Portrait | Gyimah Gariba
"Probably pencil shavings and lemon."
Gyimah sits beside me on the bench looking up occasionally. There’s a thoughtful pause in our conversation then, “Probably pencil shavings and lemon,” he decides his ideal scent. It’s coming to the end of our meeting and we’ve decided to synthesize ourselves in sensory experiences - I chose a photo and voice recording, he chose a silent video and a scent, hence the lemon. He’s also sketching me. In an exchange that was supposed to be an interview, it’s starting to feel a lot more like a session with a psychoanalyst; my movements and features being analyzed, observed, and translated into a cartoon. But Gyimah’s illustrations, ranging somewhere between pensive and playful, aptly reflect his demeanour - so I’m confident my two dimensional form is in good hands.
Gyimah Gariba moved to Toronto from Accra, Ghana just over six years ago to pursue a degree in Animation. In deciding between CalArts and Sheridan, it was the familiarity of Toronto, with the appeal of family relatives and a lower tuition, that sealed the deal. As his parents met and studied in Ottawa before moving back to Ghana he had previously spent summers in the city, and the industry landscape for animation held much more opportunity than home ever would. “Coming over here in the summers opened a window for mystery and magic, and how funny [animation] could be.” In 90s the majority of animation in Ghana was still done in cel drawings and mainly created for informational purposes. “So they have, like, a weird sombre overtone too them - even in the way they are drawn.” While growing up, Gyimah was drawn more to cartoons like Animaniacs, Tom & Jerry and Dexter's Labratory - all of which made the appeal of moving abroad to pursue his passion very enticing. “It was also one of the most important decisions of my career.”
"I pretty much showed up, paid a fuck-tonne of money and met people."
Though Gyimah romanticizes the mentor/mentee relationship of days passed, school provided structure and an opportunity to meet like-minded people. And while the courses and organization of Sheridan proved to be beneficial, he learned the majority of his skills from his peers, “I pretty much showed up, paid a fuck-tonne of money and met people.” Many of whom he now counts in the roster of his ideal “dream team” that he already has in mind for future projects. In the mean time Gyimah produces a huge amount of personal work that fills his website and instagram. The animation industry, as with all mass media, is rife with demographic quotas and stereotypes that are far from equally representative. So creating these illustrations is, in part, an effort to remedy the disparity. "I want to show the potential of broadening discourse in animation and comics by being inclusive, first with the casting of my Illustrations then by exploring the different ways [in which] including those voices alters narratives we've heard being told over and over in the same ways with the same all white cast."
Looking forward Gyimah is working towards a role as a Creator of TV animation series as opposed to Feature work, a decision rooted in the freedom that the medium holds, “TV animation is better cause you can just be yourself without the politics of big budget films.” So, in looking to Creators like Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward or the prolific Genndy Tartakovsky, who made favourites like Dexter’s Laboratory and Power Puff Girls, Gyimah aims to be a Creator of Series for TV or Youtube where he can say more of what he wants to say and encourage others to do the same. "I want to inspire people to be inclusive and to make a space of their own to say what they feel should be said. No one is going to make you the heroes [that] you needed when you were a kid. You have to do that."
The renaissance of kids animation in TV shows allows for a democratization of voices similar to that in the underground zine and comic subculture in North America, where the low costs associated with printing allow for virtually anyone to be their own Creator. The displacement of media control, in TV and zines alike, away from institutions and towards individuals brings the opportunity for the creation of a variety of diverse identities as unique as the Creators who made them. Allowing for the values, narratives, pet peeves and problems faced by other young Creators to be shared and understood by a larger audience. Increased representation and decreased stigmatization go hand in hand. So essentially, “There’s no one to tell you that there can only be two black kids in the back [of a cartoon]”.
"I know for a fact there's certain battles you can't win on your own."
Gyimah draws with compassion and humility, adding depth to his characters through thoughtful colour choices and expressive line work. His motley crew of family and friends, both real and imaginary, make regular appearances throughout his work but there are aspects of his life that he chooses not to put at the forefront. “I know for a fact there’s certain battles you can’t win on your own.” Though a progressively democratic nation in most regards, homosexuality is still punishable by law in Ghana. Inspite of the stigma of associating with the LGBTQ community in Ghana, Gyimah is a proud advocate but chooses to use his achievements in work as his words to create change. Empowering his position in Toronto as an opportunity to benefit not only his personal career but also for the opportunity to develop the ideologies and perspectives back home. "I want to get to the point where it's undeniable the things you can achieve."