By Dele Animasaun
I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me —Kwame Nkrumah
The first time,I met Tayo was in Punch many moons ago. As part of a new wave of cartoonists in Nigeria, he created a buzz and it was infectious. He has a way of looking at the world that we always anticipate what he will draw next. He never disappoints.
I can proudly say that we have been friends ever since and bonded over our love of history and the arts.
Without a history, there is no future. So, when TAYO Fatunla began publishing his OUR ROOTS cartoon feature on Black History, little did he know that 30 years on, he will still be drawing the series that has evolved into various formats through the years.
OUR ROOTS was first published in the UK’s Voice newspaper based in London in 1989. TAYO Fatunla has been drawing the history of the Black race through his journalistic drawings after discovering the need to educate Black History to children of African heritage internationally. OUR ROOTS is a historic journey which originally began as a school project whilst Tayo was a student at the Kubert school in New Jersey, US. TAYO first created the series which he initially titled AFRICAN SKETCHBOOK. A few of his tutors helped with the project including the legendary US comic artist Joe Kubert.
TAYO began his cartooning career in Nigeria drawing for several newspapers and magazines including the Punch newspapers, where he drew editorial cartoons and the well read “Omoba” back page cartoon column and he went on to draw for Nduka Ogbaigbena’s then THISWEEK magazine. TAYO credits Vanguard’s Publisher Sam Amuka Pemu (Uncle Sam) who co-founded PUNCH Newspapers for giving him the break as a career cartoonist. “I had to leave the OMOBA cartoon to go to the US to study Cartoon Art”.
In London, Steve Pope, the then editor of the Voice newspaper (1984-1989) in 1989, invited TAYO who was residing in Hackney in East London to visit the Voice premises on Coldharbour Lane with keen interest in his idea, hoping for it to be featured in the paper. TAYO’s initial challenge was to research about Black history makers and achievers from the UK and from all walks of life internationally. His idea was not to focus on one particular black race but all black races in the diaspora, things, places and events. It worked and the interest in OUR ROOTS began to take shape for the future. OUR ROOTS also has featured in Nigeria’s Sunday Times newspaper under the editorship of Mr. Dapo Aderinola and at the inception of THISDAY newspaper and was titled OUR NIGERIA.
OUR ROOTS brings to life the accomplishments of men and women, sung and unsung in a vivid and accessible way. How many know that the inventor of the traffic light was black? How many know the military achievements of the great Zulu leader Chaka?
Few know of our great political leaders, scientists, inventors, thinkers or artists in Nigeria as well as beyond. TAYO set out to do this and educate beautifully with his OUR ROOTS drawings.
Tayo recollects when Jerry Robinson the creator of Robin and the Joker who ran a US based syndicate called Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate, now Cartoon Arts International called him. He showed interest in OUR ROOTS and asked TAYO to have his series syndicate in US newspapers and so it did in such newspapers as News Sentinel, a Fort Wayne Indiana newspaper. OUR ROOTS has since featured in New York Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender, Sacramento Observer and the Atlanta Voice.
Nigerian-American painter and art historian and tutor, Professor Dele Jegede (himself a famous cartoonist with Nigeria’s Daily Times in the 70s and 80s) says “Tayo Fatunla embarked on a graphic journey with the creation of his trailblazing and imaginative series, OUR ROOTS. His visual snippets extraordinary works that roll history, art, and journalism into a ball park highlight the criticalness of acknowledging our ancestry at the same time that they incentivize people to take pride in identifying with inspiring role models.”
The British Museum so much loved OUR ROOTS series and asked TAYO if he could visually create ten AFRICAN KINGDOM illustrations for its THE WEALTH OF AFRICA online educational resource. TAYO produced the Benin Kingdom and the Swahili coast to mention a few of the ten he drew. Commissioned formats such as Spirit of Lagos Comic for the Lagos state Government is also as a result of OUR ROOTS. And there are OUR ROOTS comic and books. He has since launched his OUR ROOTS book in London and in New York.
At the Kubert school, TAYO’s tutor, Hy Eisman (Popeye cartoonist) helped with the logo and David Cuccia his classmate helped with the lettering. TAYO wanted to give the illustrations a comic book look to it and also educate with it. In 1987 it would then be published first anywhere in the world, in FLIGHT AFRICA magazine a Nigerian aviation magazine which was published by journalist Mr Femi Ogunleye, now Kabiyesi Femi Ogunleye, Towulade of Akinale in Abeokuta local government. The first four feature illustrations TAYO produced at school were the initial AFRICAN SKETCHBOOK drawings in the magazine.
TAYO first researched OUR ROOTS at Dover library in New Jersey. Apart from drawing, TAYO also reads to research information for his series and bring to awareness sung and unsung heroes and heroines.
Through the years of drawings, the ignorant and the less informed have been well educated. In addition to Black people in diaspora, children and adults have got to know and learn about, heroes and heroines, sung and unsung, people, places and things in Africa and from Nigeria as well. His feature extends to The Caribbean, New Zealand, Australia, South America, the US and Europe. TAYO has since done and continues to have done, OUR ROOTS presentations in schools, libraries, Museums and Universities internationally.
Tayo has won countless awards including one in May 2018 when he was presented with the ECBACC Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award (PLA) for OUR ROOTS – Famous Black People in History. Receiving the award has been a journey of being appreciated and honoured for what one does and the impact OUR ROOTS has made in lives through visual and historical education. TAYO is also the recipient of the Lagos Baptist Academy Award (BAOSA) for professional excellence. He has held OUR ROOTS exhibitions (one at the Studio Harlem Museum, New York) and lectures in Universities in the US, France and the UK.
What is next ? TAYO plans to produce another book compilation of OUR ROOTS but unlike the first two books with covers published in colour and contents in black and white, he plans to publish the next book all in colour. OUR ROOTS was first published in black and white but with the advent of Computer technology and with the advancement of cartoons to digital art, TAYO began producing his historical drawings in colour. It has been 30 years of insight into the historical lives of many black people and TAYO hopes that his work and research over the years will stand the test of time and will be a starting point for researchers, enthusiasts and teachers as well.
He wants his work to inspire black youths, to have goals and set them for a better future for themselves. He continues to do Black History cartoon workshop sessions to inspire. TAYO’s deep interest in Black history has inspired his work and has always wanted to and continues to share his knowledge and creativity with many. He says “Again, I thank Uncle Sam, my parents and fans as well for this awesome journey.”
Many congratulations Tayo, you are a visionary and a patriotic African. You have motivated and inspired millions all over the world by your work and long may it continue.