Comfort Arthur Talks Skin Bleaching and Making 'Black Barbie'
Skin bleaching is a topic that many are aware of but not one that is regularly discussed. Comfort Arthur is trying to change this. The animator and illustrator’s latest animation “Black Barbie” is a story about her own experience with skin bleaching. The film has made Comfort Arthur a name to remember and has achieved critical acclaim and in the UK and Ghana. We caught up with the British born Ghanaian to discuss her work and inspirations. When did you start animating? How did you develop your style?
I studied graphic designing at the St Martins Central school of Arts and then went on to do a master in animation at the royal college of Arts. Illustration has always been my first love so I am constantly drawing. I enjoy using a lot of mix media, which I do a lot with my illustrative work. This has naturally transcended into my animation pieces.
Your animations all follow different themes – where do you get your inspiration?
I get my inspiration from my surroundings and my own personal experiences. People don’t realize but most of the best stories told are from our surroundings such as overheard conversation and even our own experiences. When my schedule is less packed I sometimes take bus journeys and listen, observe and sketch my surroundings. I’ve been doing this for years it has become part of my working methods.
Synopsis - Black Barbie is a Poetry animation that explores the filmmakers experience with skin bleaching products when growing up.
Black Barbie was very well received, winning multiple awards – were you expecting such a positive reaction?
Whenever I make a film and I show it to an audience I get so nervous so when I had my first ever screening of Black Barbie the audience was completely silent. I was petrified, I thought people hated the movie until the last line ended and people started to clap and cheer! I had tears in my eyes - it was the best feeling. Since then I have had many people send a lot of positive feedback.
The film features British Ghanaian actress Ama K Abrebrese, how did you get her on board?
Well, I first met Ama K Abrebrese on the set of The Cursed Ones in 2014. I had just finished writing the Black Barbie poem and having knew she had just started her own campaign against skin bleaching called “I love natural skin”, I gave her the poem to share on her social media. Fast forward to 2016 when I had finally decided to turn the script into a film, I knew Ama K would be the best actress to bring the right emotions to the script. To be honest I have never regretted using her because she delivered the poem beautifully.
Did you have any reservations about releasing an animation with such a personal and controversial topic such as skin bleaching?
Not at all! I initially wrote Black Barbie for my younger cousin who was battling with low self-esteem due to her skin colour. She confided in me that she wanted to bleach her skin. So I wrote Black Barbie so that she could read and understand that she wasn’t alone and that I too had once hated my skin tone. I think that some of the best films created are from our personal experiences. During my degree my thesis was about how animation can be therapeutic, so in a sense making this film was like going to therapy. I had to go back to my past and memories and feelings, which helped me talk to my cousin and advise her.
What advice would you give to people of colour who are suffering with low self-esteem due to the colour of their skin?
It took me years to learn to love my skin… 25 years to be precise to accept my skin. Even though I had been in a long-term relationship I still found it hard to love myself and [that] dramatically affected that relationship. There is a saying, ‘You are what you think’ therefore if you think you are not beautiful people around you will think the same. We attract what our minds think. So I am very careful with my thoughts regarding myself. There is one thing that I usually do and that is every morning I look into my mirror and start showering myself with positive words.
You recently teamed up with AJ+ to discuss skin bleaching - how did this collaboration come about?
It was really unexpected I got a call from Ama K Abebrese and she told me that AJ+ were doing a feature about skin bleaching and she told them about my film. It was a fantastic opportunity and has given skin beaching and Black Barbie a larger awareness. I am so grateful and bless for the collaboration.
Was it an intention of yours to campaign against skin bleaching following Black Barbie’s release or is this something that developed naturally?
It developed naturally it was after I finished Black Barbie and the positive reviews given about the film made me realise the power of film making and how it can challenge and create positive dialogues.
As a filmmaker are you interested in creating more documentaries around skin bleaching or any other important topics?
I am very much interested in making more films that challenges important social topics and will continue to do them. But as an artist you have got to eat so whilst working on these films I am also working on more commercial related projects.
Would you say that there is a focus on your work to have a positive effect on others, especially black women?
Since working on Black Barbie I have had so many Black women personally write to me that the film has affected them emotionally. I have had a few girls private message me via Facebook to get advice in terms skin bleaching and how to stop. I want women to be able to relate to my films, especially black women as the are very underrepresented in the media. So films like black Barbie have given them a platform to discuss issues that relate to them personally.
Do you feel that there is an absence of black women in the animation industry?
There are few women that I know that are working in the animation industry and they are amazing. However, there is still an absence and as the industry in Africa is growing hopefully more women will venture into this discipline.
What have you found to be the biggest difference between working in Ghana and working in the UK?
When I first came to Ghana I worked in a company so everything was structured in terms of when I will get paid etc So I didn’t feel a great difference in the work flow. However, when I started working as a freelancer that’s when I found it quite challenging. In terms of clients paying me on time, client under paying me for my services which has been very frustrating at times.
What advice would you give to an animator who is struggling to get work?
Don’t give up! Being a filmmaker is not glamorous as many people believe it to be. In the world we live in getting money to fund films are quite daunting and frustrating. During the times when I am out of work I tend to work on my own personal projects. I also use those quiet times to learn new skills. I think is very important to always learn to pick up new skills. Animation is a new to the market in Africa so it has become a gradual thing for companies are doing animated commercials. Having another skill is fundamental, I am not only an animator but I do editing and acting jobs when then animation jobs dry up.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming work?
I am currently working on another short film called “Untitled”. It’s a poetry animation that focuses on sexual harassment in women. This has been a challenging project as I have had to direct 13 women to read the poem without physically being around them to do the recordings. I am also working on a children picture book called “Naughty Nii” which is about a little boy that causes havoc. Hopefully it will be online soon for purchase.
Where can people view your existing work?
Words: Rochelle Thomas