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'African Robots' by Danny Shorkend

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"Specialisation, while allowing for focus and the acquisition of knowledge, comes at a price. One loses a holistic sensibility. One loses the sense of the interconnectedness of disciplines and indeed, of knowledge itself. In this light, the innovative art, design, technical know-how and educational potential that ‘African Robots’ offers is pertinent, not simply conceptual," writes Danny Shorkend, following the exhibition 'African Robots' at the MUTI Gallery earlier this year.

AA Newsletter April28 AfricanRobots2Ralph Borland (pictured) with Lewis Kaluzi, Tie-fighter, 2015. Wire, 20 x 20 x 20cm. All images courtesy of Ralph Borland and MUTI Gallery.

Specialisation, while allowing for focus and the acquisition of knowledge, comes at a price. One loses a holistic sensibility. One loses the sense of the interconnectedness of disciplines and indeed, of knowledge itself. In this light, the innovative art, design, technical know-how and educational potential that ‘African Robots’ offers is pertinent, not simply conceptual. Rather, it is relevant to ground-level social development, especially within an African (and South African) context, where the notoriously ‘poor’ South needs to assert its creativity and develop sustainable methods of survival amidst the lack of re-sources. Perhaps a solution is forthcoming.

AA Newsletter April28 AfricanRobots3Left to right: Lewis Kaluzi, Farai Kanyemba and Ralph Borland.

Ralph Borland has training in both the fine arts – in particular sculpture and the sciences – and has worked in collaboration with wire sculptors. As a result, he has produced an array of street art ‘toys’ that function as both aesthetic objects and electronic devices that literally move (and sometimes emit sounds) in interesting ways. The notion of ‘toys’ should not be taken lightly: toy-making can be seen to be the basis of mechanics and computing. It opens up the possibility for democratisation and access to technical know-how. Even the seemingly aloof world of mathematics becomes more available through notions of ethno-mathematics, where mathematical practice becomes visible in a seemingly non-mathematical context, such as design. The result is a merging of art, design and education into new social relationships that promise a reappropriation of electronic components in a cost- effective and aesthetic context. An example of this is theHarare Inter-national Festival of the Arts (HIFA), where last year’s artists learnt basic electronics while making cheap electronic toys bought in the streets of São Paulo and then reshaped them into creative, new forms. In this way artistic intervention adapts knowledge by changing material culture, which in turn changes consciousness. In fact, Borland speaks of the ‘viral’ nature of such forms or design fiction, by which objects actually have the propensity to reorientate the future.

AA Newsletter April28 AfricanRobots1Ralph Borland with Lewis Kaluzi, X-wing, 2015. Wire, 25 x 25 x 10cm. Image courtesy of Ralph Borland and MUTI Gallery.

Moreover, the logic of electronics does not obfuscate the magic of art and science. Our understanding of these forces – electromagnetism, gravity and the atomic – may be lim-ited, yet this magic is felt in the aliveness of the ‘African Robots.’ These automatisms are quirky, adventurous and exploratory and also draw from nature – the Starling bird, a tor-toise, a lizard and so on. Throughout the exhibition, wire artists could be seen at the gallery plying their craft. With the assistance of electronic engineer Dan de Beer, the artists – Leighton Dube, Farai Kanyombal, Dube Cahipangwa, Louis Kabuzi and others – draw in wire, while using cheap technologies to bring the wire art to life, often using fundamental scientific principles to make the objects function. Yet this should not offset the keen sensitivity of the objects themselves: on closer scrutiny there is a certain attention to detail, in the way the Starling bird’s legs and feet are made or the use of found materials that become beautiful elements in themselves, like the simple transparency and shape of a small plastic bottle cut to fit.

AA Newsletter April28 AfricanRobots9Ralph Borland, Starling 1.1, 2015. Wire, wood, plastic, electronics. 30 x 20 x 15cm.

This overlap between disciplines reflects a model which is developing at present and needs to filter through globally. Here I am referring to the mnemonic s.t.e.a.m, which refers in order to: science, technology, education, art and maths. A broad base of elements is preferable to a one-sided approach and, specifically, the individual reasonably versed in such a broad-based language is better equipped to critically assess and creatively con-tribute to a given society. Idealistic yes, but without ideals, the destructive elements are unleashed. The obvious recant is that information alone does not build; know-how can be used destructively. Perhaps this is the area where art can teach science. On the other hand, technology may also offer a utopian vision.

Based in Cape Town, Michaelis graduate Danny Shorkend continues to paint, theorise and write about art. He iscurrently completing a doctorate in art history through UNISA.

‘African Robots’ ran from 7 – 14 January 2016 at MUTI Gallery in Cape Town.

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