Inke Arns: Thanks. It’s amaz­ing to be here. I hope you can hear me and the tech­nol­o­gy is working. 

So I’m going to briefly intro­duce you to Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention. It’s an exhi­bi­tion that is cur­rent­ly on view in the [?] area at HMKV until late April. And it’s just uh…there’s a lot of gold in the exhibition. 

So what’s the exhi­bi­tion about? The exhi­bi­tion Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention puts Afrofuturism in dia­logue with alter­na­tive tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions and imag­i­na­tions. The spec­u­la­tive nar­ra­tives unfold­ing in the art­works on dis­play (and we’ll talk about them lat­er) are con­front­ed with actu­al inven­tions from mak­er scenes in dif­fer­ent African coun­tries. This cre­ates a dou­ble shift of per­spec­tive: while the art­works project decid­ed­ly African and dias­poric sci­ence fic­tion visions, the real devices appear as evi­dence of a tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment that is already under­way. The exhi­bi­tion thus presents Africa as a con­ti­nent of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. And I will explain to you lat­er why this is so, why we do this. 

This is just an overview of the artists in the exhi­bi­tion. Twenty artists and twelve tech projects in the exhi­bi­tion. They are pre­sent­ed togeth­er. And I will also explain lat­er how come this is so. 

Before I talk about the exhi­bi­tion and go a lit­tle bit more deeply into the con­tents, I want to tell you a lit­tle bit more about the research I did this before doing this exhi­bi­tion, and the research that was real­ly cru­cial for devel­op­ing this project. 

So in 2014, with my col­league Anna Bergner, who is a design pro­fes­sor at the University of Applied Arts and Sciences in Coburg and who has been research­ing a lot in mak­er spaces and mag­a­zines and so on, we trav­eled to three coun­tries of that big con­ti­nent. So we went to Kenya at the east­ern coast, we went to South Africa at the south­ern coast, and we went to Nigeria, in order to research what peo­ple were doing with technology. 

This was the first logo, which Anna devel­oped. I think it’s a real­ly beau­ti­ful logo. It obvi­ous­ly shows you the sil­hou­ette of the con­ti­nent with a wheel, which is very impor­tant. A satel­lite dish, a heli­copter rotor, sur­veil­lance cam­era, flash­lights, and also some­thing like a cable that looks like an ele­phan­t’s mouth. 

So, when we start­ed we had cer­tain ideas and wish­es. We want­ed to look at the use, the adap­ta­tion, and the rein­ven­tion or inven­tion of technologies—new technologies—in those three African countries. 

And it was very inter­est­ing because in 2014, before going there, we also read a lot of stuff on the Internet. For exam­ple there was this inter­est­ing arti­cle by Ethan Zuckerman, Africa’s hack­ers are today’s world-class tech inno­va­tors which was pub­lished in Wired, for example. 

Then there was a very—and I’m just point­ing you to these arti­cles in case you’re inter­est­ed in look­ing at who’s writ­ing about tech­nol­o­gy in Africa. WhiteAfrican, who’s actu­al­ly Eric Hersman from Nairobi, he’s run­ning this blog where you can find lots of real­ly inter­est­ing entries. 

This is a very inter­est­ing and impor­tant guy, Emeka Okafor. He’s part of a very big fam­i­ly from Nigeria. And he emi­grat­ed to the US. He’s liv­ing in New York City and he is one of the peo­ple who start­ed the Maker Faire Africa project. And he also ran the Maker Faire Africa in Lagos in 2012. So, his online project is Timbuktu Chronicles, so you might want to check out what he’s writ­ing there. 

This is just a real­ly beau­ti­ful poster of the 2012 Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, which gave us a lot of ideas, actu­al­ly, where to start our research and where to look at and—okay, that’s anoth­er rather fun­ny arti­cle, Want to Become an Internet Billionaire? Move to Africa, from 2011 already, and the map actu­al­ly shows you the pro­ject­ed under­sea cables in May 2013

I’m not going to read you all of this. Just to tell you, we wrote a kind of FAQ before we went, because we want­ed to make very clear what we were inter­est­ed in and what not. And just to give you an idea, we were inter­est­ed in peo­ple doing strange things with tech­nol­o­gy, elec­tric­i­ty, soft­ware. Those who are not con­tend­ing them­selves with cor­po­rate solu­tions designed for the glob­al North and who, out of this dis­sat­is­fac­tion are start­ing to devel­op their own solu­tions.” So, that’s what we were look­ing for. 

A street scene in Nairobi, several modern buildings with glass facades visible in the background, one with a multi-story Coca-Cola ad on one side

That’s just my first impres­sion of Nairobi. 

And the peo­ple we met were quite amaz­ing. For exam­ple here in Nairobi in Kenya, we met this Erik Hersman, WhiteAfrican, who had at that time been devel­op­ing the first Internet serv­er that could work with­out electricity—or with­out con­stant pow­er con­nec­tion. Which is some­thing very impor­tant in Africa because in some coun­tries, or let’s say many coun­tries, there are con­stant pow­er fail­ures and many peo­ple of course use pow­er gen­er­a­tors, which con­sume a lot of gaso­line, in order to become inde­pen­dent of those pow­er cuts. And with a with a lap­top like this it’s not a prob­lem because it can kind of sur­vive two hours, three hours with­out elec­tric­i­ty. But the servers for Internet con­nec­tiv­i­ty can’t. And so that’s why they devel­oped this machine which has a built-in bat­tery, basically. 

Somebody else I met in South Africa has devel­oped this project Robohand. And the guy who invent­ed the project is Richard Van As from South Africa. You can see him in the yel­low t‑shirt. He actu­al­ly used to work as a car­pen­ter. And at some point in 2011 or so, he had a seri­ous acci­dent. He kind of cut off half of his hand. And so when he went to the hos­pi­tal and had to face med­ical treat­ment, he sud­den­ly real­ized that so he basi­cal­ly could not pay for an arti­fi­cial hand. So he decid­ed to make one him­self. And at that time 3D print­ing was just up on the hori­zon, and he invent­ed the solu­tion for him­self. But then in the process of mak­ing this ful­ly mechan­i­cal, non-electrical hand which is ful­ly func­tion­al, he real­ized that the solu­tion could not only maybe work for him but also for oth­ers. And so that’s when he decid­ed to put the files online, and they’re acces­si­ble for any­body who has a 3D print­er, basi­cal­ly. And that can be adapt­ed to the indi­vid­ual needs. This green one is a hand that we print­ed out for the exhi­bi­tion in Dortumd. 

Okay, the fly­ing don­key chal­lenge, or con­test, was also quite pop­u­lar at the time. I think they kind of dis­con­tin­ued it because of sev­er­al bomb attacks and they could not fol­low up on this. But the idea basi­cal­ly, when you don’t have infra­struc­ture, roads and stuff, why not use trans­port drones. 

Another very inter­est­ing project is a project that was pre­sent­ed at the Maker Fair Africa in Lagos in 2012. It’s a project by four school­girls who built a generator—it’s a pow­er generator—which is not run­ning on gaso­line but which is run­ning on urine. And appar­ent­ly you can pro­duce six hours of elec­tric­i­ty with one liter of urine. They were about to install it into their school system. 

So, just to give you some ideas that result­ed from this research trip. Very often I had the feel­ing, okay there is a seri­ous lack of infra­struc­ture, a seri­ous lack of mate­r­i­al, you know, infra­struc­ture. There’s not a cash machine at every street cor­ner. There’s maybe not roads that are good enough to be used on an every­day basis. So there’s real­ly a seri­ous lack of phys­i­cal infrastructure. 

And what I noticed is that it’s not about catch­ing up but some­how it’s about jump­ing over, right. It’s about going direct­ly to the next lev­el. So going direct­ly wire­less. And I guess some of you know that, or many of you might know, that M‑Pesa was intro­duced very ear­ly on. It’s a way of pay­ing with your mobile phone with­out the need of hav­ing a bank account. Of course the usage of mobile tele­pho­ny is very wide­spread in Africa. And so a lot of ideas sud­den­ly some­how became very vir­u­lent, so to speak, out of this idea of jump­ing to the next level. 

For the project, it meant that what I had seen in those three coun­tries some­how did not cor­re­spond to what you usu­al­ly see in the media—television, or on the news­pa­per. You always read about there’s the next famine, there’s pover­ty, there’s hunger, cor­rupt regimes and so on. It cer­tain­ly all exists. Definitely. But there’s also some­thing else. When we had the open­ing of the exhi­bi­tion I said there’s nor­mal­i­ty in Africa, you know. So that’s why we decid­ed to present Africa as the con­ti­nent of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of extreme. 

So, you might won­der how does Afrofuturism come into the game. For a long time I did not know what to do with these find­ings, you know. I was very unsure how to devel­op the whole project fur­ther and then I start­ed talk­ing to a col­league of mine, Fabian Saavedra-Lara. Because some­how I had the feel­ing I’m miss­ing a kind of nar­ra­tive. Okay, this idea of jump­ing to the next lev­el, it’s a nice idea but…mmm. And the idea of pre­sent­ing Africa as a con­ti­nent of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion is also quite inter­est­ing but some­how there was a lack of nar­ra­tive. So Fabian, he sug­gest­ed to look at Afrofuturism. 

So what is Afrofuturism? Afrofuturism is clear­ly not some­thing that comes from Africa, inter­est­ing­ly. But it’s let’s say a sci­ence fic­tion nar­ra­tive that devel­oped let’s say in the 1950s in the US. So it’s Afro-American cul­ture, and one of the pro­tag­o­nists is actu­al­ly Sun Ra, a jazz musi­cian who always claimed to be from the plan­et Saturn, not from the plan­et Earth but from Saturn. And as you can see he loved dress­ing up like a pharaoh. So those two ref­er­ences were very impor­tant. The ref­er­ence to ancient Egypt, so let’s say high cul­ture in Africa. And at the same time the ref­er­ence to space, to out­er space. And these are two very impor­tant ref­er­ences for Afrofuturism. And you will find these ref­er­ences in many let’s say sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries, nar­ra­tives. So when you’re being denied your own place in the present time, Afrofuturism has been look­ing for alter­na­tive spaces, and also times. So that’s why space is an alter­na­tive place. And also let’s say the mov­ing into the future or into the very far away past is an option, became impor­tant in Afrofuturism. 

So maybe you have won­dered why we have such a very strange design. On the right-hand side it’s the build­ing we are locat­ed in. It’s Dortmunder U; it’s the for­mer union brew­ery. And it has this beau­ti­ful logo on top of the roof which obvi­ous­ly stands for union,” this beer brand. But our design­ers actu­al­ly found this par­al­lel in Sun Ra’s hair­do, let’s say. So that’s why we actu­al­ly devel­oped this design. 

So let me tell you a lit­tle bit about the exhi­bi­tion. So John Akomfrah’s short and exper­i­men­tal doc­u­men­tary film The Last Angel of History exam­ines the rela­tion­ships between pan-African cul­ture, sci­ence fic­tion, inter­galac­tic trav­el, and rapidly-developing com­put­er technology. 

The short film Afronauts from the Ghanaian direc­tor Frances Bodomo looks at the real his­to­ry of a planned space pro­gram in Zambia of the 1960s, a time at which polit­i­cal utopias encoun­tered tech­no­log­i­cal progress. And this is actu­al­ly the sto­ry of a 17 year-old girl in Zambia who was sup­posed to be sent to the moon. 

Kiluanji Kia Henda’s pho­tographs show futur­is­tic archi­tec­tures in the Angolan cap­i­tal of Luanda. The artist rein­ter­prets those post-colonial build­ings in Icarus 13 into proof of the first African jour­ney to the sun. 

Kapwani Kiwanga in her Sun Ra Repatriation Project has the goal of bring­ing Sun Ra back to his actu­al plan­et of ori­gin, Saturn. Sun Ra, who died in 1993, was a jazz musi­cian. He claimed to orig­i­nate from the plan­et Saturn and rep­re­sent­ed the phi­los­o­phy of the Astro Black, which con­firmed his extrater­res­tri­al ori­gin. So in this video, she actu­al­ly inter­views a lot of sci­en­tists, some of them involved in the SETI pro­gram (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) how to prove…is there a way to prove that Sun Ra real­ly returned to his plan­et of ori­gin. And she actu­al­ly man­ages to prove it, obviously. 

Taking the work of the cos­mic jazz musi­cian Ra again as a start­ing point, the spec­u­la­tive nar­ra­tive of Soda_Jerk exam­ines the con­nec­tion between sci­ence fic­tion and social pol­i­cy in the black Atlantic music cul­ture. In the exhi­bi­tion, Astro Black is pre­sent­ed as a two-channel video instal­la­tion with four episodes alter­nat­ing between the two screens. 

So this was a selec­tion of projects that deal with out­er space, with space trav­el. Then we also have a lot of projects that deal with the sea. With the deep sea, with the Atlantic. And I’m going to present you two or three of those. 

So Drexciya. The leg­endary Detroit tech­no duo Drexciya devel­oped imag­i­nary worlds inspired by Afrofuturism in many con­cept albums. In their releas­es, Drexciya is also the name of a leg­endary city beneath the sea. This Afrofuturist Atlantis is pop­u­lat­ed by the descen­dants of preg­nant women that were tak­en as slaves from var­i­ous coun­tries of Africa and thrown over­board and mur­dered dur­ing the cross­ing of the Atlantic. According to the leg­end, their unborn chil­dren sur­vived in the womb and devel­oped the abil­i­ty to breathe and live under­wa­ter. They found­ed an unknown under­wa­ter civ­i­liza­tion that was in pos­ses­sion of utopi­an technologies. 

The South Africa-based artist Tabita Rezaire deals with the sea as a store­house for pain, lost sto­ries, and mem­o­ries in the era of colo­nial­ism in Deep Down Tidal. That’s the work we see here. While it also con­tains the deep sea, it also con­tains the glob­al infra­struc­ture of our present day telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions with­in it. So she real­ly fol­lows, she actu­al­ly over­lays, she finds a par­al­lel between the under­sea telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion cables and the roots of the slave ships that have trav­eled from Western Africa to the so-called New World. 

The film­mak­er Simon Rittmeier, in his film Drexciya which you can also see tonight, picks up the myth of the same name in order to use the meth­ods of sci­ence fic­tion to tell of the images cir­cu­lat­ing in media today, and about dis­cus­sion of the refugee crisis. 

Another film that you can also see tonight—so tonight is a video pro­gram of three films, which in the end I will show you a slide. This is actu­al­ly Naked Reality by Jean-Pierre Bekolo. It’s an afro­fu­tur­ist sci­ence fic­tion film locat­ed 150 years in the future. The cities of Africa have grown togeth­er to form a gigan­tic dystopi­an metrop­o­lis in the film of the Cameroonian film­mak­er. The pro­tag­o­nist Wanita leaves the house one morn­ing not know­ing that her first prayer to the ances­tors has ini­ti­at­ed her jour­ney to Dimsi, a world one can­not see. 

Louis Hennderson, that’s the third film you can see tonight, Lettres du Voyant, Letters of the Seer, is a film essay that uses doc­u­men­tary meth­ods to tell of spiritism and tech­nol­o­gy in present day Ghana. The nar­ra­tive of the film revolves around a mys­te­ri­ous prac­tice known as Sakawa: Internet scams, fraud­u­lent mass emails, that is enriched with voodoo magic. 

Fabrice Monteiro the Belgian-Beninese pho­tog­ra­ph­er com­ments on envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion in var­i­ous regions of Africa in his pho­to­graph­ic work The Prophecy. In his images he stages fan­tas­tic enti­ties he has designed togeth­er with the design­er Doulsy from Dakar in apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scapes. We’re show­ing four of these pic­tures here. I only show you one, and this is obvi­ous­ly deal­ing with com­put­er trash. 

I’m slow­ly com­ing to an end. The tech projects, I told you in the begin­ning we have twelve tech projects in the exhi­bi­tion. They cov­er a very wide vari­ety of areas. I already told you about BRCK, from Kenya, which is an Internet serv­er that also ensures access to the Internet even with­out a sta­ble pow­er supply. 

M‑Pesa from Kenya is a cash-free method of pay­ment that func­tions via mobile tele­phone which requires no bank account. 

And there’s the project Uko Wapi from Germany. I mean, the peo­ple who devel­op it, they’re work­ing in Germany and in Africa. Uko Wapi means as much as where are you?” It’s an inno­v­a­tive address app that reli­ably also finds loca­tions in areas with­out an exist­ing address system. 

Another impor­tant area is that of health and med­i­cine. I already showed you Robohand. Robohand pro­vides prostheses—fingers, hands, and legs—for print­ing out one­self with a 3D print­er at a frac­tion of the price of con­ven­tion­al med­ical prostheses. 

GiftedMom is an app that pro­vides expect­ing moth­ers with use­ful infor­ma­tion and con­tributes to sex­u­al education. 

Chowberry from Nigeria com­bats hunger through inno­v­a­tive use of the expi­ra­tion dates of food prod­ucts. This could also be quite inter­est­ing for here. The inven­tor, Oscar Ekponimo, he wants to avoid food waste. 

And then there’s a project called a CardioPad that helps with med­ical diag­no­sis in areas with low pop­u­la­tions and cre­ates a direct con­nec­tion with med­ical specialists. 

Juakaliscope from Kenya is a com­plete­ly func­tion­al micro­scope from the 3D printer. 

And Shiriki Hub, that’s the last image I would like to show you. This is Henri Nyakarundi from Rwanda. It’s a kind of solar kiosk which peo­ple can use for recharg­ing their mobile phones and mobile devices. And Henry, he also came to Dortmund. We had a one-week fes­ti­val and we invit­ed sev­er­al of the inven­tors. And Henry, he told me…because he builds these kiosks and he kind of rents them out to peo­ple. So peo­ple can rent them and they can make mon­ey on recharg­ing tele­phones. And he told me, Oh, I’m not employ­ing young men. I want to work with young women, espe­cial­ly young moth­ers because they feel very respon­si­ble.” So he’s pre­dom­i­nant­ly employ­ing young moth­ers to run these kiosks. 

So if you’re inter­est­ed in more stuff, there’s a trav­el blog. Obviously there’s a video about the exhi­bi­tion. There has been some very inter­est­ing press cov­er­age. And the film screen­ing I would like to point you to is every night from tonight at ten o’clock in the video lounge. It’s those three films. And I would like to thank you for your atten­tion and I’m here for for ques­tions and answers, obvi­ous­ly. Thank you.

Further Reference

Session archive page