Interview with Dr. Boukary Sawadogo: Founder and Curator of the Harlem African Animation

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The anticipation is building for the second edition of the Harlem African Animation Festival, set to take place on November 8–9, 2023, at The Africa Center at Aliko Dangote Hall, 1280 Fifth Avenue, New York. Organized by the visionary Boukary Sawadogo, the festival promises a celebration of African animated films and programs, offering a unique platform for showcasing the rich diversity and talent within the continent’s animation industry.

In an exclusive interview with Boukary Sawadogo, the founder of the Harlem African Animation Festival and a Professor of cinema studies at City University of New York, we gained valuable insights into the origins, challenges, and aspirations of this groundbreaking event. Boukary, who is also the curator of the festival, shed light on its significance and the impact it aims to make within and beyond the African diaspora.

The Inception and Significance of Harlem African Animation Festival

Africans Column: Can you provide a brief overview of the Harlem African Animation Festival and its significance, especially as the first of its kind in the United States dedicated solely to African animated films and programs?

Boukary: The Harlem African Animation Festival was founded in late 2019 and successfully filed and approved as a non-profit organization in New York State in 2020, when the first edition was held during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first edition was held online at a time when remote work and virtual meetings were not as commonplace as they are nowadays. The idea of the festival grew out of research for a book project on African cinemas that I was conducting in prior years. As the first festival of its kind in the United States solely dedicated to African animated films and series, the festival aims to provide a platform and space to a relatively lesser known and yet dynamic medium with a longstanding history in Africa. It is also about bridging both sides of the Atlantic by opening up spaces of encounters and connections for both the general public and African animation professionals from the cultural and creative industries. For African diasporic communities, cultural history and transmission through screen media storytelling could be leveraged in making sense of themselves and their relation to their milieu. Also, animation is a window to contemporary Africa, its cultural and creative industries, and youth. A window into today’s African animation talent and creativity is showcased in Kizzi Moto: Generation Fire (2023) anthology of short animated films produced by Triggerfish Studios and distributed by Disney+.

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Diverse Film Selection Reflecting Today’s Africa

Africans Column: The lineup for the festival includes a diverse range of animated films from different African countries. How were the films selected, and what themes or narratives do they explore that contribute to the festival’s goal of providing a gateway to contemporary Africa?

Boukary: While the last edition had an historical perspective in focusing on works from the 1960s through the 1990s, this year’s edition lineup of selection focused on showcasing diversity in the animation ecosystem in Africa today, representing different parts of the continent and animation techniques. These are intentional efforts designed to introduce African animated films and series to the American public where almost everyone certainly has childhood memories of cartoons they grew up watching but rarely those included African animated content. As this foundational work is now completed, we could forward and approach future editions from the lenses of specific themes, complexifying narratives about Africa.

Overcoming Challenges and Inspiring Discoveries

Africans Column: Organizing a festival dedicated to African animation is undoubtedly a unique venture. Can you share some of the challenges faced in putting together the festival, and conversely, are there any particularly inspiring or triumphant moments that stand out in the process?

Boukary: The challenges encountered in preparation for the first edition, for example, concerned access to copies of earlier films and tracking down copyright and/or exhibition rights owner. Copies of films released several decades ago could be difficult to locate if there are no recently restored copies or digitized copies that are readily available. The question of archiving and access is a larger issue for African screen media productions, and also generally for the global south whose film heritage is overmingly located in the global north. What has been inspiring in organizing the festival is the continued discovery of a vast corpus of animated works, both historic and contemporary. The limited circulation and relative lack of attention to African animation is not reflective of the growing productions and popularity. The economics of the image and institutionalized global circulation of moving images play a significant in what gets shown and celebrated.

Industry Insights and Dialogue

Africans Column: One of the festival’s objectives is to bring together film and media professionals for discussions on narrative and industry-related subjects. Can you elaborate on the specific topics that will be covered in these discussions and their importance in the context of African animation?

Boukary: African animation is relatively absent from screens even though this is slowly changing. And there is an emerging market of African animation. The invited guest speaker at this year’s edition, Mounia Aram, animation expert and entrepreneur, addressed the question of animation market in Africa, followed with an engaging discussion with room-packed audience. It is important to know about patterns of circulations of content in an emerging animation market such as in Africa, the audiences, and challenges faced by African animators in reaching continental audiences and beyond. Questions of funding and circulation are crucial to sustainability of film and media ecosytems or industries.

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Promoting Belonging and Dialogue

Africans Column: The Harlem African Animation Festival aims to foster a sense of belonging for African immigrants and promote dialogue and mutual understanding between Africa and the Black Diaspora. How do you envision the festival achieving these goals, and what impact do you hope it will have on the participants and the audience?

Boukary: As is often empirically the case, America forces you to identify, specifically for immigrants coming from contexts where race has not always been a defining factor in and of belonging. In this regard, solidarity and mutual understanding are fostered between African immigrants and the Black diasporas. For African migrants, access to culture through storytelling is affirmative of identities, and a vehicle of cultural transmission for younger generations. As African folktale and histories permeate African animation productions, they allow a dialogue between the continent and the Black diasporas, and also to imagine possible futures for Black people as evidentced in productions steeped in Afrofuturism and Africanfuturim. The Black Panther marvel productions have shown how narratives can bring Africa and the diasporas into dialogue.

The Future of African Animation

Africans Column: As the curator of the Harlem African Animation Festival, what do you see as the future of African animation, both within the continent and on the global stage? How does the festival contribute to the growth and recognition of African animators in the broader animation industry?

Boukary: On the global stage, more discovery and appreciation of African animation is bound to happen as festivals and many commercial distribution outlets start to bring content to viewers around the world. The change will also occur in curricula at universities and film and media training programs. For instance, I have created an African animation course that I will be teaching in Spring 2024 at the City University of New York’s City College, and I would not be surprised if this were the first of its kind in the United States or in the global north. Change is coming.

In Africa, the near future would likely be marked by building more capacities—from the current small studios averaging fve members to larger studios —and addressing questions of funding and distribution to foster locally sustainable cultural and creative industries. There is an abundance of talents and stories, and the know-how.

As the Harlem African Animation Festival prepares for its second edition, it stands as a beacon of cultural celebration, dialogue, and a promising future for African animation on the global stage.

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