Zimbabwean Artist Kombo Chapfika on Using AI and AR in Art
Whether he’s creating animation for Cartoon Network or doing product design for Nespresso, the multidisciplinary artist always brings the full range of his skills to his work – as seen in his latest exhibition in Harare.
Experimentation, social commentary, visual energy – these are the tenets of Kombo Chapfika’s work. And it’s these tenets that give rise to his latest exhibition, at his TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) exhibition at Artillery Gallery in Harare. For over a decade, he’s been exploring themes of social commentary on local and global issues through his work. From digital art on canvas to hand-tufted yarn on fabric, as well as aerosol paintings on tobacco painting, Chapfika’s exhibition showcases the range of talents he’s been developing over the years.
Skilled in drawing, painting, design, animation, coding, and installations, the Zimbabwean artist believes art transcends a single medium, and that each discipline informs the other. As an indicator of this belief, his TLDR exhibition also features augmented reality (AR), with custom Instagram filters that Chapfika has developed to enhance the gallery experience.
The Zimbabwean artist has become known for combining elements of African and Western pop iconography, patterns, installations, and surreal elements to reveal unspoken subconscious narratives. Growing up, Chapfika had always been interested in visual art, and his curiosity inspired him to experiment with painting from as early as the age of 5. An economics graduate from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, he is a mostly self-taught artist whose passion for art inspired him to learn design. Over the years, he honed his craft by creating visual art in various disciplines, picking up design skills on YouTube and being taught by friends who had learned design formally.
While in the U.S., Chapfika refined his digital skills working at Cartoon Network for a period of two years, amongst other roles. To date, he has created work for Netflix, Nespresso, Interactive, The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and numerous other non-profit and corporate organizations. His latest exhibition at Artillery Gallery, which runs until the end of the month, allows him to stage work in his hometown, Harare.
He talked to OkayAfrica to share more about his exhibition and his thoughts on AI and AR.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
As a multidisciplinary artist, which medium do you feel most comfortable with?
I'm most comfortable with drawing since I've done that since childhood. Beyond comfort, I like variety and balance. Some mediums are more physically taxing — large paintings, tufting — others are more mentally/technically challenging — digital/code-based work. What works for me is mixing them. There will be weeks when one takes precedence, but that's always temporary.
You've collaborated with several brands internationally, with Cartoon Network, Netflix and Nespresso being a part of your catalog. Which project has challenged you the most?
Each project is quite different; different people with different goals, timelines, and ways of working. The Cartoon Network/Adult Swim team was easy to work with as it was a playful work environment where everyone had a sense of humor. The actual work of concept designing for a Netflix feature was great; I basically was digitally drawing and painting. The multiple rounds of revisions and inevitably discarded options was very different to Cartoon Network, where we were encouraged to make decisions because we had one week to create each episode, as opposed to months on a feature film.
Kombo Chapfika’s ‘TLDR’ exhibition is currently on show at Artillery Gallery in his hometown of Harare.Photo courtesy of Kombo Chapfika.
Can you tell us more about your TLDR exhibition at Artillery?
TLDR is my first show with Artillery, and my first show in Zimbabwe for a few years. It came together beautifully with Peter Kaunda being a pleasure to work with. I chose the title TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read) to mark a milestone. I'm showing tufted work for the first time (a first in Zim, I think) and it's a return more to color and images after a very text-heavy period, which came in response to the media climate these last few years — that spawned Eish-Metro. I'm glad to reconcile the textual work with the graphic image and the tufted forms. As the AR aspects activate, I believe it will be my most coherent fusion of the different media to date.
Your work focuses on a lot of societal themes. How important is it for art to speak on issues affected by people?
What is art there for? I enjoy decorative art, but even decorative art can have some substance behind it. Artists have many roles in society and culture. Among them are to express difficult ideas, to inspire and encourage other people, to make us all freer, and help us understand each other.
The Eish-Metro installation brilliantly uses satire to speak on a lot of important issues. How did it come about and what do you think is the importance of media literacy?
I believe media literacy is extremely important as people spend more and more of their time consuming media. A lot of the ideas people carry they got via media rather than from people in their immediate circles. A lot of media is deceptive, and a lot is designed to draw attention, clicks, and outrage from people rather than inform them. People have never consumed as much media and propaganda as we do now and this affects how people think. I started Eish-Metro during lockdown when we were subjected to a torrent of propaganda. I chose to use satire to show people how manipulative a lot of it is and how it can be subverted by simple wordplay mixed with irreverence.
The curatorial statement for the TLDR exhibition was generated with the use of Chat GPT. What impact do you think AI will have on traditional art?
I wrote an essay about this. I think AI will affect most creative fields. It's already making major changes in digital arts. I think traditional art will be affected less, but it will [be], in some ways. There may be a movement towards very embodied, hand-made work, but a lot of these trends are built up via advertising rather than grassroots sentiment. If people are too passive and hooked on social media, everything will be AI shortly. I encourage more artists and art lovers to share their opinions on what art means to them, and why speed and efficiency are not really about art, but rather about technology corporations' interests. I make a distinction between art and content. It's blurry, but it's one we'll have to make more and more.
Your previous work has featured augmented reality. How do you think it can be used to amplify the gallery experience?
AR can add value to artworks. In the current show, I'll release AR filters during the run of the show to encourage return visits. I like my art to work on many levels — raw sensation, color, language, subtext, and sometimes a digital overlay using AR. If a precocious child and a very thoughtful adult can both enjoy it, that's mission accomplished.
What do you want visitors of the TLDR exhibition to leave with?
I want them to leave energized, smiling, eyes a little clearer, and minds a little sharper and [more] creative than they arrived.
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