Jenga CCI | Article

USONI Exhibition USONI Exhibition © Lameck Orina "State of the ARt” (SOTA) is a joint initiative between the Goethe-Institut and BlackRhino VR, under Jenga CCI, which sets out new and inspiring uses of immersive technologies in the creation, experience and sharing of digital art. And after reading that explanation, you now understand why the name is written like that—the whole concept has to do with reality in alternate forms, like Augmented Reality (AR). In its second year, SOTA featured five artists who were part of the Virtual Reality (VR) and AR training program.
For the unaware, VR and AR are immersive types of media that provide involving simulated experiences that can be similar to or completely different from the real world. In order to experience the true effect of VR one requires a headset. For AR, however, a user can interact and have an experience with a real-world environment through enhanced computer-generated objects. VR gives a user an experience in 360 degrees, whether it is through gaming, or watching a video or film. The user is entirely ‘submerged’ in the experience, and feels like they are inside the game or video or work of art. With AR, the difference is that the user can be on a mobile device, e.g. a phone or tablet, and get to interact with computer generated images that pop up in the real world.
As you would imagine, it is not easy thinking up ideas and concepts around presenting an alternate reality that Kenyans are not wholly familiar with—both technically and imaginatively—and so I spoke to one of the two curators of the USONI exhibition, the public output of SOTA, Saitabao Kaiyare, to delve deeper into the theme and its implementation. The exhibition took place from October 30 to November 7, 2021 at OUT Reality in the Mall (Basement), Westlands.
According to Saitabao, his role as co-curator of the exhibition entailed making sure the second edition of the exhibition lived up to the enormous success of the first one. Their work primarily was to make sure the theme that the artists had already leaned into was aligned into a cohesive exhibition concept, and to work with the artists to develop their VR/AR projects further in terms of giving feedback through various critique sessions.

USONI Curators from left: Mumo Liku and Saitabao Kaiyare | Curators of the USONI exhibition © Lameck Orina “For us as the curators, we thought of the idea of USONI as a word which has a double meaning [it means on the face and the future in Kiswahili]: on the one hand, the immersive experience of [the technology] being 'on the face', and on the other hand, the meaning of 'the future'. We wanted to communicate how the technology can be a gateway into the imaginary would-be worlds. The theme of the future signifies how we can incorporate modern technology into creative works as we also incorporate cultural heritage.” The concept of VR/AR in itself is still a nascent field as far as Kenyan technology is concerned, and even more so where the creation of art through these forms is concerned. Saitabao and his partner, Mumo Liku, the other co-curator, were already venturing into this world before applying to curate USONI, through their collective, Baruu Collective. As Baruu, they have also had experience curating other events that are VR/AR related, re-thinking and reimagining the African narrative.
The journey to this edition began earlier in the year, when SOTA did a call out on their social media platforms, asking different creatives to apply to be part of the trainings project. There were numerous applications, and the five artists selected were chosen based on their form of art, experience, and if they met the requirements of the application. These five artists were: Brian Njenga, a 3D artist; Martin ‘Blaanga’ Langat, illustrator and animator; Chelagat Cherwon, illustrator, mural artist and graffiti artist; Manal Omayer, illustrator, animator and teacher; and Joan Muema, graphic designer, illustrator and motion graphics artist.

USONI finalists From left: Chelagat Cherwon, Manal Omayer, Joan Muema © Lameck Orina Brian Njenga’s contribution to the exhibition, for example, was called The Heritage Museum. The project’s purpose was to raise awareness of Kenya’s looted and unknown heritage—underlining the fact that so many objects have been stolen from Kenya, but we don’t know them, their history, their quantities, or their importance. This VR project showed some of these objects in VR form, recreating artefacts in 3D that are actually located in foreign museums around the world today. Users interacted with the project and learnt more about what was stolen from integral parts of Kenyan culture.
Joan Muema ventured further west with her idea, Oshun: The Rebirth. The project centred around a user’s experience as a traveller in search of the West African goddess, Oshun. The traveller is looking for Oshun in the Osogbo forest, although the goddess hasn’t been seen there in many years, and the traveller has to find objects hidden in the game before finally accomplishing the goal of the game. By including scrolls with bits of information, and other such interactive items, this immersive scavenger hunt is both fun and educational. These were just two of the five projects that were curated in the second edition. Between six and seven hundred people attended the ten-day exhibition, and got an opportunity to interact with this new media through the projects and side events, such as the talks that were held during the exhibition.

SOTA 2.0 Representatives from Goethe-Institut and Black Rhino VR, as well as the 5 USONI finalists © Lameck Orina It can be said that there is nowhere people can go to learn how to produce or engage with VR/AR in a meaningful manner in the East African region. “Currently there are no schools that teach VR/AR,” explains Saitabao, “and that is why Goethe-Institut and BlackRhino VR partnered to select these five artists, and take them through a four-month program on how to use the technology, then later give them a chance to create works of art using this technology. There will be third edition! And with time, we hope SOTA will continue to grow, and give more people a chance to learn.”

The project “Cultural and Creative Industries” is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut. It improves employment and income opportunities for creative professionals in six partner countries; Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa and operates mainly in the music, fashion, design and animation sectors. In addition to promoting the development of entrepreneurial, digital, creative and technical skills through training programmes, the project aims to strengthen the framework conditions and the ecosystem of the cultural and creative industries.