Digital Art, Design and Africa

Since the 1970s, the world has been engulfed in a wave of computer technology. This rising phenomenon has not been without its effects on the art of this period, which has increasingly assumed a digital focus. Today, art produced digitally has risen into the realm of the fine arts with several galleries dedicated solely to the medium. Design too has evolved rapidly with an increased focus on functionality, and trendiness to broaden popular appeal. As global attention turns to Digital art and design, Omenka explores the talent, voices, innovation and leading cultural production spaces across Africa, behind the success of these genres so critical to its contemporary life and industry.

On the African continent, there is both palpable excitement and a degree of alarm around new forms of digital art production and design, as well as unlimited possibilities and content solutions they present. But the key players are undaunted in redefining their expression, its classification and the display of their art on increasingly innovative platforms, both on and offline, their work constantly challenging perceptions and established conventions.

What will inform Digital art’s exciting future and growth trajectory as technology—mobile technology more especially, has experienced growth in Africa that wildly exceeds expectation amongst a young and assertive generation of users? What are the creative inroads redefining art production in the African digi-sphere, the content consumption and fresh fora for audience engagement via popular visual culture?

Various definitions abound as to what exactly Digital art means, though seemingly, there isn’t a precise one yet because of its evolving nature. Indeed, the term is used interchangeably with others like New Media art, Computer art, and Interactive art. Arguably, Digital art is a subset of New Media art, which scholars like Mark Tribe and Reena Jana have defined as a generic name for an international art movement that describes art related to, or created with emerging technologies invented or made widely available since the end of the late 20th century to address cultural, political and aesthetic possibilities. Christiane Paul throws a little light, “There’s Digital art that uses technologies as a tool in the creation of a photograph of a painting or a sculpture; it is a different aesthetic, but that doesn’t change presentation, selling, et cetera. We’re dealing with art objects. And then there is New Media that is created, stored, distributed by the digital technologies, and that really makes use of the inherent characteristics of the medium: works that are interactive, generative, and participatory.”

However, Digital art broadly encompasses audio/visual production, animation, CGI, 3D modeling, illustrated vector-drawings, interactive projects, website, short films, as well as graphic art and design. What is clear is that many young African pioneers like Kenyan-born Jepchumba are embracing rather quickly, this range of creative expression. A digital scene in Africa is thus burgeoning with ceaseless talent and ingenuity, though, there is still much to be achieved. In countries like South Africa and Egypt, growth indexes are measurable with well-trained professionals while Nigeria’s Nollywood holds an enviable position as one of the largest movie producers in the world, bested only by the United States and India. Other countries like Cameroon and Senegal have a thriving video and Digital art industry.

Digital art itself contains other forms such as digital photography, photopainting, digital collage, integrated digital art, virtual reality, hologram, fractals and animation. However, it is constantly subjected to criticism and challenged as many Africans, including a growing class of collectors, are of the opinion that it does not elicit an emotional response from the artist as it is a purely computerized and mechanical process, which should not be considered as art. For example, they argue that with digital photography, electronic images can be manipulated using computer programs and software. Interestingly, this position seems flawed when one considers the fact that just as a painter learns to control his brush with oil paint, a digital artist must also achieve mastery of the technology needed to produce an image, both processes revealing their depth of emotional involvement. Clive Bell also asserts that Digital art, just like other more traditional media like painting and sculpture, would appear to be art, as it has significant form, which stems from particular combinations of lines and colors, as well as certain forms and relations of forms.

Against this backdrop, African digital artists have come together to prove Digital art as a veritable art form and to create increased awareness. Armed with a Master’s degree in Digital Media from London Metropolitan University in the UK, Jepchumba has not only carved her own niche in this growing space, but also founded African Digital Artists, an online collective of digital artists and enthusiasts, which hosts exhibitions, and publications, and advocates for Digital art to be recognized as an artistic expression in Kenya and Africa. Through this platform, she inspires others to follow suit to show that Africans are as competent as their Western contemporaries, despite the lack of resources and access to ICT in Africa, especially as African governments continue to grapple with basic needs like consistent power supply and pipe- borne water for an exploding population.

Ultimately, Africans are producing content that is changing the general perception of the continent in the international sphere. From the look of things, it is obvious that Africa has so much to offer in the future in terms of innovation, story telling and solutions. Indeed, one of the advantages of this medium is its accessibility to a broad range of audiences and its power to alter the general perception of Africa as a continent laden with disease and plagued by hunger, strife and suffering. Africans based on the continent and across the globe are employing their mobile devices to surf the Internet and communicate with their loved ones, as well as generate income and respond to social ills. Recall the Arab spring uprising of 2011.

African Digital Artists continues to inspire a sophisticated blend of fresh talented designers and artists. But who are these new digital natives shaping African society and asserting their influence over the future direction of the art form?

The picture gallery shows work by artists like; Ahmad Mounir, a typography, branding and digital artist from Egypt; graphic designer Yaw Tony, a Canadian with African roots; and Kiripi Katembo from Congo who began his career as a painter before moving delving into what he is mostly known for, photography and film.
David Osagie is a Nigerian freelance creative. His works feature African tradition and perfection in a mix of surreal and grunge digital pieces. He fuses poems with his work, giving each expression a deeper meaning, as well as help the audience connect with his ideas.

Karo Akpokiere makes drawings inspired by the rapidly changing pop culture of Lagos, Nigeria. His work reflects experiences and observations garnered from life in one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Akpokiere has a strong aesthetic that is both nuanced and clever. His most recent works appropriate the language of religion, politics and advertising to comment on contemporary realities in West Africa.

Long known as a model and muse for photographers like Kwesi Abbensetts, Folasade Adeoso has bourgeoned as a digital artist. Her digital collages are inspiring and dynamic. Employing the use of distinct graphing lines to guide the viewer towards a focal point, she uses captivating ethnographic photography as a base for each story she wishes to tell. South African Sindiso Nyoni popularly known as R!OT, is a self-taught artist, activist, multi-disciplinary designer and illustrator who began drawing at age 4. Working primarily in pencil, ink, pastel, gouache, and acrylic fused with digital media, the artist creates Seyi AKingbola, The Sandmen of Ajegunle a subversive African street style he terms ‘Guerilla’ art. Osmond Tshuma is the creator of the controversial, uniquely African new ‘Colonial Bastards’ typeface. Here, he interprets the dregs of colonial influence and defines it within the sphere of popular culture, on and offline. Tshuma asserts that his work is largely informed by his experience as a Zimbabwean immigrant, his keen interest lying in African history and the endless inspiration he finds in the diverse local cultures of Southern Africa. Bogosi Sekhukhuni is a young South African artist who is chiefly concerned with notions of identity in a post-apartheid South Africa. His medium is, in many regards, his message – as the Internet and the plurality of self that the Web 2.0 enabled becomes a kind of metaphor for the questioning, constructing and redefining of what being young in South Africa means and can mean today. His aesthetic is strongly influenced by popular media; he is fascinated in the conceptual possibilities of teleportation and neuroscience. Growing up on Mxit and matriculating on Tumblr, Sekhukhuni represents a new generation of young artists who’re defining their parameters based on their lived, or constructed realities. He is currently on residency in France.

Other exemplary digital artists from Africa include Younes ZE, David E. Ella, Thabang Chukura, One Rapelana, Lekan Jeyifo, Walé Oyéjidé and Kudi Chitate.

With the wave of digital artists currently emerging on the African art scene, it is important to briefly examine developments on the international art market regarding this genre. The first Digital art auction Paddles On, and also the first in Phillips’ history to sell exclusively primary market work took place on October 10, 2013. It was curated by Lindsay Howard and presented in partnership with Tumblr. It was According to art consultant and collector Myriam Vanneschi, this auction was great for opening up people to digital art. Much of this suggests that the emerging digital art collector community may have broader interests than investment, and perhaps it indicates a greater shift in the market place.

The potential for Digital art to form major collaborations for the good of humanity lends weight to this assertion. For example, Feral Trade project begun by the artist Kate Rich experiments in trading goods through active social networks. Here, goods are passed from hand to hand; travelling between diverse social settings determined by the routes individuals can potentially travel.

The products are traded in the UK and across the world through social, cultural and occupational networks, harnessing the surplus freight potential of recreational, commuter and cultural travel for the practical circulation of goods including coffee, grappa, tea, and sweets.

Technology is a useful tool to connect with other people and connect with places. For example, the Woodstock Digital Media Festival aimed at raising funds through games like Free Rice, a set of games that when people play they donate free rice to other countries, and the Kickstarter campaign, where you can start a fundraising effort for grassroots projects.

In a generation defined by new technologies, a higher level of visual aesthetics and functionality, Indaba, an online publication (designindaba.com) with an annual festival and social impact, successfully attracts and herds key players, talent and trend setters in Africa and globally through incentives, promotion, competition and celebration of the genre, and through design initiatives like the fresh and exciting Africa is Now. This is a comprehensive snapshot of creative work being produced across the continent right now—a visual and exhibition-based ‘survey’
of emerging, established and unexpected talent from across Africa. In defiance of conventional descriptions and ‘branding’ that tries to define the continent, and notions, which have historically defined it, the Design Indaba says this new initiative is their chosen “benchmark for growth and innovation”. They also see the exhibition-based project as a platform-wide shift, fundamental to the Indaba’s future because, although they “remain committed to incubating and celebrating South African design”, their mission over time is “to celebrate and grow African creativity and provide a platform for it in South Africa and beyond.”

To kick off the idea, Design Indaba initiated their long-term project as this year’s “social and creative commitment”, bringing together the work of 66 designers and innovators from 25 African countries. All work featured is sourced through a call out to creative communities across the continent from fashion to art, design and craft. The exhibition is structured around five themes: Africa is Sharp! Africa is Urban, Africa is Tradition Reinvented, and Africa is Resourceful & Africa is Transformed! Unarguably, these themes do well to describe the wave of creativity engulfing the continent, and give tribute to the engaging minds behind it, who all collectively form a significant trajectory in our recent artistic history.

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