The category digital art includes a wide variety of artistic practices. Digital artist and curator Jepchumba describes this form of art as encompassing artwork whose production and presentation uses digital technology as an essential part of the creative process.
Post African Futures, referring to an exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in 2015, and used in the title of a special issue of Technoetic Arts, is a term that has gained significance when discussing the work of digital art from Africa. Following on from Tegan Bristow’s research focusing on South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, the term is aimed at highlighting the aesthetic mechanisms and critical engagements that stem from what she calls “cultures of technology” in Africa (2014: 169). The ‘post’ in Post African Futures is an invite to see past the immediate links that American and European critics ascribed to African aesthetic practices with technology, particularly those who simply assume that this is a version of African American Afrofuturism (Bristow 2014). Some African artists have been influenced by the mechanisms of Afrofuturism, however, Bristow points out the need to investigate how these mechanisms are being re-explored and what the intention is of African artists in choosing to engage with aesthetics similar to those of Afrofuturism, while at the same time stating that Afrofuturism does not necessarily define what it is they are doing with their work (Bristow 2013). Bristow has emphasized the need to explore uses of technology as an “embedded cultural phenomenon that has very particular aesthetic implications” (2014: 168).
In thinking about this, I had an interview with Jepchumba about her work, her relationship with the digital and the platform that she founded, African Digital Art.
Tell our readers about your own digital art practice – how has your own work evolved, what are the kinds of themes you enjoy working on, where has most of the inspiration for your own work come from?
I primarily have grown up in between spaces, and as a result I have always sought a home. The digital world has always felt like a home to me. For a long time the space between me and a monitor felt comfortable both creatively and personally. Through African Digital Art I came to realize that not only did the digital space allow me to explore such a range of artistry, it has led me to realize that I am a collector.
At heart I am a curator, a role that I avoided for a long time. I see this role spill into my own personal creative practice. Technology allows you to participate within multi mediums simultaneously. You can easily be a digital archivist/visual/audio/interactive story teller all at once.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on the future.
I feel as though we are living in a critical time before Africa looks and thinks of itself completely differently. But it is one of those things you wonder whether it is a critical time or if everyone has always felt this way. Well statistically we have an extremely young continent compared to everywhere else in the world. So in many ways I am interested in having conversations with that generation.
I hope to create work that would give them some reference of the world and questions we had at this time and bring some awareness to some of the conflicts that we had with ourselves.
Where did the idea for African Digital Art come from? How do you like to describe the platform? How has the platform evolved from its inception?
I began African Digital Art because I was told that digital art in Africa did not exist. This was about 8 or 9 years ago, so that is eons in online history.
I found the lack of awareness people had online about what we were capable of to be outstanding. At a time where we came to understand the importance of content I wanted to leave a sort of digital imprint of what we were all working on online. I guess I was afraid that we would start to believe that there was no digital art in Africa because we wouldn’t be represented online. The site’s function was purely archival. African Digital Art was not meant to be a perfect representation of contemporary African art but rather designed to inspired artists and creatives to engage in the world of digital art.
How do you see your African Digital Art in terms of being a platform that allows various artists from the continent being able to share and archive their work on their own terms? Do you see this as offering a form of digital decolonising?
Wow. I have never thought of African Digital Art as a form of digital decolonizing. But I did make a conscious effort that I wanted to keep things simple. Let the work speak for itself and always highlight or showcase the artist by giving them the opportunities to speak for themselves. So the site is mainly visual, I rarely write because I find myself afraid to speak for an artist or label them or misrepresent them. I have experienced this misrepresentation as an African artist myself. So I hope at the very least the audience of African Digital Art will be curious enough to directly reach out to artists themselves.
Africa is often thought of as ‘one big country’. Tell our readers about the importance of recognizing and giving light to the different digital practices or cultures that have been founded and evolved in different cities on the continent.
I used to spend so much time arguing that Africa was not a country. I quickly realized that these arguments were mostly done outside of Africa. So I stopped. I am not particularly interested in having that conversation because I do not think it is necessary. Google is ‘free’ there is too much evidence out there for you to see Africa’s diversity and we are barely scratching the surface.
What I am truly interested in is to give artists and creators a reference for them to engage with. My work through African Digital Art is to provide resources, tools, ideas, connections, opportunities to artists who would be interested in the possibilities of creative technology. So for me it is essential to highlight and recognize the diversity of digital practices and African digital culture in order for us to prepare a new generation that will be at the global center stage in the advancement of technology, culture and ideology.
With most people on the continent being cellphone users, how do you think this has an effect on the way in which digital art is consumed on an everyday basis vs in the traditional gallery space?
Enough already with Africa’s cellphone usage! We have a tendency to fetishize technological objects. But I would advice you to think a different way. Yes it is true, there was a cellphone revolution in Africa that propelled us to the internet. But can we move past this, because technology is. Today we are having conversations about algorithms that control group think, artificial intelligence, humans embedding machines into their biology, the homogenization of expressions of culture and ideology on the internet and other huge themes. This is the truly exciting space to think of digital art in Africa. The traditional art spaces in Africa have never really work because they were foreign implants. We must not limit our thinking about art and our role in it in the confines of white cubed spaces. This is why this field is so exciting there are new opportunities for us to participate in art that were never available to us. I would encourage people to start thinking and stepping waaaaaaaaay outside the box.
There is often a conflation of the terms ‘Black’, ‘African’ and ‘Afro’. How do you view these identifying terms, specifically in relation to art? What are some of the recent conversations around these terms? How do you like to describe your own work when thinking about these terms?
This is such a big question. One that I have struggled with since the minute I bought the domain africandigitalart.com. I sometimes ask myself why couldn’t I have just called the site Digital Art and then just feature African artists.
“Africa” has become one big internet logo. It is synonymous with so many things and it is also not very clearly defined. I find this hazy muddle to be sometimes effective but dangerous. When we conflate “black, African, Afro” we can see, on one hand, a true exercise of digital pan Africanism, where you see diverse cultures who identify strongly within one identity. On the other hand, the “black, African,Afro-ism “can lead you to be pulled into different agenda’s, ideologies and contexts that you did not sign up for. This is even more disastrous , when there are large scale inequities in how much content is produced and shared in certain parts of the world.
The majority of African cultural websites are not produced within Africa. As a result the online space is able to facilitate anyone to become a global African cultural director. One can easily influence what is considered to be African, and through extension what is considered to be ‘Black’ and ‘Afro’
Ugh. this is a tough question. I do not know I have a direct answer.
Digital art from various artists on the continent has been associated with Afrocentrism. This has caused a lot of debate and frustration for some artists. What is your opinion on this? What are some of the other terms that you feel offer an understanding of art from the continent outside of this framework?
I completely understand this dilemma and I am also pulled into it. African Digital Art was actually just a descriptive term, digital art from Africa. And somehow when Africa is added to the mix it is very easy to be labelled and tagged in a certain way.
A few years ago I participated in an exhibition, Post African Futures, curated by Tegan Bristow. The exhibition was an attempt on expanding the definition of African digital practices. Not only were digital artist being pulled into the Afrocentrist label they were also being labelled as Afrofuturists. Digital artists were invited to use digital technologies as a means of resisting cultural predomination.
It is important for us to develop a broader way of thinking by encouraging growth within the creative sector in Africa. We will be able to provide nuanced conversations if we have more African artists participating in the space.
There has been a lot of discussion around the difficulties in displaying and selling digital art within traditional gallery spaces. What are some of the conversations you are involved in or have heard/read about that tease out these difficulties? What are some of the attempts to re-think traditional art display and selling that you think could be built on for solutions?
I would argue that digital art in Africa was never meant to be within traditional gallery spaces. I would invite digital practitioners to think creatively about other models of financially supporting their practice. Most of African art institutions and galleries are funded and supported by the west, most of those institutions are seeing their budgets cut. This is trickling down to African art spaces. I would direct artists to think about creating experiences rather than objects to sell.
As a digital artist and a curator I have reframed my thinking on this. I am not necessarily interested in selling digital artifacts or objects but rather I am interested in creating experiences that people will support financially. We also need to invest in spaces. Spaces that will be centered around education and radical expression.
Ultimately, as a digital artist you now have the ability to control, the work that you produce and also the financial models that will enable you to support yourself. This is an exorbitant amount of pressure but it is the times that we live in now. Worldwide, no one really has any clue to remain sustainable in the arts and creative industry. But we have no choice to figure it out through trail and error.
Are there any particular artists, movements or platforms that stand out for you at the moment?
Yes. I have been mesmerized by the evangelical christian movement in Africa. I think it is one of the movements that is largely ignored by the often secularized art industry. My obsession came because I realized that the church remains Africa’s greatest cultural influencer. Mega churches across the continent have become leading innovators in the digital arts sector. They produce large scale digital content, large scale crowdfunding, they offer digital healing and digital materials that is spread throughout Facebook and Whatsapp. They are also very well funded institutions often with entire production companies at their disposal. I find this absolutely fascinating and I hope that it is talked about more rather than just ridiculed by our own biases.
Anything else you would like to mention about your own practice and African Digital Art?
I started VJiing. It is the worst term ever. I am looking for an alternative term because I cannot come to terms with calling myself that. So please find me on twitter or instagram with a better term. Or just say hi. Also if you are digital artist yourself please make yourself known to us we would love to get to know you.