Ijakaa creates political art in virtual reality


Nelson Ijakaa with 3D video. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Nelson Ijakaa, better known to his fellow artists as just Ijakaa, is one of the seven Kenyans taking part in Art Noma! the incredible digital art ‘experience’ on for two weeks at Goethe Institute.

He is also the only one of the seven who had previous experience exhibiting art that included augmented reality (AR) which, along with virtual reality (VR), is a central feature in the Art Noma! show.

“One was in One Off Gallery’s Sculpture Garden exhibition,” says Ijakaa who has been keen on experimenting with various non-traditional materials and new techniques even before he left Kenyatta University where he’d majored in painting and graphic design up until 2017.

“The other was at Alliance Francaise with Richard Alleya where all our paintings [based on the concept of ‘African Heroes’] were ‘extended’ with AR,” he adds, noting it was earlier the same year, 2019 that he had taken several digital art courses which further whetted his appetite to learn more about both AR and VR.

What also spurred him onto to try out new techniques was his residency at Brush tu Art Collective where most of the Art Noma! participants also came from. That includes Michael Musyoka, Emmaus Kimani, Peteros Ndunde Sila Mwake and Melody Virgody.

Only the seventh, the late Ngene Mwaura came from Kuona Artists Collective. Sadly, Ngene passed on in the middle of their four month training in enhanced reality, a program which had been sponsored by Goethe Institute (where all the training took place) under the project name, JENGA-CCI.

“Ngene had already completed the AR aspect of the program when he passed,” says Ijakaa. “So out of respect and in memory of him, we as a group decided to develop the VR aspect based on the work he had already completed.”

And because Ijakaa had previous experience with the technology, he was the one to create a VR mausoleum assisted by Peteros and the tech wizards from Black Rhino VR who played an essential role in the project.

In the catalogue composed by the show’s curator Nyambura Waruingi, Ngene’s own words explain that “a big preoccupation in [his] work is masks.” He also notes that “VR technology [enables one] to explore a mask as a 3D space.” But as he didn’t live to do that aspect of the project, it is inside the mausoleum that one can see Ngene’s vision realized.

But Ijakaa’s own VR installation entitled ‘This House that we Built’ is less abstract and more allegorical. Based on George Orwell’s political novel, ‘Animal Farm’, he has created five interrelated immersive realms that speak volumes about how the artist sees Kenyan society today, including the corruption, and inequality.

‘The [State] House that we built’ implicitly critiques Ijakaa’s fellow Kenyans for consistently voting in leaders who perpetuate an inequitable status quo.

“Yes, my art is political, but I don’t apologize for that,” says Ijakaa whose egalitarian instincts also appear in his AR showcase of ‘African Heroes’.

Explaining that the showcase started out with his taking photographs of familiar people and places in Nairobi, he then blew up the photos and transferred them onto canvas. The places are all in the CBD, including the KenCom bus stop, the River Road stage facing Nation Centre and the Salvation Army headquarters just near Central Police.

But it’s the everyday working people who he finds in those places that he identifies as his ‘heroes.’ There’s the man navigating his baggage-laden trolley, the ROG bus conductor and the individuals he meets along the streets of the city.

But to see his paintings ‘come alive’ as an immersive experience, one has to download the appropriate ‘app’ onto your smartphone (assuming you have one) and then point your phone at any one of the paintings.

The marvelous techniques of AR and VR were taught by a German specialist, Dominc Eskofier during the first week of the workshop. The ones who followed up and assisted the artists in getting their art up and running in VR/AR mode are Black Rhino techies, Stephen Kimani and Longino Muluka.

“These are the guys who took our files [filled with the first phase of their art] and placed them in [the program called] Unity which also created ‘Art NOMA!’ as you will see at Goethe.