The Goethe Institute initiated the African Futures programme and brought artists and writers from all different spheres to Lagos, Nairobi, and Johannesburg in 2015 for exhibitions, performances, music, film and discussions around ideas of the future.
“African Futures presented everything from robotics technology, cyborg type creatures, apocalypse to Lauren Beukes’s book Broken Monsters and Abdourahman A Waberi’s book, In the United States of Africa. There was this diversity of the imaginative exploration,” said Lien Heidenreich, head of cultural programmes at Goethe Johannesburg, and editor of the African Futures book.
Virtual reality is the meeting of film and technology with 360 immersive audiovisual simulations that place the viewer in the epicentre of a virtual experience. It is an exciting new tool of the Fourth Industrial Revolution - the current age of transformation through the integration of reality and technology.
“Afrofuturism is a literary genre that emerged from science fiction. It imagines certain futures for the next generation who are going to inherit these tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” explained Shmerah Passchier, AFDA film school educator.
“You can watch virtual reality on a smartphone with Google cardboard goggles. It is not expensive. We as Africans can participate in global economies and represent ourselves in the global media space with these new and emerging art forms.”
Writer and self-titled “afrofuturist” Jonathan Dotse from Ghana has been keenly following the technological revolution in Africa since he started blogging about the future of the continent on AfroCyberPunk.com.
He said: “Virtual reality is on course to have an impact in Africa similar to the technological disruption caused by mobile phones, as it is largely based on the same technology, and equally benefits from advancements in mobility and accessibility.”
Due to a shortage of unique virtual reality content about Africa, the Goethe Institute partnered with Cape Town NGO Electric South to upskill virtual reality production.
The exhibition New Dimensions, featuring state-of-the-art virtual reality equipment and productions from Kenya, Senegal and Ghana, premiered at the Berlinale and was shown at the Tribeca, Sheffield and Durban film festivals. It went to Kinshasa and is preparing for Nigeria and Senegal.
Virtual reality is a new medium for storytelling. Other mediums like literature and comics in a two-dimensional space and movies in a three-dimensional space will retain their appeal and power to evoke the imagination.
Virtual reality operates in a fourth dimension of spatial storytelling, providing immersive experiences, as the viewer is transported to a different reality.
Kenyan mixed media filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii said: “Virtual reality allows you to explore space that you don’t explore on a flat film. There is almost a freedom or a conversion of the element of time that you don’t have in a regular film.”
It is not necessarily filmmakers who make the best virtual reality. As Heidenreich points out: “It is usually people who work with a very interdisciplinary spatial mind and creative people who work in different mediums who create the most interesting ideas.”
New Directions and Electric South made four short virtual realities of five to seven minutes in length, showcasing afrofuturism from the continent.
Fashion designer Selly Raby Kane’s virtual reality The other Dakar is magical realism of a girl’s exploration of a mystical world where artists hold the secret wonder. The viewer experiences the soul and heart of Dakar through rich textures of psychedelic colours.
Mukii’s virtual reality debut, Nairobi Berries, is a poetic symphony, immersing the viewer in the dye of sunlight, laughter of 1000 children and the depth of an underwater dreamscape.
Dotse’s virtual reality Spirit Robot transports the viewer to the Chale Wote Street Art Public Festival. In and among the street-level activity of painters, pedestrians, dancers and skateboarders, the viewer harnesses an unfiltered experience of the arts renaissance in Accra.
Kenyan visual artist and filmmaker Jim Chuchu of the Nest Collective made Let there be a warning. The viewer is placed into the context of an alien being dismissed from a foreign land. The virtual reality mimics the style of the first-person shooter games with its subjective narrative.
Chuchu said: “Virtual reality is a dynamic, multidimensional medium that has the power to separate the senses from the body of the viewer. It is a tool for near-complete immersion, and brings us one step closer to complete immersion. The hyper subjectivity that is made possible in virtual reality storytelling could be very useful in framing and unpacking the humanity of the African.”
Virtual reality is creating new opportunities in many fields. There are increasing commercial opportunities for virtual reality in the business sector through tourism, property development and medicine. Broadcasters are also starting to commission virtual reality. And there are new opportunities in other fields where current solutions are impractical or inaccessible.
Pan Africanism is the core of the work at the Goethe Institute South Africa. With educational programmes, cultural management and film development they place a strong emphasis on culture and science. Virtual reality offers amazing opportunities for the integration of culture and science through education.
Heidenreich said: “I think education is the future of virtual reality. What virtual reality can really do on a very broad basis internationally and across Africa is enhance education. I imagine putting on goggles and going directly into a museum, a biology lab or another country and experiencing to understand things better.”
Even though virtual reality is in its infancy, it is quickly advancing alongside the changes in technology. The projected future of virtual reality is mixed reality.
Jonathan Dotse says: “Virtual reality and augmented reality will eventually converge once the technology allows us to seamlessly transition between the two modes of experience. I look forward to the day when African kids casually boot up virtual environments and use their imaginations to shape the architecture of the metaverse.”