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Africa's New Satirists Draw Political Fire



Because laughing at a dysfunctional system is the first step toward changing it peacefully. 
Michael Soi was hard at work in his Nairobi studio, speckled in acrylic paints, when four unidentified Chinese men and women walked in, demanding to see some paintings. It was July 2015, and Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting Kenya.
Soi’s visitors didn’t wait for him to respond. They moved around the studio, shifting cans of paint, canvases, stacks of art pieces, making a mess in their search. The collection they were looking for is one Soi calls “China ‘Loves’ Africa.” Here, in bold hues of pink and green, he paints Chinese men staring lecherously at a nude black woman, hair braided, dancing on a pole. In one piece, a Chinese man is bedridden, hooked up to IVs containing “gold,” “titanium” and “copper.” A Black male doctor administers his treatment.
The Chinese visitors didn’t find the paintings funny. They claimed Soi had been influenced by the West and that china was only in Africa to “help” by building bridges and hospitals in his home country, Kenya. Soi invited the group to get out of his studio.
The 46-year-old Kenyan artist is part of a fresh cascade of creative producers emerging across Africa, using the visual arts to satirize the politics of the day, question their governments and inspire civic engagement. Africa has had a postindependence history of political satire, but mostly through literature and newspaper cartoons. Writers such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ayi Kwei Armah, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o were part of this tradition. Some were at times stopped from producing work, while others were jailed, persecuted or exiled.
We are witnessing that moment in that fairytale when the child points out that the emperor has no clothes on.
Ose Anenih, co-founder of TACT, which recently organized a satire festival
But political satire on the African continent now is moving to the canvas, television and computer screens, counting on the much harder-to-control social media share button that didn’t exist before. In Accra, Ghana, 28-year-old satirist Bright Ackwerh uses caricatures to highlight aspects of Ghanaian life often missed in the simplistic global narrative of the country as a stable, fast-growing economy. Nigeria’s biggest television station, Channels TV, airs a satirical show called The Other News that mocks the corruption and poor governance that hobbles the country. And Soi, observers say, is helping show Kenyan society a mirror.

“We are witnessing that moment in that fairytale when the child points out that the emperor has no clothes on,” says Ose Anenih, co-founder of TACT, a civic engagement nonprofit that recently produced a Nigerian satire festival.
That many of the satirists  portray their work more as documenting society rather than looking to change it is in keeping with the self-deprecating humor they want their art to capture. But whether it’s China, their own governments or sections of their societies, opposition or efforts to control satire are a reality too and suggest that these artists are making some impact.
In countries where government commitment to the freedom of speech is often only skin-deep, the threat of a clampdown is also a reality the artists can’t ignore. Critics have suggested, for instance, that The Other News occasionally plays it safe, while Soi and Ackwerh acknowledge their work is making only so much of a dent in their societies.