African Monsters : A Mirror to a Tenebrous Sun by Su Opperman

When Jo Thomas approached me with this project I was immediately intrigued.  Recently, in the art world there’s been a surge of interest in Africa and the continent’s distinct visual style has extended far beyond its borders. African culture is embedded with deep metaphors and unique colloquialisms that have not been favoured with the degree of translation and ease of access often enjoyed by other cultures. In South Africa, our past of forced segregation has historically kept us apart from the rest of the continent; a separation that, to my mind, was reawakened and hard felt by the spate of xenophobic attacks on African foreigners by South African nationals over the last several years. On a daily basis the unfathomable is captured in the harsh contrasts of everyday life.

Our monsters give voice to us, they guide us, they hold our hands.

It begs the question: how much of our existence is encapsulated in our darker impulses? How much of our conciousness is denied rational conception? Halved as it is, the human soul strives to live in the light, yet the tenebrous remains ever-present. Consequently, I viewed African Monsters as a collective nod of the head to the sharing of shadows.

13 - A Whisper in the Reeds small
A Whisper in the Reeds by Su Opperman

From an illustrative perspective, it’s rare to come across a book project where creative interpretation is given free reign. As a result, illustrating for African Monsters was just pure fun! For once the creative beast did not rear her head and all was well in Artland. I took my easel and art gear to a friend’s top floor office and from there painted and drew with the Cape Town cityscape as backdrop. At heart, I’m a spontaneous artist, making marks with great aggression and consequently, no idea what they’re going to turn into. In this case, however, I had to be a little more specific, given the brief and subject matter at hand. I’d select a story, read it in the morning and let it permeate my mind for the rest of the day. In the evenings I’d draw from the narrative inspiration and in quick marks capture the gist of my feeling on paper – from there, I’d give those initial marks a more subtle definition as the night progresses.

To recreate a story you have to retell it, as Neil Gaiman once said. He was specifically referring to a case where one of his graphic novels was unsuccessfully translated into a stage production. But that aside, drawing these illustrations for African Monsters was in a large part an act of retelling. A personal re-creating. It must be interesting from a writer’s perspective to see the illustrator’s interpretation. Imaginations are not shared, but subjective occurrences. I find it fascinating to see how a singular story elicits a wide arch of interpretation.

With that in mind, I’d like to thank Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas for organising such a great publication. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in it. I’d also like to thank the three writers I had to illustrate for: Nnedi Okorafor and Chikodili Emulumadu, your stories from Nigeria took my imagination to places rarely experienced before. Nerine Dorman, as a fellow citizen, I found your interpretation of an age old South African myth to be fresh and original. Let my last words then be, for those of you who read this blog to go read the book! You’ll like it.