#UNBORDER – The Great African Art’ Caravan

by Aakshat Sinha


There are some travel plans that are so preposterous that they become about the best adventures ever! A road trip across Africa from Cape Town to Cairo by a group of artists with plans of making public art along the way is undeniably an adrenaline rush tale.

Visual artists, musicians, and filmmakers from seven different countries (four continents) bunched up in three Mahindra SUVs travel across 10 countries in southern, eastern and northern Africa. On the way they collaborate with local artists from diverse backgrounds – fulfilling a mission to drive their dusty cars till Cairo. This was behind the making of a wonderful tale of adventure and grit; survival and fun; empathy and revelation. Shikhant Sablania aka Choorma, the visual artist and comic creator’s nom de plume, has used this tale, this travelogue of sorts, as the premise of his latest webcomic series which is featured and releasing chapter-wise on his website, www.choorma.com

Oh, did I mention that this is a true account and that Shikhant was one of the artists of this eclectic traveling bunch!

Released on 17 July 2021, the webcomic starts with a Prologue followed by Part 1 “Chaos” that covers the planning, funding (?) and resource management, flights to Cape Town, South Africa and settling down in the city with arriving and local artists. The second part is planned to be released soon and later the subsequent parts, documenting the entire journey at planned periodic intervals. The webcomic is written and drawn by Shikhant Sablania and Mitali Pangati helped him with the colouring, while Sumit Ray and Anupam Arunachalam edited the comic;; Tushar Sagar was the Script Advisor. Also acknowledged for Part 1 are the Khoj International Artists Association and the Patrons Anamika Bharadwaj, Shruti Jha, and Kriti Jha.


Screenshots of the webcomic


The Great African Caravan project was the brainchild of the Hyderabad -based, travelling theatre artist, Akram Feroze. The planning for the trip initiated with his calls to a few artists including Shikhant in Delhi in December 2016. Shikhant has been able to capture the raw enthusiasm and trepidation of the artists when approached for the first time and later during the journey itself. The period from the start itself is quite tedious and challenges loom large as there is so much to be done and inadequate resources. The train of meetings on Zoom followed by recurrent disappointment to raise funds does pull down the spirits. Shikhant has captured this emotion well through the use of image and textual repetitions, and appropriate dialogues. But the 'never say die!' attitude prevails and 'jugaad' happens. Akram leads the group with a soul-filling, awe-inspiring, and adventure-rousing speech and the artists embark on the journey.


More screenshots of the webcomic


We follow the team’s actual start of the trip with flights to Cape Town and we see different artists reaching there at different times from different cities of origin. Each one is finding ways to fund their own travel. The way the narrative builds is quite unlike any story I’ve read, which probably has to do with the enormity of the project itself. I had first heard of it from Shikhant in 2016 and was aware of the snail's pace of things through 2017 and 2018. In between Shikhant and I managed to do a 20+ day trip to Russia across three cities for an art exhibition which happened to be his first trip abroad. Africa became his second.

I was privy to the realities faced by the team making the plans for the travel and desperately trying to raise funds. The project seemed like a once in a lifetime, change-your-life-forever type. As it transpired it definitely was that for all involved but about that later as I don’t want to give out what happens beyond what’s mentioned in Part 1. You need to read it to absorb it for yourself.

I remember someone commenting at the flag off of the journey which happened in Delhi sometime in May 2018. I had curated an exhibition for the flag off which went something like, “काश की मैं भी जा पता ऐसी यात्रा पर जिसमें कला भी है, यात्रा भी और अफ्रीका, जहां दुनिया की शुरुआत हुई थी, मानव जीवन की, वहां के लोगों से सीधे मिलने का, बात करने का और समझने का मौका, उन्हीं के मुंह से। लेकिन ये बताओ की ये करोगे कैसे तुम लोग? पैसा कहां से आएगा?” Loosely translated, this reads: “Wish I could also be a part of this journey with art and travel across Africa, where the world originated for human life; a chance to meet the local people directly and to talk to them, and understand them first hand. But tell me how do you plan to fund it?” I had similar thoughts then but I still wish I had occupied one of the car seats along with the travelling artists. Well, we know that not only did the trip happen but the artists came back changed forever. I’m also following the comic to learn in detail how this really transpired.


The webcomic is the first tangible outcome / result of the #UNBORDER The Great African Caravan project. Shikhant had completed the first chapter a couple of years back and planned its release as a book in print. The layout of the medium is very important given that comics use text and visuals in a sequential art format. Designing the panels and the flow of the story through speech bubbles, text and the use of lines, characters and colours for it to all come together can be rather challenging. Initially designed only for print, the book had to be now redesigned for the online webcomic format, which uses the scroll option. Shikhant has been able to adapt the panels by redoing a lot of them and the art to customize it for online consumption. Though I personally feel that the webcomic works best on a handheld device like a mobile or tablet: the flow is not as convenient on a laptop or desktop. Some of the photos of the test print of the book and of screenshots of the current chapter online will help one understand the changes. I belong to the old school probably and so wish that the book finally comes out in print also one day; unfortunately, lack of availability of funds didn’t allow for a printed version. Shikhant was able to raise sufficient funds to help release the webcomic which is now FREE for anyone who wishes to read. Now, that’s surely better than having to pay for the book!


Photo collage of the test print of the initial version of the Comic book


The webcomic captures not only the basic travel-related events or even just the art-related ones, but also presents the local life from the perspective of a foreigner who travels to a new place with preconceived stereotypes. The process of #UNBORDER-ing continues even today when the trip has ended when every reader of this webcomic will have their stereotypical notions shaken. The process of understanding the African way of life isn’t easy – local habits and lifestyles change every 100 kilometres in the large continent. The African continent is 20% of the world’s landmass; 16% of the world’s population; and has as many as around 3000 native languages.






Screenshots of the webcomic


As we start reading the webcomic, we move from the local Indian space to a local setting in Cape Town. Shikhant’s art initiates the reader into the life of the locals and its multiple facets. The use of a subtle colour scheme coupled with the various tools of sequential art, and the choice of font, spacing and layout all contribute greatly to the webcomic’s easy readability. The dialogues and text have been edited well and despite the frugality in both art and text, there is no loss of understanding the flow of the story. Shikhant excels with the use of whacky satire and creates an environment of light-hearted realism. The excitement and eagerness is equally palpable as is the sense of disappointment, dread and anxiety.





It’s still early days in the trip and the characters are still learning about themselves and each other in the first part. The social media was used in an effective and interesting way to introduce the artists and the characters. And I too have used this review specifically to introduce them to you, our esteemed artramour reader. All you have to do now is to rush to the webcomic and read it.



The webcomic is available at https://choorma.com/books/african-caravan/


(All images are courtesy of Shikhant Sablania aka Choorma and the screenshots are courtesy of Aakshat Sinha.)



 

Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.

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