African women at the Forefront of VR

Electric South
Oct 25, 2019 · 8 min read

It is always great to hear stories about African women taking on interesting projects, especially in the emerging field of immersive media. Over the years Electric South has collaborated with many artists but among them are women who have produced great work. The most recent is a VR film directed by Nigerian based storyteller Jumoke Sanwo a 2017 New Dimensions VR Lab alum and who’s fillm ‘Lagos at Large’ has been selected for the DocLab: Domesticating Reality program

Jumoke Sanwo

Electric South is excited to be co-producing ‘Lagos at Large’, a new VR piece directed by the Nigerian storyteller. The VR piece is a non-fiction story of abandonment told through the experience of 3 characters. This immersive piece has been selected for the 32nd edition of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), which will take place from November 20 — December 1. The IDFA DocLab is an international program for new talent in the field of documentary storytelling and interactive media.

Jumoke’s first interest is in using storytelling across media (photography, video art and virtual reality) as a way to engage contemporary representation of Africans. Her conceptual framework and process is largely informed by the term “Global Localization” or “Glocal” with a local approach to storytelling where individual cultures, histories and traditions are presented as independent frames, within a global picture.

“Working within an immersive space for the first time, I did not feel the urge to create an artificial environment. I feel that our realities as Africans are already an immersion and I wanted people to experience this without the sensationalism, nor the usual representation as “the exotic”. I still also managed to unpack some of the issues such as gentrification in a rapidly urbanizing post-colonial city such as Lagos.”

Still from ‘Lagos at Large’ (L-R) Oshodi Bud Terminus, Oshodi Traffic, A module bus at Oshodi Market

“Looking at how this translates within the context of my piece ‘Lagos at Large’, I wanted to tell a personal yet collective story of the everydayness of the city-life in Lagos through the prism of a Lagosian (which I am), and that of a “been-to” a colloquial term used in describing a diasporan (which the voice of Njideka represented), using the familiar but often overlooked nuances of everydayness through sound, and movement, drawing the viewer into the city’s vibrancy, the commerce…,while unpacking the many layers of life and how the informalities in the city bring a unique aesthetic to it.”


Doing immersive narratives/work in Africa is important, not only for representation but also understanding a particular context. Along with Jumoke; Nirma, Nyasha, Shelley and Meghna have used VR to highlight social, political and economic challenges as well as using their creative sides to produce meaningful work.

Read more about these women and what inspired their projects with Electric South.


Nirma Madhoo — Azimuth

Nirma’s background is fashion design and fashion film making. Her work explores a digital aesthetic and draws on notions of the natural and technological sublime in imagining different environments for fashion performance.

“I am most inspired by our evolving cultures of technology and the way this is
resulting in changes in not only fashion but also in how we are
constructing our identities around these.”

Her thinking has always been interdisciplinary, and this has led to experimenting with imaging technologies not ascribed to the traditional ways of making a fashion
image.

This is evident in ‘Azimuth’ [a term that denotes measurement in a
spherical / 360 space] — which is inspired by Brutalism in 3 instances
of South African geographies; tetrapods / dolosse at the Durban harbour;
the brutalist jungle-like block at DUT main campus KZN; and Ponte Tower
in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. These were further conceptualised into a
triptych of fashion performances that respectively featured underwater
VR filming; aerial stunts and rigging for VR and a fully digitally
mediated scene that used data from drone Lidar-scanning of Ponte Tower
and a 64-DSLR photogrammetry shoot of the talent to generate 3D models
of the scene. The results she gets are experimental and mostly reliant on
collaborative team dynamics.

“I hope to continue in further explorations as it is the interactive
potential of VR that draws me next!”

(L-R) Nirma Madhoo, Lorin Sookool (a still from ‘Azimuth’)
(L-R) Nyasha Kadandara, Lake Chad (a still from ‘Le Lac’)

Nyasha Kadandara — Le Lac

Nyasha Kadandara is a Zimbabwean-born visual storyteller based in East Africa. She focuses on a broad spectrum of subjects including breaking news, climate change, education, migration, health, and conflict in various parts of Africa.

Her VR project ‘Le Lac’ tells a story about a crisis that many have not heard about. The immersive piece personifies the Lake Chad Basin, telling the story of how vulnerable she has become.Climate change has contributed to the Lake’s depletion and this is seen through Nyasha’s story.

Nyasha believes the viewer needed to be there with the rest of the Chadians, Cameroonians, Nigerians and Nigeriens. Virtual reality has quickly become the best storytelling tool to immerse the otherwise unassuming audience into the world of Lake Chad being threatened by climate change, population growth, irrigation and the Boko Haram insurgency.

“Much like the people I met, I believe the lake must have felt frustrated, afraid and wary of what the future would bring. It is this feeling I wanted to convey in ‘Le Lac’, and while many of the complex issues surrounding the crisis in Lake Chad Basin don’t come with easy solutions, I hope this film will go far in bringing awareness to dire crisis that is affecting millions across the Lake Chad Basin.”

Le Lac won the best digital narrative at the Sheffield Documentary Festival 2019.


Shelley Barry — HERE

Shelley’s films span across genres and are largely experimental in style. She often shoots her own films, exploring the aesthetics of cinematography from the perspective of a wheelchair user. Shelley founded twospinningwheels — a production company that aims to explore new languages in cinema and marginalized voices having access to the craft of filmmaking.

Her VR project ‘Here’ is a music and dance performance by Johannesburg artists with disabilities, celebrating their craft while reimagining their city as an inclusive and fantastical space.

Shelley’s first encounter with VR was at a popup shop at 27 Boxes, Melville, Johannesburg. They were selling VR experiences and Cardboard viewers.

“The moment I put on the headset and the tiny popup shop transformed into a virtual world, where I did not have a body, was metamorphic. I recall slowly moving my wheelchair around to view the orb in which I had voluntarily inserted myself, slightly fearful that I would fall off the edge of an undiscovered earth.”

After an initial VR experience, she was introduced to Google Tilt Brush and within seconds, was painting poetry in 3D and entering rushed experimental haiku’s.

“By the time I left that store, with a cardboard camera on my lap, I knew I wanted to make VR.”

By making ‘Here, Shelley is asking viewers to witness the bodies that are excluded and to acknowledge their presence. The way in which people with disabilities are represented is joyous and celebratory, which is rare to see. By placing the viewer in the centre of a circle of people with disabilities, she is trying to create a space where people with disabilities are looking at the viewer and celebrating their power with the viewer. In ‘Here’ they have the power to transform a city instead of being excluded from it. This is a city that acknowledges their existence and creates space and infrastructure to be inclusive.

As Jessica Brillhart notes “We are the builders of worlds, the makers of storytellers. What an amazing concept.”

(L-R) Meghna Singh, a still from ‘Container’

Meghna Singh — Container

Meghna Singh is a visual artist and a researcher. Working with mediums of video and installation, blurring boundaries between documentary and fiction, she creates immersive environments highlighting issues of ‘humanism’ through the tool of the imaginary. Her current focus is on the theme of critical mobilities, migration and the invisible class of mobile population that move around the world.

“Within my academic work I focus around the questions of method and how it might be that visual methods allow for a new insight into prevailing academic investigations regarding lives of migrants”.

The VR 180 installation art project ‘Container’ co-directed by documentary filmmaker Meghna Singh and Simon Wood is a project about modern day slavery. It is invested in making a case for enunciating temporal and spatial connections between a past marked by slavery and colonialization and a present marked by neoliberal capital and transnational flows of commodities and people. Using material notions of liquidity and fluidity, we ask the audience to reconsider some of what we know about bodies of water, about bodies, about the way bodies (via embodiment) might be necessary in the push for a more humane world.

“My work is inspired by the many decolonial thinkers who have written about the notion of ‘hauntings’ and is used as a driving analytical framework and tool. In Container it is used as a connective tissue that disrupts linear thinking and formal breaks from past and present.”


About Electric South

Virtual Reality, 3D Printing, Artificial Intelligence, Bio-Hacking, and beyond: tools that artists can use for creative expression are expanding and evolving. We believe that these new technologies must open up spaces for original voices and underrepresented narratives. This urgent need to showcase African stories in the medium of today inspired a 21st century production studio: Electric South.

Founded in 2015, we are a registered non-profit company based in Cape Town, South Africa and operating across the African continent. We are involved in the production of daring and urgent stories around African experiences; in building audiences and exhibition models for these stories in the local sector; and in the skills development required to advance a robust ecosystem of coopetition.

You can join our mailing list here, and follow us on Facebook /Twitter/Instagram.

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Funding, incubating and exhibiting the work of African creators - focused on innovative digital visual storytelling, VR, mobile and non-fiction.

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