encompasses thousands of comic books, zines, and advertisements that tackle democratization, gender roles and sociopolitical change, and Congolese mythology and spirituality.

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My favorite image in the collection.

I have long been fascinated by Africa, and the Congo in particular. From Gorillas in the Mist to King Leopold’s Ghost, I watched and read all about it. And yet I was not prepared for the level of extraordinary expression that I saw in Papa Mfumu’eto’s work. I spent hours with the collection. Although neither French nor Lingala were languages I knew, I connected with the comics on a deeper level.

Papa Mfumu’eto offered a lush and entrancing universe of mermaids, witches, and corrupt politicians — oh my — set against a backdrop of the sociopolitical issues that permeated Kinshasa, yet were totally identifiable to me as an American. His tongue-in-cheek advertisements he did on commission, seamlessly blended with his semi-biographical storytelling, brought a smile to my face; his insightful depictions of the problems of domestic violence and greed punched me in the heart.

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As in the United States, zines were immensely popular from the late 1970s to mid-1990s. Papa Mfumu’eto, one of the most prolific and admired comic artists of the “zine era,” capitalized on the wave with a series of comics that explored the complexities of Congolese social and domestic life, as well as myth and legend. He was so prolific that a complete archive of his work is damn near impossible.

Nancy Rose Hunt, professor of African history at the University of Florida, usually focuses on medical and gender issues in Africa, but a request from a Yale colleague to study the sociocultural impact of Tintin au Congo piqued her interest in Congolese comics. After collaborating on an enormous archive of comics from the 1920s through the ’80s, Hunt discovered Papa Mfumu’eto. In 2001, while in Kinshasa for other research, Hunt decided to meet the larger-than-life artist, whose self-portraits permeate the collection.

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“When I arrived at his door, it was a very affluent period for him. He’d just come off some nice contracts,” she says. “His work was coming off the ceiling and under the chairs, just everywhere. I have a background as an archivist before I became a historian, so my instincts were to preserve it and conserve it,” she recalls. “He’d never heard the word ‘archive’ before, but he was happy to hear it.” Hunt persuaded him to entrust the collection to her.

Getting the archive to America was not a seamless endeavor, although Hunt is pleased with the outcome, as is Reboussin. “I wasn’t sure it would all happen as easily and beautifully as it did,” Hunt says. In 2007, bringing her dual role as an anthropologist into the mix, she returned to Kinshasa to read some of the comics with Papa Mfumu’eto. “We read them together, as I was trying to work on Lingala,” she recalls. Out of curiosity, I started to pick up some Lingala, which is similar to Zulu, in my attempt to read some of the comics.

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Hunt and Papa Mfumu’eto. Photo courtesy Nancy Hunt.

Hunt knew she wanted a repository for the collection in the United States or Europe, although, she says, some warned her that no American institution would be interested. I wasn’t surprised to hear this. As Reboussin noted, comics were high culture in places like Belgium (and appropriately, the now-former Belgian Congo), but comic books fans and comics as an art form are regularly mocked in the U.S. Hunt was pitching the collection to museums in Paris for while; yet in the end, little old Gainesville, Florida seemed the pre-destined home of the Papa Mfumu’eto archive, where Reboussin and his team are now processing the items, some of which are original paintings and sketches, some of which are printed on paper that time has reduced to mere wisps. Archiving the work is especially important to Reboussin because, he says, many of the comics were created during the period of transition from the Mobutu regime to democracy.

Mobutu. The name struck a chord in me, as a faraway observer; his reputation as dictator of then-Zaire preceded him. He conducted two coups and essentially defined “kleptocrat” and yet the West supported him — at no expense spared, writes Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost — for his anti-Soviet stance in a time when “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” ruled international politics (perhaps it still does). He ruled over the Congo for 32 years, amassing extreme personal wealth while the country suffered. In such times, it is especially important to look at artists’ work. “It was a time where people weren’t free to speak about politics, about opposition,” Reboussin says. “Some of [the comics’] themes might not be overt political speech but are referring to political conditions.”

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The thing about paper is that it fades to nothingness with no help from human hands. The much-beloved smell of old books is caused by their decay, literally the breakdown of volatile organic compounds. Comics, printed on scarce paper with even scarcer inks in a world where print shops aren’t around every corner, have even less of a shelf life, and both the oils on our hands and the breath from our lips decay them further. The archivists thus have special tools: vinyl gloves, polypropylene sleeves, file folders, and spare bits of cardboard with which to turn pages. I wore my gloves with pride, even though they made my hands sweat. I hated the thought of marring the collection with my grease in any way.

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And yet the unusual coloration of the comics and their (literally) sheer sparseness enhanced their magic. “These were possibly produced through a risograph,” says Reboussin. “There were no good pens or paper in Zaire during the time he was making these.”

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The archivist’s dedication is aimed to protect and preserve for posterity. “We should make sure that things are available to scholars a hundred or more years later,” says Reboussin. “I’m sure that 100 years from now, people will be interested in that transition point in Congolese history.”

The collection stayed in Paris in a safety-deposit box for some time while Hunt discussed possible homes for it with Parisian curators. Yet Smathers Library, along with the local Harn Museum’s curatorial history of African and Belgian art, UF’s Center for African Studies, and the local Sequential Artists Workshop comics school collectively whispered to the appropriateness of a Gainesville home, and Hunt, listening with intrigue, accepted a job offer from UF. Finally, the time had come to bring the collection to Gainesville. Hunt personally traveled to Paris to retrieve the collection, puzzling on the flight over how to best wrap them. The return journey was successful, and Hunt and Reboussin opened the packages on March 9, 2017, at a small round table in the locked room at Library East, the same one where I interviewed them a year later. We spent a long time discussing not only the comics, but also their eccentric and engaging aesthetic — “something spooky about it,” says Hunt — as well as the incredible academic opportunity they provide. “It’s just great working with a diverse group of people,” Reboussin says.

Papa Mfumu’eto is unique in that he produced comics for so long using a non-colonial language, says Hunt, and she hopes to introduce Lingala studies to UF. Reboussin too sees a world of possibility in the collection. “Everything sees something different, especially in a collection that’s really rich. The more you look, it just gets deeper and deeper.” Indeed, as I’ve looked at the work again and again, I’ve found new meaning and details in every piece. What’s most compelling is Papa Mfumu’eto’s gift for storytelling, one so strong, it transcends the simple formula of image + text and creates an immersive world. This, to me, is the highest achievement of art and culture.

Rachel Wayne is a visual anthropologist based in Gainesville, Florida and a proud Gator.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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