Monday, 9 April 2018


By Tobias Schlosser

In the imagination of the “Global North”, Africa is often pictured as an “underdeveloped” continent marked by poverty and conflict. The exhibition “Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention” in Dortmund, Germany, challenges this stereotypical image, however, and presents the continent as one full of resources, especially with regards to art and science, and their interconnectedness.

Representing 22 countries, the show - now in its final weeks - comprises 20 Afrofuturistic artistic perspectives and 12 technological projects from Africa. The public may see these as technological productions to be contrasted or compared with devices from “Western” societies.

The poster for "Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention",
Design: KoeperHerfurth.
One innovation from Cameroon, for example, is called the “CardioPad” and has medical sensors attached to a tablet. Non-experts can use “Cardiopad” to carry out medical examinations which will be analysed by doctors from a distance.

This invention can be handy in rural areas as it saves time, travel and expense, and balances out infrastructural inequalities that limit access to medical facilities.
Secondly, the South African company “Robohand”, founded by machine artist Ivan Oven and carpenter Richard van As, creates designs and software that can be used to manufacture medical prostheses via 3-D-printers. In this way, people who need prostheses of fingers, hands, arms or even legs now have an Open Source to get their prostheses at incredibly low cost, no matter where they live.
In addition, the exhibition shows that Kiira Motors Corporation has developed a solar-energy bus that has the capacity to run for the whole day without being recharged, thanks to its lithium-ion batteries. With that sustainable invention, Uganda’s cities could become less polluted and noisy. These are only three of the striking technological concepts on display.
The artistic perspectives of “Afro-Tech” are based meanwhile on the concept of Afrofuturism in which a future is imagined where inequalities no longer exist. However, due to new forms of technology and digitalisation, the future visions also detect possible dangers, and function as a warning for certain issues such as ecological disasters or new forms of exclusion and marginalisation.
The artistic media range from photographs, (short) films, documentaries and a video cycle that celebrates the works of jazz musician Sun Ra, to a music station where visitors can explore the sounds of the iconic techno music duo Drexciya - who tell the myth of a black Atlantis. The music playlist contains music from “canonical” Afrofuturistic artists such as American singers Erykah Badu and Janelle Monáe as well as Jamaican dub musician and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.
An installation at the "Afro-Tech" exhibition.
Photo: Woidich Hannes.
Some of the documentaries screened at “Afro-Tech” are challenging and quite avant-gardist, such as the almost 20-minute-long video “Deep down Tidal” (2017) by Guyanese-Danish artist and activist Tabita Rezaire. The video puts forward the argument that in a postcolonial world where there is no space left to be conquered, electronic space is created that everyone depends on, so it can be colonised.
The view is that the Internet does not create equality, but gives room for racism, homophobia and transphobia with its “architecture of violence”. This examination is underscored by the fact that the fibre-optic cables which are under the Atlantic Ocean serve to facilitate the exchange of Eurocentric knowledge within the “Global North” and they are exactly the same routes used during the slave trade.
Thus, the ocean or water reminds one of every historical deed because it bore witness to earlier crimes and now it sees how neo-colonial routes are being established. This circular approach to time indeed rules many Afrofuturistic oeuvres (the form of exclusion may vary, but the politics of exclusion remains), and it works against cultural amnesia.
“Water is a communication interface. Water will download your secrets.” – Statement from the documentary “Deep Down Tidal” (2017) by Tabita Rezaire
These mechanisms of marginalisation are also the reason why some of the artistic positions seem quite apocalyptic. The photo-series “The Prophecy” by Belgian-Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro shows spirits of the Earth who demonstrate the consequences of pollution in a disturbingly dystopian way. Here, an animistic world-view is used as a warning.
Wangechi Mutu's The End of eating Everything, 2013.
Copyright Wangechi Mutu. Courtesy of the artist.
The same applies to the short film “The End of eating Everything” (2013), created by Kenyan visual artist Wangechi Mutu in cooperation with US-American R’n’B singer Santigold. The film portrays the Earth as both a ship and a monster which is run only by consumption, greed and a total loss of control. It is eating up everything that is still living and poisons the atmosphere with its exhaust fumes before its destruction and rebirth.
Besides these alarming visions, the exhibition highlights rebellion and resistance. Based on the Rastafari philosophy, the Italian artist and activist Jaromil (Denis Roio) designed an operating system called “Rastasoft” which can be downloaded for free and which is not controlled by commercial interests of the conventional operating systems. People are thus not forced to spend money in order to have a system which allows them to publish online.
Having the real innovations on one side and the dystopian visions of a final destruction of the planet on the other, the exhibition “Afro-Tech” leaves no doubt that there is a thin line between use and misuse, between emancipation and discrimination, and between chances and the politics of exclusion.
Emphasising the interconnectedness between futuristic and artistic visions and the inventions coming from Africa, the exhibition further illustrates that the future has already started. In that sense, "Afro-Tech" presents not only a future of re-invention - as the title of the exhibition indicates - it promotes a re-imagination of Africa as a continent full of technological and artistic resources.
“Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention” runs until April 22, 2018, and can be seen at “Dortmunder U”, a centre for art and creativity. It is organized by the German multi-award- winning art club HMKV (Hartware MedienKunstVerein), in cooperation with the regional association “Regionalverband Ruhr” (RVR) and the association Africa Positive e.V.
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Tobias Schlosser is a writer, researcher and expert drink-maker, based in Germany. He thanks Steven Rattey for his enthusiasm and expert knowledge about science-fiction and futuristic art. Without it, this article wouldn’t have been possible.