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Profile | In Conversation with Ebele Okoye

Ebele Okoye is a Nigerian multimedia artist and 2D animation filmmaker, based in Berlin. Ebele has worked with poetry in her animations for a number of years and is well-known for continuously challenging the traditional elements of storytelling.

Over the years Ebele has actively mentored many young animators on a personal level, and also through the community of artists subscribed to Animation Club Africa, which she founded in 2009. A number of nonconventional and experimental parallels can be drawn between her animation, her characters, and the narrating style. Although there has been significant growth and development within the African animation industry, there are still signs of discord. Ebele is one of very few animators who have tirelessly championed African-made productions within an archaic industry which still favours Eurocentric artistry.

MI: When did you begin creating animations?

EO: I wanted to be an animator from the age of 7. I grew up with a consolation of tales by the moonlight, where in the night someone was telling stories and children were listening. From a young age I always wanted to connect these stories with images and make the characters in my mind move.

My very first “official” animation was made in 2006 and was called Dominatic. I had just finished my studies at the International Film School of Cologne. At the time I was sharing a flat with a friend, who was a writer. We were broke graduates and we shared a computer. One day I found a poem in the Recycle Bin of the computer. I loved it so much I decided to make it into an animation.

Papermouse by Ebele Okoye

MI: Who do you have in mind when you’re working on an animation film?

EO: My work is not like mainstream animation solely because I work mostly with poetry. I have in mind anybody who is able to identify with images that I put out there. When I’m telling stories I want to sensitise people to societal problems. Generally the audience is always different, it also depends on the story itself. For instance, in my last short film The Legacy of Rubies I specifically wanted to speak to African animators to encourage them to try and make good quality animation films. I needed to make this statement, anything is possible and Africans can, and do make quality animations.

"There are so many artists talking about critical issues in their work, but if it doesn’t look like a Disney or Pixar production nobody is willing to pay to see it"

MI: In addition to your international achievements, you have also experienced much success in Germany. Would you say it’s more important for an African creator to cater specifically to an African audience or a universal one?

EO: Based on my own experiences, I think it’s as important to cater to a universal audience. To be honest, most of my work has not been appreciated in Africa. The Legacy of Rubies is actually an adaptation of an African fairytale and won an African Academy award. Surprisingly, the majority of my sales are from Europe and other continents, but not Africa. I guess most Africans want to watch the film for free!

I can stand on top of the highest mountain and say this: people don’t like to support animation in Africa. If they are interested in African animation, they only think of 3D animation. It’s as if this is the only thing that impresses them. There are so many artists talking about critical issues in their work, but if it doesn’t look like a Disney or Pixar production nobody is willing to pay to see it.

The Legacy of Rubies (trailer) by Ebele Okoye

MI: When developing a story what comes first in the process: characters, idea or style?

EO: First of all you must have the idea and then you can shape the overarching story. Once you have the story you should begin thinking about the characters. (Although, many animators will have ideas about the characters before having laid out the story). The next process would be the character design, creating the screenplay and storyboards.

In animation you edit before you start, whereas with film it’s the opposite, as you film and then begin the editing process afterward. Every line that you draw in animation is a lot of work, so you need to be sure that your timing is precise before you continue to develop a story.

"The relationship between white, french animators and the African countries colonized by France is more intact, in comparison to Britain and the parts of West Africa it colonized"

MI: How do you think the concept of "African animation" is received in the European sphere?

EO: It’s all quite relative to the story you’re telling, but if we’re talking objectively it depends on the constellation and the environment. The Legacy of Rubies is considered as pure African animation. It wasn’t received very well in the context of European animation, perhaps because it was branded "African". To be honest what exactly is "African Animation"? Is it the story, or the author or the style? What’s the deciding factor? It’s all relative!

Anna Blume by Ebele Okoye

MI: Would you say colourism exists in the animation community?

EO: There are some reputable animations which have emerged from East Africa, which were produced by fair-skinned or white animators. The characters within these animations are also fair-skinned, and these production are vastly successful in comparison to others. I’m not one to rant and rave about racism all the time, but in my experience racial biases are very much present and still prevail.

There was an animation series called Kirikou and the Sorceress, it was greatly successful and popular amongst black people - but who made it? Michael Ocelot - a white french guy. There was also Aya of Yop City, which began life a comic series but was then made into a feature film. Even though it’s a typical “Black African” story - again - who brought this to life? Another white french guy, Clément Oubrerie. Race plays a role, people may not want to believe it, but it does. The relationship between white french animators and the African countries colonized by France is more intact, in comparison to Britain (and Germany, if even for a short period) and the parts of West Africa it colonized.

"All my work has been produced using my own money. It's been challenging, but the only thing that will keep you going is your passion"

MI: What advice would you give to hopeful animators, who are yet to secure financial funding?

EO: Financial funding is very, very difficult to obtain. Germany for instance has a lot of funding but I have never benefited from public funding, most of my projects have been privately funded. For animators in Africa who want funding, there isn’t much available for individuals, nothing available from the government. Although there a small-scale collectives and film festivals based in Africa that are always open to the idea of supporting animators with funding they have acquired through local or international government bodies.

I made Legacy of Rubies using my own money. Practically, all of my work has been produced using my own money. It has been challenging, the only thing that will keep you going is your passion.

MI: Looking to the future, what projects or curatorial events do you have lined up for next year?

EO: Due to personal reasons, I took a hiatus for most of 2017. I intend to pick up where I left off with my feature film Azora. It’s an indigenous, native story but you wouldn’t necessarily label it as something that’s an “African Tale”, it’s more fantasy. Because of my experience with The Legacy of Rubies I have decided not to focus on one continent, although, you could still class it as being an African story. For the first time, I’m going to be looking into public funding to complete this project, as well as crowdfunding - exciting times ahead!

MI: Why do you do what you do?

EO: Animation has been something I have been very adamant and passionate about since childhood, I love telling stories through image. I was also a painter before I pursued my career in animation, and when I painted I would always write on my paintings. Telling a story through image has always been a part of me. I see animation as an additional counterpart of a narrative. Even if it’s bullshit, even if nobody is interested in my stories, I don’t care. I can understand and accept that my work doesn’t cater to a mainstream audience and I couldn’t care less because I love what I do.

Animation: Ebele Okoye

Words: Mag Ibiam

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