African fractals; a sacred symmetry
Francois Beaurain, The King, 2015. An animated gif project. Courtesy of the artist.
Francois Beaurain is recapturing and eternalising Liberia in the most digital and joyful way possible. Born in France, Beaurain, a Doctor of Biology and a Master of Theoretical Physics, is on a mission to reimagine places previously associated with negative imagery. Although art may seem as far away from academic life as possible, physics had a major role in how Beaurain came to creating GIFs.
Beaurain also creates collages and has a fascination with Nollywood, or Nigerian cinema, a genre of film he has done various projects on. Although somewhat multidisciplinary in his artistic approach, it is the GIFs that this digital artist is getting noticed for.
Beaurain has animated hairstyles from Nigeria and the everyday activities in Liberia – both being portraits of African countries otherwise seen in frames of violence, oppression and poverty. Most notably, Liberia’s history of war has released a torrent of child-soldier cliché’s when depicting the country. Beaurain has captured the reality of Liberia – one that may surprise viewers in its joyful normality.
Francois Beaurain, Dans le Trome from Monday morning again, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
ART AFRICA: Chromatin is the animated variation of Medina Dugger’s Chroma photographic series which celebrates women’s hairstyles in Nigeria. You are French-born and hold a Master’s degree in Theoretical Physics and a PhD in Biology – could you please tell us what drew you to the arts, and how you came to collaborate with Dugger?
Francois Beaurain: It’s a long story, as there was absolutely nothing in my career or studies that could push me towards art. But I think it all started in Liberia, and I think this is why my work still focuses on Africa.
I first travelled to Liberia in 2013 – it was not my first African experience, but it was my first time living on the continent, and was certainly a cultural shock for me. The time I spent in Liberia changed my way of seeing Africa, and I realised how my understanding of Africa had been conditioned by both my culture and the media. A lot of my work is driven by the idea of breaking down these preconceived ideas about Africa. Monrovia Animated is the best example.
I came across fractals – repetition of the same pattern, but at different scales, (think about Ethiopian Christian crosses for example) – for the first time in 1998. I was still a student and I was following a class about the theory of chaos which included some basic concepts about fractals. It was quite a pioneering class at the time, but I mostly took it for fun. This kind of knowledge is not something you use on a daily basis.
I first noticed fractal patterns in hairdos when I travelled to Liberia in 2013, but I didn’t realise how exceptional these fractals actually were. I just thought they would be nice geometric patterns to animate. Four years later, when I came across Medina’s work Chroma, I thought it was time to animate a few hairdos. I did the first few GIFs for fun, but Medina and I both liked the result so we decided to go ahead with a whole series.
While I was in the process of designing my first hairdo GIFs, I googled ‘African fractals’ and all the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
Francois Beaurain and Medina Dugger, Chromatin #23, 2017. An animated gif project. Courtesy of the artists.
According to the artist statement for Chromatin, recent scientific research has shown that fractals used to be at the heart of African design and art – could you please expand on this and the significance of it, especially in terms of hair braiding?
Yes, Chromatin is all about reintroducing fractals into African art, and this is all based on scientific findings. Ethno-mathematics is the study of the relationship between mathematics and culture. Contrary to what most people think, mathematics is not universal – rather, a civilisation develops the mathematics according to their needs.
In recent decades, ethno-mathematicians have started to focus on Africa in search of ancient forms of numeration and mathematics, and one of the most noticeable findings has been that fractals were used all over Africa for centuries and centuries – even millennia if you consider ancient Egypt – while they’re almost absent from other continents. According to their findings, it seems that Africa discovered fractals and used them in many forms before any other ‘civilisations’ did. The most complete source of information about Africa and fractals can be found in a book called African fractals, written by Dr Ron Eglash and published in 1999.
The significance of these fractals is the issue – almost all testimonies or knowledge about them have disappeared. When European settlers arrived, they imposed their culture, their education and therefore their mathematics based on a Euclidian vision of the world – cubes, triangles and circles – and all ancient forms of mathematics disappeared. Today, scientists tend to remain careful when it comes to interpreting fractals and their meanings.
I am no longer a scientist, so I can risk a personal opinion. For me, fractals translate a completely different understanding of space and time. The endless repetition of the same pattern at different scales could be a metaphor for the cycles of life which repeat at different time scales – day/night, summer/winter, birth/death.
Honestly, I do not know who to blame. Is it because we are all now connected to the same media, sharing the same posts and clichés on Facebook?
You work primarily with a digital GIF format – why is it important for you to animate Dugger’s photographs, specifically using GIFs?
I work primarily with GIFs because they’re my speciality, and I thought that the geometric pattern of Nigerian hairdos would make perfect patterns for my GIFs. Moreover, Medina’s work is photographic, I had to do something different, something that would give another dimension to her work.
Francois Beaurain and Medina Dugger, Chromatin #2, 2017. An animated gif project. Courtesy of the artists.
This being said – considering that most of your work is presented in GIFs, what are your thoughts around the internet being a platform for, and space of, artistic expression? Do you think it’s more successful than the white cube gallery space, especially in terms of reaching a wider audience?
I don’t create digital work to reach a wider audience, I create digital artwork because technology allows it. Art always follows the latest technology developments, and it is now time for digital artworks.
It is clear for me that in today’s society, the internet is far more welcoming to digital works than art galleries. The contemporary art scene is not yet ready for digital art, and there is more or less no market for it.
I think this is because the current generation of art collectors is not really sensitive to digital art – but I’m sure this will change soon as the new generation of art collectors, who grew up with the internet, begin to enter the market. I think this new medium is also raising some conservation and copyrights issues that are keeping collectors away for the time being.
Francois Beaurain and Medina Dugger, Chromatin #4, 2017. An animated gif project. Courtesy of the artists.
Your GIF projects are, at times, quite contrasting in terms of the subject matter. Projects produced in France capture daily elements of working life such as commuting – mundane activities that are already naturally repetitive. Liberia captures humorous and joyful actions. Does this speak to how you perceive these two disparate worlds?
Monday Morning plays a special role in my work. This project was done at a key moment in my life, and it is my most personal piece of work. This is not a project about how I perceive the West, but rather about how I see myself. After three years spent in Liberia and Morocco, where I had the opportunity to develop my artistic side, I was back home in Paris where three years before that I was living a normal commuter life. I did this project at a time of hesitation between my old and my new life, between routine and adventure, two different versions of me, two different lives. I was hesitating a lot and then I started to stage my old life and this helped me to make a decision, there was indeed no turning back.
‘Monrovia Animated’ is part of the ‘Making Africa’ exhibition by Vitra and Guggenheim Bilbao. You have said that your goal in art is to change the depictions of a place typically associated with negative images – Africa in this regard, can be seen as one place besieged with traditional images of war and poverty. Do you feel there is a global action to re-shape or ‘re-make’ the perception of Africa?
Yes, Africa is still besieged by traditional images but things are changing now, and the art scene plays a key role in that. There is a growing scene of African artists reshaping the vision of their own continent. But this reshaping might take a long, long time. I don’t think you can change preconceived ideas like that in just a few years, it’s going to take generations.
However, what really surprised me when exhibiting ‘Monrovia Animated’ in Africa, is that a lot of African people made more or less the same comments as the Europeans. This really stunned me. Some Nigerians made similar comments about safety and child soldiers – exactly like the comments I’ve heard in Europe.
Honestly, I do not know who to blame. Is it because we are all now connected to the same media, sharing the same posts and clichés on Facebook? I don’t know, but the same people complaining about clichés about Africa were the same serving me the same clichés about Liberia.
Francois Beaurain and Medina Dugger, Chromatin #5, 2017. An animated gif project. Courtesy of the artists.
It is no doubt that physics has played a major role in how you create art. You are currently working as a climate change specialist whilst you practice your art. Do you see environmental topics and themes influencing future projects?
My scientific background plays a bigger role in my artwork than my involvement over the last ten years in climate change. As a kid, I remember the first time I discovered Escher’s work on tessellation and perspective – it just blew my mind. Escher’s art speaks a language similar to that of a language spoken by a scientific mind, and I think it somehow influenced my gif and collage work – both playing with repetition.
For climate change, this is a totally different story. To tell the truth, I’m so pessimistic about the climate change fight, the status of the international negotiations, biodiversity erosion, overfishing, Trump and the climate sceptics, the fact CO2 emissions are still rising and that the world is waiting towards the worst climate scenario, that I prefer to keep my art as far away as possible from environmental topics.
Most of my art is somehow ‘positive’, it might be a way for me to counterbalance my negative feeling about environmental issues, and for the time being, I prefer to keep it like that.
Francois Beaurain and Medina Dugger, Chromatin #6, 2017. An animated gif project. Courtesy of the artists.
*An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Dr Ron Eglash. This error has since been corrected online.