The first time that the journalist Pere Ortín went to Equatorial Guinea, in 1993, he found a treasure that he did not want to part with. He was working as a reporter in a town and some elders told him that 50 years ago, some Spanish gentlemen with cameras, like him, had come there to take photos and films. Upon returning to Spain, he began to investigate and discovered that this story was true: the Franco dictatorship sent a photographic and cinematographic expedition between 1944 and 1946 to the former Spanish Guinea that produced more than 30 films and 5,000 photographs, to document the Spanish colonial universe. in Black Africa.
All charges against Guinean cartoonist Ramón Esono, critical of Obiang, are dropped
Ortín found those half-abandoned films and photos in the National Film Library, and decided to look for one of the three sent on the expedition. He found a survivor, 94 years old, in a town in Almería, he went to meet him and from there a friendship relationship and the graphic novel was born. 10,000 elephants (Reservoir Books), written by Pere Ortín and drawn by the Equatorial Guinean artist Nzé Esono Ebalé.
“It has been 20 years of journalistic investigation. It had three names, and I located one of them, the director of the expedition, Manuel Hernández-Sanjuán, who lived in retirement in Aguadulce. I decided not to call him on the phone, but to go meet him at his house. I knocked on the door and a short, skinny old man appeared. I explained to him why he was looking for him and he asked me a question that still moves me: And how do you know all this?’ No one had been interested in his work until then, ”says Ortín.
in jail for drawing
They strengthened their friendship chatting about the places they had visited in Equatorial Guinea 50 years apart, and talking about cinema. “Manuel selected the 12 films that he considered to be the best of his work. And the one that seemed the best, balele, which is magnificent, an authentic video clip made in the year 44. A true marvel of editing, montage, and narrative rhythm. It’s like MTV, but made 50 years before”, explains the journalist. Before Manuel Hernández-Sanjuán died, he gave her a suitcase with all his work and gave her his legacy.
Pere Ortín has been a friend of Ramón Nzé Esono Ebalé for many years and suggested that he draw the story of Ten thousand elephants. The artist was in jail in 2017 in Guinea for his book Obi’s nightmare, a graphic novel critical of the dictator Obiang. After five months, and thanks to international pressure, Ramón left the so-called ‘Guinean Guantánamo’ and now he cannot return to Guinea.
From El Salvador, where he lives with his family, he remembers how in prison he improved the technique with which he has drawn comics: the Bic pen. “Since I was little I always drew with Bic pens, I was in love with them, it is a cheap pen, it has been sold for 50 years and it was what was within my reach in my time. In prison, since he had nothing to do, he drew many hours and that reinforced my technique. I never imagined I would draw a graphic novel with those Bic pens. When I was offered the script for ten thousand elephants I had enough training, the anger for being in jail, and a lot of desire to draw seriously”, explains Esono.
Propaganda and ‘whitesplaining’
The European metropolises sent teams of photographers, documentary filmmakers and filmmakers who filmed and recorded all the processes of their African colonies. The films were a propaganda tool and Spain, with a dictator fond of cinema, wanted to imitate the French, Belgians or British. “The expedition has a propaganda will that, in the case of Spain, is very seedy. They wanted to convey the idea of the dictatorship that Spain was not a colonialist but a civilizer of peoples, through the Catholic religion. Those films are clearly supremacist and racist, but when that colonial cinema is analyzed in depth, what is surprising about this expedition is that they arrived with a look in 44 and left with another look in 46. Hernández Sanjuán recognized that they were boys ignorant of Madrid left in the middle of Africa and that transformed them”, says Pere Ortín.
“Ramón and I think that critical analyzes of memory are of little use if today’s reports on Africa are basically the same as those that were made back then. The colonial gaze persists in the analysis of the realities of Africa, just like what was done 70 years ago. It seems that we have not learned anything, and they had the excuse that they were ignorant, we do not have it. The speech of whitesplaining, of whites that explain Africa, is surprisingly similar to what was followed in past times”, explains Ortín, citing the song by the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Colonial mentality. “The colonial mentality is not memorized in whites, Westerners, Spaniards. They think that they behave naturally with Africans and this is not the case, supremacist processes continue to this day, and ethical and moral superiority appears every day in the media”, says the reporter.
Ghosts of Africa in the heads of whites
Pere Ortín has often experienced the fear and prejudice that people around him express towards Africa, a continent that is spoken of in the singular and that only exists in the heads of Western people. “I have journalist friends, progressive and open people, who are still afraid to go anywhere in Africa. This is the colonial Mentality, it is cosmopolitan racism, as the anthropologist Manuel Delgado says. Many people live off the ghosts of Africa,” he explains.
Ramón Nzé Esono clarifies that they do not want to judge people who do not know what Africa is. “Very few people on the planet, neither African journalists nor from other continents, end up accepting the fact that Africa is very large and diverse. I don’t want to place myself in a place of moral judgement, and neither does Pere. We’re not trying to single out anyone, although a good story needs to be remembered that there are things that aren’t told well,” says the cartoonist.
Ramón Nzé Esono’s drawings convey a sensory atmosphere. The jungles he draws are pink or blue, and the story takes place in the midst of a dreamlike sensation, between dream and fiction. “These territories are wonderful, they have gone through two wars, slavery, looting, logging, colonialism, pollution… it is a beauty that has fought against very negative elements. Equatorial Guinea is an exorbitant jungle of animals and plants, there is no one who has been in Guinea who does not highlight that beauty against the reality of the dictatorship. It is a beauty without words”, says Ramón Nzé Esono.
And Pere Ortín adds: “We were both tired of topical visions and clichés, why can’t a jungle be drawn in pink? In the case of Guinea and Africa in general, there is an extreme concentration on the ugly, which we do not deny, but we have moved a lot and even in the most fucked up places on the planet, we have found that possibility of greeting the beauty of another way, as Rimbaud said.
With that idea this “literary artifact” was born. In addition to Esono’s drawings, the book is dotted with collages with real photos of the expedition cut out and colored, mixed with old maps or charts. There is a narration with a main story, that of the Spanish expedition that goes up a river looking for a chimera: a place where 10,000 elephants gather. On that trip, Ortín recognizes the legacy of Moby Dick and the Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. This central story is covered by other stories that come out of it like tributaries, and open other worlds that are glimpsed and not always closed. “The idea was to evoke other ways of telling, to show non-linear forms of orality. So are many of the stories that are told in Guinea and in other cultures. We wanted to make a kind of Russian doll in which some stories are inside others”, explains Pere Ortín.
The past is a country
Ortín and Esono insist that they do not want to denounce the memory of the past, but rather build critical thinking on the present and, above all, invent a possible future. “The past is another country —says Ortín— and there things were done differently, who knows what happened. The security with which some journalists assure me that the past was a certain way makes me laugh, as if someone could give testimony, when we know that the documentation can be falsified and no one is alive. I am not interested in that type of superiority, nor that truth of the data, but rather exploring other narrative territories, the world is told in other ways”, explains the reporter.
The book is not narrated from resentment or confrontation. “I was born within this Spain without ceasing to be truly fang. I have the pleasant feeling that the primitive peoples of Equatorial Guinea have never rejected any kind of arrivals. It is very complex to judge ourselves and think if we should have fought, it is true that they came to invade us and turn us into what they were, but we are a people who receive, because we think that our mission is to spread the principle of everything: cordiality, respect, solidarity, the remnants of that purity of the principles of humanity”.
The two want to remember that Africa is 14 kilometers away and is a diverse continent, with 2,000 languages that represent 2,000 cultures. “There are almost 1,500 million Africans, who are struggling to get ahead, they are the youngest continent on the planet. The media have a correspondent for the entire continent, and they do reports on Africa but without Africans”, recalls Ortín. “In Africa there are wonderful artists, directors, writers, filmmakers, musicians, with creativity and culture in every corner, and here we only see a minimal percentage of what Africa represents,” he concludes.