Imagine this. A world where the physical realm and the virtual realm blend into one. Where the limitations of the mortal flesh and solid ground are erased in favour of the surrealist terrain of a 3D artists’ brush stroke. This is what Mark Zuckerberg envisions for his ‘Metaverse’. This is what Darubini: State of the ARt 3.0 envisions for the Kenyan day-to-day reality. 

On Saturday mornings, Husna would cozy up next to the TV to watch Club Kiboko, patiently waiting for one specific segment – Mr. Sketch (Alias Billy Mugambi): How To Draw Anything. She would follow along with his process, with each curve and shaded corner until the drawing (and Mr. Sketch’s show) was complete. That was the beginning of her love for the magic of art.

“A few years later my sister went to highschool and she got to do Fine Art. I didn’t know it was a subject because back then, we had Arts & Craft but our teachers didn’t really teach us much. I remember the teachers sometimes using the lessons to teach other subjects. I was happy to find out it could be taught in school. 

Fortunately in High School, I went to a school that offered Art & Design as a subject so I did it in High School and since then, I’ve been using youtube and other learning platforms to get more skills, as well as mentorship programmes. I also learn from friends who are artists.”

  • Husna Nyathira, Multidisciplinary Designer and Visual Artist.

You see, Husna, like many visual artists, fell in love with the way through visual art,  life could be reimagined in any colour. In any shape or form. As long as she had her sketch and outline, she could go as wild as her imagination could take her. Human bodies didn’t have to be anatomically correct in order to be classified as humans. A car didn’t have to look like your uncle’s Volkswagen to be a car. Through art, the artist has found a home to channel everything that is going on in their heads and in their realities. 

And it is this home that Husna found again, at Darubini.

Darubini, which translates to ‘telescope’ in Kiswahili, is a month-long exhibition of the emotive possibilities of Virtual Reality. It ran at The Mall in Westlands from 5th – 27th November 2022. 

Through the use of VR headsets, the artists of Darubini take viewers on journeys to new worlds where exploration leads to introspection. Going further to offer viewers a glimpse into what is happening behind the art, that resulted in their journeys of self-discovery. 

But for those none-the-wiser, here’s a brief breakdown of Virtual Reality and what it is:

Virtual Reality (VR) is a simulated 3D environment which enables users to explore and interact with a virtual surrounding in a way that approximates reality, as it is perceived through the user’s senses. The environment is created with computer hardware and software, and users are advised to wear devices such as headsets or goggles in order to properly interact with the environment. 

The use of other haptic devices, the word ‘haptic’ stemming from the Greek word ‘Haptikos’ which means ‘being able to come into contact with’, allow users to immerse themselves deeper into a VR environment and block their physical surroundings. Suspending their belief such that for the duration of the simulation, the user may come to accept the VR environment -in all its fantasy and 3D surrealism- as real. Pushing the definitions of the experience from Virtual Reality to what one might call Extended Reality (XR).

But what was the match that sparked the idea that virtual reality or rather, extended reality was even a technological possibility? 

American computer scientist and Internet pioneer, Ivan Sutherland, is widely regarded as the ‘father of computer graphics.

 In 1967, as associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard University, Sutherland devised the first Virtual Reality head-mounted display system, together with his students: Robert Sproull, Quintin Foster and Danny Cohen. Fast forward into the future in the early 2010’s, Palmer Luckey, a teenager from California with a knack for electrical engineering and tinkering with computers in his parents’ garage, created the first commercial VR headset and system, Oculus Rift VR,  funded by a kickstarter campaign which raised USD 2.4M, 974% of its original target. In March 2014, Oculus Rift VR was acquired by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook for USD 3B. 

Fast forward again to 2022, one of the partners of the Darubini: State of the ARt series is the Kenyan based eXtended Reality (XR) agency, Black Rhino VR, who specialize in creating bespoke Virtual & Augmented Reality content and solutions that are adaptable and relevant to the African market, with a global appeal. 

Through their outreach program, State of the ARt, they deploy these technologies in a learning and experimental context while building capacity and exposing artists to new art formats. Their goal is to empower the youth to be the next XR inventors and innovators of the future. Husna is just one example of the many youth they have empowered. 

“I made the jump from 2D to 3D through SOTA 3.0. I hadn’t interacted with the VR software initially, but I had tried to use Blender and Maya in the past. There was a time I was at ADMI, I did a semester of Motion Graphics & Animation so I got to interact with Maya and Blender but just on the surface level. 

We hadn’t done anything to do with virtual reality or augmented reality, so when I applied to SOTA I got a chance to really get to understand how I could turn my 2D art into 3D, because otherwise in school we were just being taught the fundamentals and the basics. I didn’t really know how to execute my style of art in 3D.”

  • Husna Nyathira, Multidisciplinary Designer and Visual Artist.

Since the commercial launch of virtual reality to audiences at home, the world of VR has dipped its technological tentacles into multiple industries of the ‘internet of things’. The limits of which are limitless, to say the least.

VR has come to be a trail-blazing tool when it comes to the world-building of storytelling. The unbounded spaces of third dimensional storytelling give one freedom to explore within the story world, as well as enhancing empathic connections to people and events. 

The Guardian launched their own VR wing for immersive journalism and documentaries. From the comfort of your home in this, the year of our Lord 2022, you can experience bird watching in 1970’s Hawaii and listen to the sound of the last living ‘Ō’ō bird through the interactive piece ‘Songbird: A Virtual Moment of Extinction’. A species that was officially declared extinct in 1985. This was done in collaboration with Sonic Fossils, an organization which archives the recorded sounds of extinct birds. 

Also by the Guardian is a 360 illustrated film of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘Sea Prayer’: about the life and death of Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy whose image, in 2015,  of his face-down corpse on a beach after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while fleeing the Syrian Civil War, sparked outrage and mourning worldwide. 

Through the technological power of VR, human rights activism becomes a lot more intimated as is illustrated through the virtual reality experience, ‘6×9’ which places the viewer right at the heart of a solitary confinement cell, giving one a pseudo first-hand account of the toll that years of solitary confinement can have on a prisoner’s mental well-being. The ability to enter this intimate space without real world consequences gives us, the viewers, a deeper emotional connection to the people who have actually been victims of such human rights abuses. 

On the more insidious hand- Oculus wunderkind, Palmer Luckey, has invented a VR headset which kills the user in real life if they die in the game. 

Imagine the possibility of VR travel (think Google Street View, but in your mind, through the use of a VR headset and a few haptic devices, you’re actually there. You can see the wind bending the branches of trees in the South of Italy, you can feel the volcanic vibrations of Mount Helena in Greece beneath your feet, and you have a panoramic view of the shores of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ghana – without having to physically travel out of your house. 

And that is the world Darubini and Black Rhino VR are trying to imagine. Perhaps with the exception of gaming, there is no sphere VR has permeated more than the great magical universe of art. 

George Gachui, the curator of ‘Darubini: State of the ARt 3.0’ explains exactly what they were striving to achieve with the project. 

“As the third and last installment in the state of the art series, we not only had to continue the amazing work around demystification of VR and the technology around it that the first two cohorts had begun, but also highlight the 3 key objectives of the State Of The Art program which are:

1. Empower young Kenyan artists with the tools to create on the same playing field as global creatives, who are at the forefront of digital art and technology. This is achieved through the training that the 6 artists selected go through before they create the pieces that we see at the exhibition 

2. Expose and educate audiences of all ages and demographics on the availability, use cases and opportunities around VR and the larger extended reality (xR) spectrum. Through workshop sessions held each week at this years exhibition, we’ve been able to take schools and learning institutions, corporate partners, government stakeholders, artists, filmmakers and even the media through deep learning sessions that help to break some of the myths and notions associated with the tech, and make it more relatable to each group. 

3.  Show the audience that technology is not so much a future tool, but a reflection of our here and now. At Darubini, the audience is immersed in activity, emotion and visual stimulation as they move through the different exhibits. This intentionally places the audience as a key component of the art, and improves the adoption of art as an expression that speaks to and of our society”

Husna Nyathira’s exhibition at Darubini is titled ‘Growth’. A VR art performance highlighting interpersonal relationships between human beings and how two people who love each other deeply can simply grow apart.

“I think Kenya is opening up to the idea of VR, with the emergence of companies like Black Rhino and Nairobi Design week, there are people getting into NFTs and they’re creating, a lot of which is in the VR and AR (Augmented Reality) world. So it’s opening up. It’s fairly new, but I often see many platforms sharing out opportunities and workshops on the same. It’s also quite niche but I think we’re getting there. In most malls these days I see VR games, so there’s an opportunity to grow and create our own stuff rather than just having to play or use stuff that’s been done by people outside Kenya.”

  • Husna Nyathira, Multidisciplinary Designer and Visual Artist.

Other artists at Darubini include Angela Cauri, a visual artist and architectural designer whose exhibition titled ‘A Personal Odyssey [Of Thyself]’ is the river delta where architecture meets storytelling. In the experience, various forms of spatial design form a backdrop to a narrative, while the narrative power of space opens itself up to various forms of representation. She defines it as ‘a capsule of both personal and collective memories, aimed at encouraging non-linear, multi-dimensional forms of thinking in architectural representation. 

Gavin Kendo’s ‘Cotton Candy Dreams’ is another feature at Darubini tailored for the out-of-place dreamer. The project explores a dreamscape as seen from the mind’s eye of the artist. It is a juxtaposition of Gavin’s daily interaction with the Kenyan environment and the universe of information that exists in each one of us. 

While John Maronga’s ‘Euphoria’ is meant to take the viewer into a musical journey. The story is of a young pastoralist boy seated under a tree as he seeks shade from the scorching sun. Suddenly, an old school iPod appears before his eyes and through music, he is able to traverse to a different world. 

As you shift to another corner of Darubini, you might experience ‘The Queen is Dead’ by Leezie. Here, she transports viewers into a series of different stages of grief through the perceptive body, mind and soul of the King. We walk through the King’s mental journey as he mourns his beloved as Leezie tries to show the audience that symptoms of grief present differently in everyone. 

And last but in no way the least, is Adam Yawe’s ‘Jua Ni Kali’. A VR animated short film exploring Kenya’s Jua Kali culture and its connection to skateboarding, as you, the viewer, follows a mkokoteni’s journey from creation at a Jua Kali artisan’s workshop, to its daily use as a tool for commutes, and finally, to its transformed state as an object for creative expression through skateboarding. 

Yawe’s ‘Jua Ni Kali’ was extrapolated from the virtual reality and into the real world, through a real life skateboarding competition held on the rooftop of The Mall on Saturday, 19th November 2022. It even featured the real life legendary Genge artist, Jua Cali, who shot a music video in the context of the exhibition and skateboarding contest. 

The month-long exhibition, sponsored by The Goethe Institut in cooperation with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, is here to emphasize the importance of Culture and Creative Industries (CCI) when it comes to shaping the world of tomorrow, particularly in the fields of music, fashion, design and animation. In Kenya, Jenga CCI- Global Project Culture and Creative Industries, aims at sustainable development and facilitation of the cultural and creative industries through an integrative educational approach, promoting the development of entrepreneurial, digital, creative and technical skills through training programmes and showcases. Therefore strengthening the framework conditions and the ecosystem of the cultural and creative industries. 

“If the future is represented by the young kids we’ve seen visit our exhibition this past month and light up with joy to visit Marikiti and build a mkokoteni, or explore a happy place with colored trees and beautiful scenery… and who truly appreciate the creativity and ‘magic’ that creatives from their city are doing … and see a possibility in themselves to do the same and better, then the state of the arts and culture industries will only get better.”

  • George Gachui, Curator of Darubini: State of The Art 3.0. 

These artists, facilitators and institutions are working around the clock to re-imagine a world without the limits placed on us by our human mortal existence. We don’t know the full extent of exactly what Mark Zuckerberg imagines for his ‘Metaverse’ but as for ‘Darubini: State of the Art 3.0’, it is a world where class barriers are broken, colour and sound intersects with our senses, architecture is a boundless experience of art, and the experiences of human beings are not limited to the physical realm. VR, AR and XR is imagination running wild and free in our day-to-day realities.

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