The Great African Character Design, Or the Great African Character Disaster?

Originally posted

June 20th, 2013

Sigma Scribe


What makes a character like the Batman, Superman or Iron-man leave an everlasting and almost irrefutable positive impression on an audience for almost a century? What makes characters like Bruce Wayne or Tony stark leap out of a page of complete fiction and illustration with a convincing air of sophistication, while exuding opulence?, an effect that we all wish we could possess? Why do characters like the Falcon and the Black panther convince us that the “super human” or the messianic heroes we imagine are truly real? It is a combination of the things we all long for and seek in every human being, the things that make us label a few among us “role models” or icons. These elements include (but are certainly not limited to ) Sophistication , goodness, intellect and admirability. This article is an exploration of what African character design has become in comparison to European, American, Korean and Japanese approach to character design, what it lacks and why few if no icons or “role models” similar to those created by the Americans, the Europeans and the Asians may never emerge out of African sketch books if the ideation process and mindset of the African Character designer does not embrace change.


During a character design lecture in my class I opened with a  quick challenge to my very astute and talented students. It was simple. I asked them all to quickly thumbnail what I generally described as an “American Character” in under 5 minutes. Not knowing why they were asked to do this they each scribbled away assuming  it was some kind of a speed sketching exercise.  When their time was up I asked them each to raise their sketches to show me. There was a variety of different archetypes and characters in general, from wrestlers  in spandex, to cool high school  jocks to Barbie style models with figure 8 bodies. All in all there was a display of various interesting and fairly complex characters.  When they were hoping it was all over I asked them again to sketch under 5 minutes what I generally described as “An African Character” they scribbled again for a few minutes and I asked them to reveal their drawings but what they exposed was far less flattering than in the first instance. A rather mundane and cliche line up of masked black men in animal hides, women in dashikis and spear wielding brutes was the outcome… And there began my lecture.


Non of these scholars was from a particularly rural background in fact the school itself is in the heart of Harare, Zimbabwe’s Capital. The problem arose when all these students failed to associate themselves (yes!, as in the skinny jeans wearing, MTV watching, microwave lunch and dinner African young people) with the characters that they portrayed as African. Non of my students have ever worn hides or animal skins [thank goodness!!] but I found it strange that an age old stigma could still affect a young generation of modern artists relying on digital tools to create character design and animation to such an extent that when they hear the words “African Character” they fail to link that topic to ” the skinny jeans wearing, MTV watching, microwave lunch and dinner African young people” that globalisation, modernization , cultural integration and progress in specific has turned them into and it is an insult to the notion, or idea of African development that such a great separation be made.
 I asked my students why they hadn’t drawn Yankees, cowboys, hillbillies or Uncle Sam  when I instructed them to draw “American characters” and they answered though not all at once, that those are no longer the symbols that we know America by today. why then should Africans ignore the same progress that has been embraced by the Asians? a civilization which is as culturally rich as Africa?? Why should our own perception of ourselves ignore even the presence of a battery operated device near a character we design? Why do we feel as though putting an I pod in the hands of an African character is a betrayal to our Identity? One should believe that such a denial is an insult to us as a thinking, mentally stimulated and educated continent and people.
We admire Batman and Iron man[Bruce Wayne & Tony Stark] Because they are sophisticated among other things :

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