Monday, July 21, 2008

Death of an artist

Here is a piece I did months ago, when artist Brian Hara died. I remembered him this week because a collection of his cartoons is out and he is making news, yet gone.

He was the most experienced cartoonist, the most popular and most famous yet the most humble. That is what makes him the greatest.

The news was unexpected last Friday morning; nothing like it would make anyone happy. But we had to receive the news that our cartoonist Brian Hara had died at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH).

Everyone was lost for words. But a story had to be done, anyway, because duty called us to do so, otherwise were all mourning.

It was not just any other artist gone. It was the country’s best cartoonist. It was the country’s oldest cartoonist. (The rest, from James Kazembe to Haswell Kunyenje are young people who were drinking from the deep well of Hara’s artistic work.) It was Malawi’s most popular cartoonist.

We are talking about Hara, the 63-year-old cartoonist behind Town and Country Rat, Zabweka, Eagle’s Eye View (on Political Index where we worked closely) and Pewani.

If you have read books under the Malawi Writers Series and Werengani Series, you know the illustrations were done by Hara. If you read Sibo and Dingase, you know the illustrations were the work of Hara. If you follow our history, then you know the illustrated face of John Chilembwe we use in the newspapers was done by Hara. The list is long.

On a personal note, I know how professional he was because we worked together on several projects under Nation Publications Limited.

One project comes to mind. The 2005 Father’s Day initial story had illustrations that depicted a kind, loving father with his children. I told Hara the crude idea of the story. We spoke for a minute and it was over. "I will do that for you," he said. What came was marvelous. Illustrations we cherish until now.

But this is not the only reason we mourn the artist. Brian Hara was a human being first. And he was a humble man. He did not have a label of the country’s greatest artist at his back. He wore a label of a humble citizen, one who paid tax and walked the streets, brushed shoulders with all of us.

Here, at Nation, he was a friend. His day started at about 9 in the morning when he usually came in to do cartoons.

First he would sit at a corner, read the day’s newspapers, do crossword puzzles and talk about cartoon ideas for Town and Country Rat and everything else. As he did his cartoons, he did not wear a serious face. He would do his work with utmost ease, raising his head to greet those passing by. Even then, his hand was listening to his mind, still drawing with precision. He lived like all of us yet he was different. He was great. That he managed to combine the traits of a great artist and a humble citizen is rare resilience. That is why we mourn him even more.

His death also raises the question of artists in our society. Hara was an artist who took part in the fight for multiparty in early 1990s. His works mocking one party system sent a message, a message more powerful than what politicians said.

Yet when multiparty was achieved, the artist was forgotten. History seems to suggest it was politicians who fought for multiparty.

Hara did not struggle to refute that. He did his work and it is well illustrated that he captured situations with precision. Once it was noted that our Constitution had grammatical errors, he did a cartoon that remains one of his best.

He was, in a nut shell, a cartoonist whose eccentric comic visions of life played a formidable role in making The Nation and Weekend Nation number one newspapers until last Friday.

That Friday morning when life seemed to be leaving the artist, Malawi did not notice a great man was dying. That Friday morning, the sun did not stop to honour the artist. That Friday morning, no market was closed to honour Hara. That Friday morning, life moved on as if nothing had happened. Yet a great man was dying. That is life’s most powerful lesson: that we are equal at birth and death and that is the lesson Hara was teaching in his art work and life, a call to humility.

Our love and appreciation go with Brian Hara, a great cartoonist yet gentle, humble human being. Our sympathies go to his family.

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