How Gyimah Gariba is using caricature to push for a more empathetic world

"I think if you're an empathetic person, you have to practise alchemy: you have to turn it into something."

'I think if you're an empathetic person, you have to practise alchemy: you have to turn it into something'

Self-portrait. (Gyimah Gariba)

Practising empathy in a world ablaze is not enough for illustrator Gyimah Gariba — he believes we must be a part of its transformation, too. The Ghanaian-born artist, who immigrated to Toronto in 2012, is using illustrations to draw attention to increasing homophobia and transphobia in his home country and subvert discourse about queer Africans.

Last week, a draft of a draconian anti-gay bill was submitted to Ghana's parliament proposing a 10-year prison sentence for citizens who identify as LGBTQIA+. This bill, if passed, will further criminalize queer and trans people, alongside their advocates, across Ghana. Many locals have taken to social platforms to address how the bill will have severe impacts on the physical and material well-being of queer and trans Ghanaians.

In response to ongoing efforts to defend LGBTQIA+ rights in Ghana, local police have incarcerated activists and raided one of the only viable centers for the community. Gariba has collaborated with artists in the diaspora to bring light to a recent violent raid by Ghanaian police to defund LGBT+ Rights Ghana, an organization focused on championing for the liberation of queer and trans people through cyberactivism. His two most recent pieces were included in a locally curated art fundraiser (organized by filmmaker and Gariba's sibling Ayo Tsalithaba) in efforts to raise money for a new space for LGBT+ Rights Ghana to thrive in. In one illustration, you see two figures intertwined, like sullen lovers, intimately embracing. The second piece is of a reclusive Black child sitting on a stack of rainbow-coloured chairs.

For Gariba, current events in Ghana reveal a layered history of domination shaping queerness as "un-African" for the modern world. He's been a freelance background painter for the Cartoon Network for eight years and recently collaborated with the footwear company UGG for their Pride Month campaign. In 2015, he was named as one of 15 African artists rebranding the continent by Forbes. Relying on caricature as a desired stylistic form to augment reality, Gariba's transportive work addresses race, sexuality, and difference in subversive ways.

I spoke with Gariba about his two recent pieces, using illustrations to provoke conversations about sexuality in Africa, and how we can collectively transform our empathy into direct action.

The two pieces Gyimah Gariba donated to the LGBT+ Rights Ghana fundraiser. Left: "Us." Right: "Throne." (Gyimah Gariba)

What drew you to illustration as a creative and, sometimes, political medium?

It used to be a lot easier for me to separate all of the stuff in my life and then put them exactly where they were supposed to be, for the sake of simplicity. As I get older, it becomes difficult to separate those things. I think it accidentally bled into my artwork. I'm having a hard time segregating everything that I stand for. I'm trying more deliberately now to pull it into the same message — for it to be me and for me to be it.

Tell me about the methods used in your illustrations. How do you use caricature as a stylistic form?

There's a couple of ways of documenting that I've always thought are interesting. Photography is one, but it relies heavily on the circumstances that you find yourself in: if it's a sunny day, it's going to be a bright picture. Whereas I feel with the art form of caricature, it's more of a conversation [that] has to do with what you think beauty is.

I play with my perception of what the world is [and] I put it out to have people reflect back what their perception is. It's more specific because [it] is infused with my feelings. It's a way to talk back and forth to people about things. It's also fun and playful. Like two people bubbling up on each other: there's a frenetic energy that could be depicted in video or film, but to see it in animation, or in caricature, is more playful and a true version of what it actually feels like.

What sort of realities are you reflecting?

I used to draw worlds of fantasy, but I would draw from needing those places to actually exist. Going back to what I was saying about trying to be myself everywhere — I don't think that's possible right now. I['m] Black, gay, [and] dark-skinned, and there's so many more [points of identity] that I don't even experience [that others do]. What would it be like if we didn't have all these obstacles all the time? What does that space look like? What does it look like to feel that? It's the same thing [as] a little kid [asking me]: Can you draw me as a Black panther? They need to feel big, stronger, better. I'm asking myself, Can you draw yourself without these limitations? What does that look like? Can you give yourself a map?

It is the only kind of art that I've found is useful for me. I try to contribute to that artwork with a keen focus on the things that hold me back in this world. That way, when someone is entering the world that I create, they don't feel the weight of it — they can join me, and also be free.

How do you try to confront race, sexuality, and power through your work?

There's a whole bunch of falsehoods that parade around the world as if they're real— like being gay is wrong or you need to behave a certain way in order to achieve certain things — and they're supported by subliminal imagery. I try to look at those things head on and then subvert them with artwork that is lasting. There's this whole idea that being being queer is un-African. [For me] it's about strategically attacking those ideas. If time isn't linear, the only thing you're missing about the African experience is the imagery of what a queer African was that was either destroyed or hidden. There's no photographs of it — nobody to tell that story.

Those are the things that I want to remarry, to bring closer together. What is African imagery? What is an African aesthetic? What are the things that are wholly in the arts through the West African lens, and how do I marry that with queerness? [In my work I'm] taking those ideas, and then slowly trying to make staples of imagery to make the point that you can be African and queer. It's alleviating that taboo by making it feel like it's historically accurate, because that's where people base themselves so firmly. I want to normalize the aesthetics of it so that it feels natural on every level.

How did you do that with your pieces for the LGBT+ Rights Ghana fundraiser?

I was looking at a lot of sculpture from West Africa, and how forms would often interconnect made out of one block of wood. The [sculptures] were only sanded down to look [divided] or where the forms, or bodies, connect. Some of them can look like eternity symbols, [and] they always involve people holding hands and feeling very stable. The idea of taking that and expressing it in an image that looks soft and normal — I was hoping to [evoke] tenderness from it.

You definitely did.

It gets difficult sometimes, because at the core of it — I know this is gonna sound so pessimistic — I don't think anybody cares. If someone isn't gay and African, I don't really think they care. It feels like having to sell a good campaign for humanity. It has to be a shiny campaign for people to buy into it. Otherwise, they don't really care, unless it's their brother or good friend. This is the only way to pull attention to something. But it's always been. I've stopped believing that it's inherent that someone would have compassion. How does this [work] sit in the life of someone who actually doesn't care?

A strategic and selective kind of compassion?

Definitely. For example, the Notre Dam [building] burning — it's only because a historical site evokes a certain amount of prestige that [leads to] donations to rebuild it. It's self-aggrandizement, in some weird, sick way, over helping a burnt-down building in your community. It doesn't matter how [what's happening in Ghana] gets fixed — I just want those things to get fixed, the structural problems. I'm at service to those things now.

I think if you're an empathetic person, you also have to practise alchemy: you're gonna have to turn it into something. I feel for all of the unhoused people in Toronto. I feel for Indigenous communities. Reflecting on Ghana, and then looking at the issues here, the root is the same thing: [histories] and institutions denying people life and their livelihood. My relationship with this land is just understanding that it suffers from the same thing as my home. Empathy is trying to figure out what exactly it is that I can do.

What provoked this fundraiser?

It was Ayo [Tsalithaba], my younger sibling, who had the wherewithal [to organize the fundraiser]. What prompted it was Ghanaian officials trying to [further] criminalize same-sex relationships. An LGBTQ rights center was shut down by a whole bunch of Evangelical groups who got together to demonize and villainize the LGBTQ community. They lost their space to meet. Following that, there were 21 unlawful arrests outside of a LGBTQ rights groups meeting (organized by LGBT+ Rights Ghana). [Ghanaian officials are] trying to extinguish the energy of any kind of safety for the LGBTQ community, and that's what prompted the outrage of it all. [Ayo] put together a fundraiser just to raise awareness and figure out a way to get people to realize how serious of an issue [this is].

How can people meaningfully engage and support what's happening in Accra, Ghana right now?

I would say follow the LGBT+ Rights Ghana Instagram page and donate to their GoFundMe. There's amazing resources from people who are living there and experiencing these hardships. There's beauty that people benefit from in this world. If the pain [experienced by] those communities creating beauty doesn't ease up, they'll die from it — from the stress of it or the sheer brutality of it.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


Huda Hassan is a journalist and cultural critic. Her writing, reviews, and criticism appears in many places, including Pitchfork, BuzzFeed, and Quill & Quire. She teaches and writes about Black feminist literature and cultural studies in Toronto.

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