Author: Lizelle Bisschoff
Site of publication: Taylor & Francis Online
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: October 2nd, 2017
The role of technology in Africa and the impact of the so-called digital revolution has been much-hailed and well-documented in areas such as commerce, communication, agriculture, media and political activism. While these utilitarian purposes of digital technology have been widely explored, one area that has received less scholarly attention (except perhaps in the case of Nollywood) is the artistic applications of digital technology, the role it has played in the development of creative practices in Africa.
Digital culture, as a ubiquitous feature of modern life, allows us to connect to geographical locations, cultures, histories and people that have previously been much less accessible. The new information age and the global connectivity it has brought has forced us to reassess what we thought we knew about Africa, presenting alternative and much more diverse stories and representations of this large and diverse continent. African artists are utilizing this digital space to create, recreate and disseminate new images of Africa in inventive and socio-culturally conscious ways. This special issue of Critical African Studies focuses on the proliferation of African digital arts in the 21st century.
Africa’s exposure to technology has developed differently than in other parts of the world; most African citizens are introduced to the Internet through mobile/smartphones, while they might never own a desktop computer, in the west, this exposure has worked in the opposite direction. A utopian and techno-optimistic view of technology emphasizes the positive role that more accessible and affordable technologies can play on the African continent in terms of democratization, empowerment and communication. Africa has certainly embraced new technologies, as is prevalent in rising statistics of mobile, smartphone and Internet usage in many parts of the continent, particularly the urban centres.
Nonetheless, the digital revolution has had a major impact also on the African creative industries, not only in terms production, but importantly, also on the exhibition and dissemination of art. Digital technology has, for instance, been the driving force behind the development of Africa’s first economically self-sustainable popular film industries through the video-film phenomenon spearheaded by Ghana and Nigeria’s Nollywood. This model of popular low-budget filmmaking, enabled by affordable digital cameras and desktop editing software, has now been replicated all over the continent. Whereas Nollywood films were initially primarily distributed on DVD and VCD (video compact disc), improved broadband and Internet streaming technology means that these films can now be downloaded or watched on multiple VOD (video-on-demand) platforms online, in Africa and internationally. This is similarly true of many other audio-visual, graphic and literary African art forms and creative output, with digital technology thus having played a crucial role in the proliferation of content creation and providing wider access to African art.
What is digital art? It is, simply put, artistic work or practice that uses digital technologies as an essential part of the creative and/or presentation, dissemination and exhibition process. It is impossible to define as a single phenomenon, but instead includes changing and fluid sets of artistic techniques, technologies and concepts
As mentioned above, however, it is important to consider aspects of accessibility. The key to the depth and scope of digital arts in Africa clearly lies in the access to and efficiency of technological infrastructure on the continent, in particular the Internet. The democratizing potential of digital technology should not be overestimated on a continent that are still on the wrong side of the digital divide. Recent research from TeleGeography – an international telecommunications research firm – shows that while Internet in many parts of Africa is still slower than in the west, and limited by a lower penetration rate when compared to the rest of the world, bandwidth capacity is growing faster than anywhere else in the world.
Access to ‘small screen’ digital information and communication technologies are rapidly increasing in Africa, including through mobile phones, tablets and laptops, while Internet access is constantly improving. These technological developments are keenly reflected in the proliferation of digital arts in Africa.
What is digital art? It is, simply put, artistic work or practice that uses digital technologies as an essential part of the creative and/or presentation, dissemination and exhibition process. It is impossible to define as a single phenomenon, but instead includes changing and fluid sets of artistic techniques, technologies and concepts. Christiane Paul likewise defines the term as an umbrella for a broad range of artistic works and practices that cannot be described by a single set of aesthetics or methods.
We know that the impact of digital technology has transformed more traditional creative practices such as painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and music, while new forms, such as net art, digital installation art and virtual reality have become recognized and accepted artistic practices. While the techniques of digital art are used extensively by mainstream media in advertising and by filmmakers to produce visual effects, digital art is also increasingly used in less mainstream and commercially orientated ways, to produce new media art less concerned with economic factors and more with experimentation and creative expression.
It has been argued that digital technologies facilitate a new kind of relationship between place and space: through their capacity to transgress borders and subvert territories, these technologies are implicated in a complex interplay of deterritorialization and reterritorialization.
The ‘virtual spaces’ accessible through digital technology would seem to lead to decidedly deterritorialized cultural experiences, by expanding cultural horizons through digital global media. Such globalized access to information, and of interest here, to art, transforms the relationship between our physical locations and our cultural activities, experiences and identities, thus leading to a seemingly paradoxical process of reterritorialization.
I would argue that the process of reterritorialization, following the initial deterritorialization that occurs because of the disappearance of the relation between culture and its social and geographic territories, becomes particularly significant in the context of postcolonial Africa. The creative output described in the articles in this special issue is in many ways profoundly local, speaking to the very specific socio-cultural and –historical experiences and contexts of the geographical locations the art was produced in. At the same time however, the processes of digital creation and transformation, and the mediums of dissemination and reception, open this art up to truly global, transnational encounters; ‘globalization’ at work. The geographic decentralization and displacement occurring through growing African diasporas outside of the continent emphasizes the importance of virtual spaces and connections even further – indeed, a digital diaspora.
Digital technologies have further broken down the boundaries between artist and audience, and often promote a form of interactivity. Mobile phones, for example, can now be used to simultaneously produce and consume audio-visual content (so-called ‘prosumption’), with the Internet making it possible for alternative media productions of all kinds to gain greater visibility. This, then, gives rise to a digital democracy of sorts, with not only creative and socio-cultural implications but also clear socio-political significance.
This view exemplifies the perspective that digital technologies can democratize the arts – an ethos of democratization that includes the belief that every person has the right to engage in the arts.
Thus, the democratization of art increases public access and involvement in artworks through, for example, the development of new platforms for interactive art outside of gallery or museum spaces. This, at least, has been the process in the western world; in Africa, the distinction between gallery-sanctioned ‘high’ art and ‘lower’ forms of popular art, folk art and crafts has always been less clear cut, often artificially enforced by western art markets and patrons. Thus, the shift to digitally produced art in Africa is not so much a transformation of more established and conventional art forms than completely new and innovative ways of cultural and creative expression. We have to retain an understanding of the polycentrism of digital arts, that the dynamics between “the global and the local, the centre and the periphery, the north and the south, are as vital to consider as the broad-scale impacts of globalisation and the traditional geographical centres of economic and cultural power”.
The website African Digital Art (africandigitalart.com) has recognized the increasing importance of digital technologies in artistic practice and serves as a virtual space to collate, document and explore the proliferation of new media art on and from the continent. Founded by Kenyan digital artist Jepchumba, this website has indeed been the inspiration behind the idea of this special issue. It has become a platform for innovation and inspiration, highlighting new talent as well as successful designers and artists, with ‘Pushing Digital Boundaries’ as its tagline.
Digital technologies have further broken down the boundaries between artist and audience, and often promote a form of interactivity. Mobile phones, for example, can now be used to simultaneously produce and consume audio-visual content (so-called ‘prosumption’), with the Internet making it possible for alternative media productions of all kinds to gain greater visibility
Some of the innovative examples of digital arts include African digital collage, a growing art form that utilizes technology to produce a range of artworks that incorporate digital video, animation, photography, animated gifs and digital photo manipulation. Looking to the past – often-misrepresented, subjugated and suppressed through histories of slavery and colonization – African digital collagists use ethnographic images of Africa to recreate and reinterpret visual representations from the pre- and postcolonial eras. Creating alternative narratives of the past, websites such as the Nigerian Nostalgia Project (nigerianostalgia.tumblr.com) have become a popular online resource for collagists to find historical materials including photographs, videos, sound clips and graphic art.
In the area of literature, Badilisha Poetry (badilishapoetry.com) is the largest online archive of African poetry and literature. Digital platforms powered through mobile technology inspired the creators of the site to develop an archive with over 400 African poets from 31 countries who share their work in over 14 different languages. Africa Cartoons (africacartoons.com) is another comprehensive digital platform that acts as an educational encyclopaedia of African political cartooning and cartoonists. Ichyulu (ichyulu.com) is a Kenyan online concept store that collaborates with fashion entrepreneurs from across the continent to feature selected work from African designers and serve as an alternative distribution channel.
This special issue commences with a theoretical deliberation on digital media, development and political creativity by Joshua McNamara, in which the author warns against simplistically equating digital technological innovation and application with progress, and against linking social and economic development and digital technology in an uncritically linear way.
The concept of digital political creativity is scrutinized, in an urban East African context, with case studies including UN-Habitat’s (United Nations Human Settlements Programme) Block by Block, a novel programme in which the video game Minecraft is used as a community participation tool in the design of urban public spaces, as well as Ushahidi, an online crowdmap created by Kenyans to document the election violence of 2007 through texting reports of violence from their mobile phones or supplying information via email (‘ushahidi’ meaning witness in Swahili). McNamara points out the limitations of these projects in their political implications, but also how they could at times be applied in unexpectedly creative ways.
Looking to the past – often-misrepresented, subjugated and suppressed through histories of slavery and colonization – African digital collagists use ethnographic images of Africa to recreate and reinterpret visual representations from the pre- and postcolonial eras. Creating alternative narratives of the past, websites such as the Nigerian Nostalgia Project (nigerianostalgia.tumblr.com) have become a popular online resource for collagists to find historical materials including photographs, videos, sound clips and graphic art
The political potential of digital arts and the transnational geopolitical imagination of Somalians living in the country as well as in the diaspora is probed in Peter Chonka’s article on Amin Amir, the most popular and prolific political cartoonist in Somalia. Amir’s work, under the name Amin Arts, is disseminated digitally and in print across the Somali territories on a daily basis. The article explores the recurring themes and discourses of Amir’s cartoons, including corruption, political violence, ‘clan-ism’, and ongoing external interference in Somalia and argues that the artist collapses conventional distinctions between diasporic production and local consumption. Chonka argues that this process facilitates the reproduction of particular tropes of shared cultural, ethnic, nationalist or religious identity across multiple political boundaries.
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