STORY Jepchumba Interview

The Innovation Issue (13.3): In Conversation With Jepchumba of African Digital Art

Jepchumba has been listed by Forbes as one of the 20 Youngest Power Woman in Africa (2012) and by Guardian Africa in their Top 25 Woman Achievers. We know her as the digital curator, designer, artist and founder of African Digital Art (ADA) – an online platform that showcases the work of digital creatives from Africa. ARTsouthAFRICA spoke with Jepchumba about “dreaming in digital” and the possibilities that lie ahead for digital art on the continent. This interview was published in full in the March 2015 Innovation Issue (13.3) of ARTsouthAFRICA magazine.

STORY Jepchumba Interview

ABOVE: Image sourced from African Digital Art.

ARTsouthAFRICA: You’ve said that the digital media industry has “largely ignored Africa as a source for digital art, even though Africa has a long and strong visual artistic culture.” Why do you think that Africa has been overlooked in this regard? How do you think you are working to bring African digital art to the fore of the global art scene?

Jepchumba: Africa is generally underestimated when it comes to how the continent is interacting with technology. It is true that there are many areas in Africa that still have limited access to devices, tools and infrastructure, and yet, despite these limitations, creatives are exploring digital art. When I started African Digital Art (ADA) I had no idea it would seem like such a revolutionary concept and that there was a lack of awareness on what was happening in Africa from a digital perspective. Recent developments in mobile technology have shown that Africans are great early adopters; the art and creative field is not much different.

As more artists are exposed to digital technology they are exposed to new tools and mediums to utilise in their work. Digital Art expressions are growing rapidly in countries such as Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. Artists are experimenting with animation, sound, photography, film and interactive installations. ADA hopes to bring exposure to these projects and artists.

You have mentioned elsewhere that you are interested in the alternative spaces that can be created outside of the “global white cubes” and conglomerations of “Africaness” – do you think that the rise of digital art and digital platforms are necessarily the best way to counter these ‘white cubes’? In the physical sense, what could the art world be doing more of in order to bring these solutions into the real world?

My concerns for global exhibitions on art from Africa come from a historical framework. Africa has always been packaged for exoticism. African creativity is hot right now; the world wants to experience our visual culture. However, within this rush to package artists under one umbrella, we fall into the trap that Chimamanda speaks about in her TED Talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story.’ Digital platforms offer audiences a unique alternative because they have the ability to delve into conversations and thus make audiences less passive. You are no longer standing in front of an art piece in an exhibition space, you are amongst an online crowd sharing your thoughts about art and connecting with the artists that produce the work.

When it comes to physical spaces, it is important that we do not remove artistic work from the context in which they are produced. We should take into account the social, political and economic environment in which these artistic works are produced and highlight their individuality. We should also be conscious about the audience we invite to participate. The African art audience is not diverse. A specific demographic of people feel welcome to participate in the art world.

Physical spaces also need to be participatory, allowing the audience to contribute and add value. A great example of this is the Maboneng Township Art Experience in South Africa.

African Digital Art is as much about building networks as it is about showcasing digital art. What do you think we need to be doing more of to build networks across disciplines and across the continent?

We need education and access. Digital art is a technology-driven field. In many places across the continent artists are starving for equipment and access to the internet. We need to create physical spaces, laboratories where artists can learn specific skills and have access to devices and tools. As much as we need online spaces in Africa the success of any project has to be localised and on the ground.

What role does digital technology play in creating these networks, and widening the lens through which the rest of the world views Africa?

Digital technology has offered the world a more diverse and interesting story about Africa. Projects like ‘Everyday Africa’ on Instagram have educated the global audience about actual daily life in Africa. There are still many misconceptions about our continent. People still think it is a country riddled with poverty, Ebola and corruption. We now have access to platforms to speak about ourselves and share this with millions of people. Let us not forget that digital technology is also centred on innovation. The more creatives and artists that we have participating in digital spaces, the more solutions we produce for real life problems. We can redesign our approaches to health, government, poverty and inequality.

Could you talk us through your own artistic practice? You say you “dream in digital” – how does this translate in your art?

Digital art and digital technology allow me to be a mad scientist in a way. I can quickly translate something in my head into a prototype or an actual object. The gap between concept and product is shortened. The digital world is a space in which I find great comfort because it allows me to not only create new experiences through my work – whether it be designing a mobile application or a platform or creating an animation or an image – but it allows me to share it quickly and widely.

In what way is creating digital art different to traditional methods of production and media? How does it change or influence the act of making?

The difference between digital art and traditional art has to do with the medium. Digital art utilises a form of digital technology, whether it be a digital camera, computer or device. The world of digital art is quite massive as more and more people’s experiences are filtered through mobile devices and the internet. In terms of how it influences the act of making, it is making the process of creating art much easier and cheaper to produce and share with a large audience. With your mobile phone you can take photographs, shoot a movie, record an album, make sketches and then post it online to share, sell and reproduce.

You were listed by Forbes as one of the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa (2012) and in the Guardian Africa’s Top 25 Women Achievers – congratulations on these successes! What kinds of opportunities have arisen as a result of this?

I am going to be completely honest; I never really know what these accolades mean or how they translate into my work life. It does feel great to be recognised, but I still feel as though I have not earned the titles mainly because there is much left to be done. There are more platforms to build, more laboratories to create and new artists to support and encourage. I am grateful for the recognition because it acknowledges that there is a space for art and technology in Africa.

One of your focuses for this year is Aviro, an app you designed to help nurses treat HIV patients. Increasingly, companies in the technology space are introducing principles of design to improve medical products. Could you expand on the link between your creative practices and using creativity to solve real problems faced in Africa?

Aviro is a medical, design and technology company that my business partner (Dr. Musaed Abrahams) and I started in response to the gap between well-designed practices in the health sector in Africa. Before Aviro, I was disillusioned with the art world. I did not see how the work I was doing in African Digital Art translated into real problems faced in Africa. I am learning quickly that the health field requires creative and artistic people to collaborate with technologists, engineers and doctors to come up with medical solutions and products. As artists, we have the power to communicate to an audience, but we also have the power to create tools and products.

Through Aviro we developed a mobile application that helps nurses properly prescribe and administer ARVs for HIV patients. Using design principles and a creative processes we were able to create a diagnostic and decision support tool that could potentially save patients’ lives. There are endless possibilities in digital art and technology and I am hoping to participate in more projects like these that can serve as examples about the power of digital art.

You clearly have you finger on the pulse of the African Digital scene – which artists and digital innovations are you watching out for now?

You will have to check out African Digital Art for that! What I can say is that I am looking forward to showcasing more digital projects that tackle problems in Africa. Through my work in Aviro and ADA I am pushing to have more artists involved in public health messaging.