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ArtBreathing life into comics

Breathing life into comics

On the evening of September 5, 2023, as the sun began its descent behind the hills of Addis Ababa, a collection of creatives converged under the dome of the Goethe Institute near Sidist Kilo. Among them was Henok Brhanu, brimming with excitement for the showcase about to unfold. His comic book art series, entitled “Pen City,” would be featured in an exhibition celebrating local artistic voices. 

Henok, a 23-year-old visual storyteller born and raised in the city, has dedicated his young life to translating thoughts and feelings onto canvas through paint and pencil. Nurtured by the encouragement of fellow artists and fueled by a passion ignited from within, his artistic journey has led him to explore varied mediums. Through illustration, digital manipulation, and the juxtaposition of words and images in comic form, Henok continues to evolve in his craft.

This gathering under the dome promised to be an evening of collaboration and inspiration, as creative souls gathered to support one of their own and take in works that reflected both the beauty and mysteries of their shared home. For Henok, it marked another milestone along a path he hoped would allow his visions to reach and resonate with many others.

As the exhibition opened its doors that evening, Henok greeted the gathering crowd. “The launch of this comic book series marks a great milestone, not just in my career, but for artistic expression in our country,” he said. “With so few comic books originating from Ethiopia, I hope ‘Pen City’ helps cultivate more visual storytelling here.”

Henok’s journey to this moment was one nurtured through focused study. He pursued his secondary education at Don Bosco Catholic School in Addis Ababa, dedicating ample time outside the classroom to artistic experimentation. Through illustration, digital painting, and the fledgling form of comic art, he honed his skills across various mediums.

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Simultaneously, Henok studied architecture – a pursuit that imbued his creations with a unique understanding of spatial relationships, design principles, and unconventional methods of narrative. This interweaving of disciplines enriched his visions immensely.

In his remarks, he reflected on the path that brought him to this momentous night.

“From my earliest days studying at Don Bosco Catholic School, I’ve had a deep passion for art,” Henok shared. “But the road was not always easy. My family struggled to understand or support my creative aspirations.” He paused thoughtfully before continuing.

“Thankfully, I had an incredible friend by my side, who saw my talent even when I doubted myself,” he said.

Henok’s artistic abilities soon caught the attentive eye of the Goethe-Institut. As an organization dedicated to cultural exchange, they selected Henok to participate in AFRICOMICS, a collaborative effort led by their Ghana office.

“These workshops were an incredible platform for strengthening interest in visual storytelling across sub-Saharan Africa,” Henok reflected. Brought together were local and German facilitators offering diverse perspectives, fostering mutual understanding between participating artists from 14 nations. Henok found it a unique opportunity to both learn from and connect with fellow creatives, unlocking new ideas and avenues for growth.

The workshop in Ghana proved especially pivotal. With “Decolonize” as its theme, deep introspection was prompted. “We were challenged as artists to address colonialism’s ongoing impacts in African societies,” Henok noted. Inspired, he created an exhibition titled “Pen City” using his craft to shed light on Ethiopia’s historical capos casile slavery jail and advocate reclaiming marginalized narratives. It was empowering, Henok said, to employ his art in challenging dominant structures.

“Pen City” explored the context of the jail, giving voice to enslaved individuals’ experiences and championing decolonization. Through thought-provoking comic panels, Henok sought to promote dialogue, awareness and positive change.  

That evening as Henok’s exhibition unveiled, the presence of loved ones touched him deeply. “Despite initial hesitation, their pride in my accomplishments is truly heartwarming,” he smiled. “Their unwavering support has been integral to my success as an artist. I’m grateful for their encouragement at every stage.”

Buoyed by the impact of his “Pen City” exhibition, Henok felt compelled to develop the concept further. He began adapting the thought-provoking themes and narrative panels into a comic book format.

Months of focused work ensued as Henok immersed himself in crafting the visual story. He worked diligently to distill the exhibition’s essence into a cohesive graphic novel that could potentially reach wider audiences. Through each hand-drawn page, Henok sought to ensure the voices and experiences of those marginalized by history continued resonating.

When at last the comic book took shape, Henok was eager to share how the transformative process had unfolded. “Adapting ‘Pen City’ into this new medium allowed me to refine ideas and invoke the same feelings of awareness, but through an entirely new lens,” he explained.

The exhibition had proven there was value in using art to advocate for reclaiming narratives. By bringing these concepts to life within the pages of a comic, Henok hoped to further spark important dialogue and keep marginalized stories in the spotlight.

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