Matt Groening once said that people go into cartooning because they
are shy and they are angry yet this cannot even begin to describe the
vibe of the six Kenyan cartoonists whose works are currently on
exhibition at the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi. Using the tool they
understand best, the pencil, these artists colorfully trace president
Obama’s life from his father’s homeland in Kogelo to his visit to
Kenya in 2006 and his long awaited visit as president of the United
That the different artists’ themes intersect with underlying common
themes and bitingly funny captions is what keeps art lovers glued to
the walls on the first floor art gallery at Alliance; giving it
popularity at a time when other people complain of experiencing too
much Obama talk, a condition social media enthusiasts have since
A number of themes are explored and the artists manage to show us,
albeit tongue in cheek, the ridiculousness of some of the traditional
stereotypes we hold as a nation. They do so flawlessly, fluidly
transcend touchy topics like tribalism and political myopia and
brilliantly spreading rays of humor and wit over current world affairs
and right into Obama’s Kenyan heritage.
The issues highlighted range from African leaders’ obsession with
clinging to power, tribalism, America-Kenya-China relationships, the
toa kitu kidogo mentality, the strange travel habits of overloading
and carrying all belongings home and even the hypocrisy of hiding our
dirty side and showing guests our best side
The showcased works belong to six of Kenya’s best cartoonists among
them Celeste, Gado, Gammz, Gathara, Maddo and Victor Ndula. It was
curated by Patrick Gathara and is supported by Heinrich Boll Stiftung.
One theme explored, African leaders habit of clinging to power issue
is best illustrated in Victor Ndula’s Africa Advises President Obama
where an anonymous African president informs Obama that ‘African’
Presidents always get re-elected, a tongue-in cheek proclamation
given how in many of this continents’ countries, the so called
‘re-election’ presidents force themselves back to power by altering
constitutions and rigging votes.
Another widespread theme explores the relationship between Kenya and
America with Ndula suggesting a softening of the relationship after
years of not seeing eye to eye. The cartoon captioned ‘Thawing
Relations’ shows the ice cubes that hold presidents Uhuru and Obama
thawing and thus giving way to warmer, friendlier relations.
The cartoonists too speak a similar language on the
China-America-Kenya relationship turning it into a delightfully funny
tale of rivalry and jealousy. The first is Gado’s cartoon Obama to
Visit Africa which shows Obama getting off Air Force One and being
received by Chinese officials. He then loudly wonders if he is in
Africa or China and is promptly informed that he has to do more if he
is to curb Chinese influence here. Celeste however, carries the day on
this particular matter with her drawing which shows an unfaithful
Africa arm in arm with a bouquet carrying America but secretly holding
China’s hand behind America’s back. This, maybe a loud statement of
how distrustful African nations have become of the West.
It is hard for one to resist bursting into laughter at the biting
satire engrained in the artworks dealing with Obama’s Kenyan-ness and
our right to receive goodies from ‘our’ son. The artists vividly take
on expectations of a country that claims the man as one of its sons.
Gammzs’ Obama Presidency sets off this theme perfectly with Kenyans
expecting ridiculous goodies from Obama ranging from forgiveness of
Kenya’s debts to payment of fees in American Universities to green
cards for his relatives from Kogelo and even kitu kidogo for the
parents whose child is named after him. His other cartoon, Nyumbani
Tunasija shows the typically Kenyan habits of carrying all our earthly
belongings from mattresses to seats and overloading when going to
shagz for a visit.
In the end, even as economic analysts argue that Obama’s visit was
meant to change America’s relationship with Africa from the its
traditional elements of humanitarian aid towards a new focus with
Africa as a potential trade partner, I like more the cartoonists
version of Obama as jealous and angry at China for overtaking the
United States as Africa’s biggest trade partner; and of him as the
good ‘native’ son, arriving home bearing gifts and goodies for those
of us fortunate enough to share our homeland with this son of a Kenyan
father working abroad. The exhibition is on till 23rd August at
Alliance Francaise first floor gallery.
This article was first published in the Saturday Nation.