Didier Kassaï’s Tempête sur Bangui (Storm over Bangui) is a shocking graphic novel on several levels. It’s an autobiography of his experiences of the 2013 civil war in the Central African Republic, as Séléka rebels overran the capital and toppled the government. Kassaï recounts the chaos, the violence, and the confusion on the ground through the eyes of Bangui’s residents. It truly is a graphic novel.
However, what is particularly shocking is how Kassaï draws Africans. While non-black characters are drawn in a realistic style, all the black characters – including Kassaï himself – are drawn like old “sambo” racial stereotypes.
Kassaï explains his artistic choice as a stylistic one, and connects it to the deeper ligne-claire cartoon tradition from France and Belgium. (He draws Africans in a realistic way in his other works).
“I believed this war had no face. I couldn’t recognize any of my countrymen and women back then because everybody was spreading messages of hatred, so I gave them only eyes and mouths.”– Didier Kassaï, “This is what it’s like to be a cartoonist in the Central African Republic“
But there’s something more to this – it’s a style that is instantly shocking to Western eyes, and hearkens back to Tintin in the Congo. That’s not without reason – CAR was treated by France the same way the Congo was by Belgium – divvied up as personal property for Europeans to exploit. France and Belgium left such deep lasting damage to central Africa that countries like CAR and the DRC have struggled with chronic instability and violence since then.
If you wanted to read even further into Kassaï’s artistic choice, you could make an argument that drawing Africans as a faceless stereotype shocks Western readers because it exposes that many people do see Africa as a faceless victims, rather than real individuals with their own autonomy and lives. The whole continent is often treated as an amorphous whole, and the essential humanity of the people living through events like CAR’s civil war are overlooked in a way that they aren’t for conflicts in other parts of the world (say, Ukraine).
Tempête sur Bangui is meant to shake you up, and it does.
It’s only published in French, though there’s a well-translated excerpt in English at Words Without Borders.