A/V Compo.

Cartoons

‘Funtezya’: Making the Unfunny Funny

‘Funtezeya’ is an Amharic word that describes fits of delightful excitement, the type that drives little lambs and kids to chase one another, jumping, skipping, skidding up and down country hills and lanes, enough to excite and draw a giggle from anybody. It is a good title for a book that presents radical moments in Ethiopian life through 140 cartoons in satire.

I followed the artist, Alemayehu (Alex) Teferra, on Facebook while he worked on the book during lockdown and beyond. Occasionally, I added my take on the cartoons he publicly shared, along with many other fans and commentators.

Funtezeya was launched in London on Sunday, 19 June 2022 at the Ethiopian Community Centre on Lithos Road. The debut is a serious breakthrough considering Alex’s years of self-restraint from free expression. Things have changed for the artist and Alex is able to produce content using a self-regulated approach. He has a “daring what needs to be dared,” attitude; seeking to be truthful both to his conscience and the law.

The Amharic-English bilingual narrative of his book speaks briefly about his career. The political theme covers the merchandise that goes along with the political process – guns, torture, rituals transactions, violation, etc.

He dedicates a page to narrate Ethiopia’s political polarization in the context of the national constitution. Article 39, followed to the letter, facilitates political group formation by ethnic identity. The consequences are harsh and its mild to say have changed passive and indifferent social perspectives on race and national identity to active and militant ones. Co-existence was never perfect, yet it is so deeply embedded that the puritan approach to regrouping economic and political regions and zones has turned out to be as complex as the first-ever surgical attempt to separate Siamese twins. Other themes included in the book are social media, Corona virus, Abay or the Blue Nile, and social issues.

Alex’s characters have bulging eyes, fleshy lips, and wild hair. They are lively, eccentric to say the least. He dresses them up with a rich assortment of armaments: guns, sticks, axes, arrows, dynamite. He masks the characters with animal features and adds fashion, tradition, fantasy, illusion to bring the comics to life.

Alex’s depiction of the Corona virus brings to focus a world economy sharpened by a medical form. A needle combat against the Corona virus is a contrast to the steel used in a terrible game of ethnic wars. Not everyone notices that the latter news never made it on the radio much less TV two decades ago. Today, all cameras are on alert, mics open, ears are tuned to the radio, the cell phone, and the ground. Fists pound causing a stir, there is no respite in an upside down world. The helpless individual retreats to drown at best in alcohol or depression. Humour is a real antidote and this too filters through the illustrations.

The cartoons are captioned with unusual but spot-on terms. ‘Child laundering’ is a shocking one of them. His findings on men and sex can be surprising; for example, in 2013 Ethiopia was ranked 4th for frequent searches of the term “sex” on Google. The illustration pins that on army cadets glued to a computer, a metaphor likely representing the realities of a digital generation and lifestyle. On the opposite and next pages there is more about men and sex, a woman attempts to flee, another lets a transaction pass unnoticed.

The digital savages captured my attention in the social media section, and I took a long look at the human organ bowlers before I put the book down. I marvel at Alex’s sturdy gut; he’s good at picking out what matters, makes the grotesque presentable for the sake of reflection, and at best the benefit of a good laugh.

I arrived toward the tail end of Alex’s book launch event that Sunday. A young poet took centre stage and recited his existential woes about standards of dying. It was hard not to giggle when he reminded us, Ethiopian’s living in London, that we face a non-ritualised final exit; no crier, no three-day wake ceremony, followed by seven years of memorial events. No, the exit would be final and we’d disappear from the surface of the earth as though we had never existed. A blow to the psyche! He referred to young men who depart unnoticed behind locked doors only to be discovered in their apartments weeks after their passing. The poet was calling on the community to rekindle lost dignities by assembling and breaking bread together. All humans indeed deserve a dignified finale and departure. What better way to memorialise than to chew, ruminate, and digest differences.

Alex’s Funtezeya captures Ethiopian stories covering the period from the end of Mengistu’s regime in the early nineties through to the succeeding two governments that bring us to the current times. A great conversation starter and a souvenir of tough times that pass.

Cartoonist Alemayehu Teferra

Alemayehu, popularly known in London as Alex, is an animation artist and political cartoonist specializing in Ethiopian current affairs. He spoke about his work in an Amharic language video interview with Balageru, which I’ve partially translated below.

Alex said, “Cartoons play a tremendous role in exercising freedom of expression,” referring to the immediate context of ongoing knife-edge political tension throughout the Horn of Africa. That’s the bit that juts out on the map towards the Red Sea.

Kusella” is the ancient Geez word for cartoons so the art-form is not new to us culturally,” he educated me. It is not a common word and the Geez origin signals a connection with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Alex believes that his and the future generations are well placed to create aspiring cartoons as references and depictions of political and historical process. “The hardest times are over now, thankfully,” he says remembering the times when he ran into dangerous situations including with personal attacks. The challenges are plentiful even today but on a different scale. “Its important to be able to exhibit my work and obtain public support,” he explains. “Cartoons may have a comical side, but this is not always understood by my highly diverse audience – humor for one can be insult to another and there is no assurance that hypersensitivities to cartoon culture have been completely removed,” he told me.

Finding allies and exhibition space in Addis Ababa demands both patience and perseverance. “I have earned many friends through my cartoons as well as a few enemies,” chuckles Alex. He moves on to explain the lens he uses to impersonate political personalities without getting personally attached to them. The current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, has not escaped his eye. “It demands both courage and a measure of self-containment to produce the right flavor . . . just enough to provoke light-hearted discussion amongst politicians themselves. . .and its important to make them laugh, and allow them to experience a sense of trust so that the art-form can be appreciated freely not only between them but also within wider circles,” he explains.

Alex’s sense of responsibility and duty draws him towards role-modeling for the younger generation. “I only started drawing Ethiopian characters after I came to Europe – I found our features are great for fine art paintings but rather tricky for cartoons. Then I discovered I had a knack and a love for drawing maternal figures . . , no doubt from so many influences that stay with me from my childhood years. Eventually, I took my chances on key figures such as the late Emperor Haile Selassie, Presidents Mengistu Haile Mariam and Meles Zenawi. Those historical figures can now be seen and visualized by the younger generation in many forms including through cartoons.”

Alex uses all kinds of mixed media material to produce his work. His favorite is also what he refers to as the simplest, which is digital media. He hopes that he will never again have to hide behind his creative work again, “Its only fair to have your name against what you have created, you know what I mean?” he asks with a jolly smile and chuckles again. What an inspiration!