This year the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival placed special emphasis on women in the industry. Sadly, the IT sector is dominated by men and only 1 in 80 engineering students is a woman. “The emphasis on femininity was for two primary reasons. The first is because Fak’ugesi is all about making technology accessible to people through culture and creativity and we believe women are an important part of this. The second is because we are exploring what it means to be feminine in a technology space which largely dominated by western and masculine systems of doing and knowing,” says festival organizer Tegan Bristow.
The festival celebrated the important role women play in the intersection of art, education and technology. We spoke to national coordinator of the Maker Library Network Janine Johnston, ECD of digital agency Isobar Kerry Friend, and Zimbabwean designer Vuyi Chaza (all of whom formed part of the Fak’ugesi lineup) as well as digital artist Carly Whitaker. Here are their thoughts around the possibilities the digital world offers and how women are impacting the industry.
Digital art is a broad term and offers loads of possibilities. How do you incorporate the medium into your work?
Carly: As an artist developing a working and successful process it’s always a challenge and something that can be dynamic, dependent on the project that’s developing. My process and use of the medium has varied over the years as I’ve learnt more about making art and more about the digital medium. Often incorporating the medium into my work is determined by the concept or aim of the work, but often figuring something out technically and learning how something works triggers the concept. The medium does allow for specific concepts to work more successfully in my practice, however I think it does depend on what I am trying to achieve through the artwork.
Kerry: From my limited understanding of digital art I can see that using technology broadens the tools and canvas for creativity. People start to stretch and hack technology beyond what it was originally intended for and repurpose tech to create new meaning and experiences.
What impact does digital arts have on creativity and culture in South Africa?
Janine: ‘Digital’ makes South African art and creativity easily accessible to a global audience, and appeals to young, connected people. It allows for collaboration and expression in ways the world has never seen before. Often it feels as if the digital influence adds a futuristic lens to our traditional take on culture.
Kerry: Well, as I am not a ‘digital artist’ I too find this practice a little fuzzy. I am more on the curating side of tech and culture and I also work in the commercial world of advertising, which is at times frowned upon within the art world. So I guess my answer is yes, I agree, digital art is a very broad term and I’m also curious as to how people classify this discipline.
Carly: That’s a very interesting question. The digital medium comes across as this perceived world of unlimited potential that anyone can use or have access to and for a large part it does and is, however it’s easy to forget not everyone has access to it. I think the expansion of the Internet and the www has definitely changed the way in which digital artists create work, access knowledge and disseminate their practices. As creative practitioners or artists, we are influenced by digital tendencies and discourses and you can definitely see that emerging more frequently and with different nuances over the last few years. Many artists are using it as a platform and a tool for experimentation, investigation and defiance which is very exciting.
When it comes to education, how can something like gaming be used a tool of empowerment?
Vuyi: Just like with any sort of visual language, video games can be used to educate. It’s about finding a happy medium between something that’s entertaining or beautiful to look at and interweaving the strong underlying concepts that will educate.
What are some of the obstacles when it comes to up-skilling women in the industry and how can they be overcome?
Janine: To date, access to opportunity has been the biggest challenge, but that’s changing now, and quickly. We’re seeing more and more girls-only clubs and networks emerging that encourage young women to get into tech. Women’s voices and opinions about technology issues are also being highlighted in local media, which plays a big part in promoting women’s role.
In what inspiring ways do you think women are contributing to our digital culture?
Janine: Women are known to be more concerned with community, balance and well-being. I think their increased involvement in shaping digital cultures allows for a more sensitivity and emotional expression. Throughout most of our history, women’s voices have not counted, whereas now women are using digital arts to portray an authentic view of their/our world and female artists are imbuing technological platforms with gentleness and a touch of the divine. Women’s contributions make for a more balanced, hopefully healthier, realistic culture to take shape.
Carly: One of the amazing things about the digital medium is for it to bring similar practices together and enable collaboration amongst practitioners. Artists can work together or feed off of each other and create an alliance, I think it is so important to create an environment where artists can do this and benefit from each other. The aren’t too many female digital artists practicing in South Africa, but there are a few strong and committed female artists using the digital medium who are doing extremely exciting work and the scope for creating and encouraging a community where we can all learn together is definitely there and I am excited to see it grow and flourish.
Kerry: Tegan Bristow has been the most inspiring of late as her theme for this year’s Fak’ugesi Festival was to find the spiritual and feminine in technology, which made everyone think about technology and digital in a new way when working on projects for the festival. And when I mentioned this theme to other research groups abroad there was huge interest in exploring these themes and engaging technology from a feminine perspective.
How do you think digital arts can address challenges faced by women?
Vuyi: I think the biggest issue may be lack of representation of the myriad of stories that come from the many powerful women doing seemingly menial things. The sky is literally the limit when it comes to how digital art can address this. Our recent exhibition at Fak’ugesi spoke strongly about how powerful women are and can be.
Digital artworks by Carly Whitaker.