At only 19, he is old enough to draw a jagged skyline that casts long, slanted shadows on an imaginary street behind an equally imaginary high-rise building in a typical Malawian village.
And Vitumbiko Luhanga simply has a quiet air of confidence about him— safe, perhaps, in the knowledge that he is one of Malawi’s up-and-coming animators.
According to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary [Third Edition], to ‘animate’ is to make someone seem more happy or active while an ‘animator’ is someone who makes animated films, drawings, puppets and models move in a natural way in films and other types of entertainment.
The 19-year-old Vitumbiko could, therefore, count himself lucky to be one of the country’s animators.
He, however, confesses that it has not been a straight road finding himself in animation.
Looking back—which is not far much back, anyway—Vitumbiko links his interest in animation to hand drawings he has been working on since his early teen years.
“I have been doing hand drawings for as long as I can remember. I just fell into this habit of hand-drawing humans, as opposed to static things such as highways and buildings whenever I had spare time. As I am speaking, I have over 20 hand-made fine paintings I drew by hand, although I do not give them titles,” says Luhanga.
However, like a man who so much wants to hunt but does not know where the prey is, Luhanga has been creating paintings with no specific customers in mind, hence the soft-spoken Blantyre-born animator-cum-fine artist has often found himself in a situation where he can be stuck with an artistic work for months on end.
“But, then, I always come across people who appreciate art and are interested in my works. Such kind of people have always appreciated my art and bought my works. But, really, I mainly do it to kill time and this idea of killing time developed a long time ago.
“I remember being young and having a lot of spare time. I could then turn stuff I watched on television into artistic work and that’s how I turned a pastime into a hobby,” says Luhanga.
Coincidentally, Luhanga is also interested in graphic designing— a development he says puts him in a position where he can combine his fine art skills with graphic design knowledge to create animated products that stand the test of time.
Luhanga says there is more to graphic designing than page layout.
“Design is not just about print; it can encompass motion graphics, which brings us into the picture of animation. I think we have over-emphasised the print part of design but that is not all there is to graphic designing,” says Luhanga.
He sees animation and cartons drawn using technological means overtaking the traditional hand-drawn cartoons. He says newspaper and magazine cartoonists need to sail with the times and embrace new technologies
Zunein Ibrahim, another up-and-coming graphic designer and animator, concurs with Luhanga on the need to sail with the winds of technological advancements.
“All over the world, people are moving into animations. It is now possible to do what used to be done by hand digitally, and this includes cartooning. With digital technologies, it is possible to create cartons using technological tools,” says Ibrahim, a renowned graphic designer.
Ibrahim says, using computers, he has been able to create animated products, although he is more into page designing than animated products.
Ragged path to animation
However, both Luhanga and Ibrahim acknowledge that Malawi’s road to becoming a nation that appreciates animation is long and winding.
Ibrahim, for example, cites the lack of colleges specialising in animation-creation programmes and courses.
“In my case, I learned the art of animation, as well as print media graphic designing, at Ace College in Blantyre, but you will not find such colleges everywhere. So, we need to promote the establishment of graphic designing schools that incorporate animation in their programmes if we have to compete with animators from other countries,” says Ibrahim.
He adds that it is not enough to develop interest in, say, animation; schools should come in to give the art an educational touch to avoid a scenario where artists work from a position of instinct, or in try-and-error mode, other than the solid foundation of knowledge acquired inside a classroom.
On his part, Luhanga observes that Malawi even lacks simple tools used in animation.
“We do not even have graphic tablets in Malawi and, in rare cases where one stumbles into them, they are very expensive. This is a blow to us, and something should be done about this,” says Luhanga, adding:
“In addition, [Malawi] does not appreciate art. When you are drawing something, people think that you are only drawing a beautiful thing and, yet, in countries such as South Africa, art is taken seriously. In fact, fine art is more than a job there; it is a career,” bemoans Luhanga.
He observes that artists could save a lot of money by embracing animation, saying one does not have to buy drawing materials to create animated products since everything is in “soft” form on the computer or in graphic tablets.
He points that, as one way of showing that fine art is more than a career, a value chain supports foreign fine artists as they buy their way into people’s hearts.
“The lines of competence are clear out there, so much so that you will come across concept artists — these are people who come up with an idea or sketch — and illustrators, who come up with the final product, among others. It is not one individual doing it all, as often happens here. When there are no demarcations, in terms of expertise, quality is bound to be compromised,” says Luhanga.
Former Times Group graphic designer, Funsani Scander, observes that, while graphic designers have long been associated with page layout and other print-media related tasks, time has come for Malawians to appreciate that there is more art to graphic designing than the rigid job of arranging and re-arranging eye-catching printed pages.
“Did you know that graphic designing encompasses visual designers, audio designers, motion designers, digital designers, animators, production and graphic artists — all rolled up into the term graphic designing? Indeed, graphic designers make the best animators. They can rig cartoons, give them bones, make them walk and mesmerise people. They can also draw cartoons using a computer and get them printed in the print media,” says Scander.
Staying the course
While appreciating that animation has become the in-thing in other countries, veteran cartoonist Haswel Kunyenje does not envisage a situation where the hand-oriented cartoonist may be pushed out of the market any time soon.
Kunyenje, who is one of Blantyre Cartoon Club’s directors, says the local market is yet to create a market for animated cartoons and related products.
“People can do animated cartoons and the like, but, in the absence of demand on the market, those works may become souvenirs for the artist. I mean, the market is simply not there at the moment and animations do not pose any challenge to the traditional cartoonist,” says Kunyenje.
He adds that hand-drawn cartoons remain relevant in Malawi’s set up, and that up-and-coming cartoonists should not lose heart that the market is tilting towards animated cartoons and products.
“Hand-drawn cartoons still have a place in Malawi and it may be some time before animated products can even be said to be posing a threat to hand-drawn cartoons,” says Kunyenje.
Whatever the case, both hand-drawn and animated cartoons have found a way into people’s hearts and, whatever happens, the winner will be the heart.
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