Arts + Culture
Photo courtesy of Kombo Chapfika.

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.

An image of the artist Kombo Chapfika looking at the camera.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.

Photographed by Vigorous Youth.

Inside the Skeyi & Strobo Fabrik Party & Zimbabwe’s Stylish Creative Scene

With its eclectic mix of live music, fashion shows, visual art and popup stalls, founder Ulenni Okandlovu is spearheading a creative wellspring in the country

The Skeyi and Strobo Fabrik Party (SS Fabrik Party, for short) has become Zimbabwe’s premier street culture event. In the city of Harare, it has offered a space for local creatives and entrepreneurs to express themselves through runway shows, live performances, pop-up stalls, and visual art.

For its seventh outing, Zimbabwe’s tastemakers assembled at the First Floor Gallery in Harare last month. Showing out in colorful streetwear and other eccentric touches, this visual aesthetic has come to define the pulse of the event. Founder and curator of the Fabrik Party, Ulenni Okandlovu, describes the event as “the creative’s revolutionary party, a celebration of vibrant street art and its emerging subcultures.”

Ulenni Okandlovu.Ulenni Okandlovu.Photographed by Vigorous Youth.

“Skeyi” and “Strobo” are linguistic updates. Borrowed from the South African Dutch words “Skei” and “Strop,” they mean cattle shoulder yoke and twisted string from softened cowhide respectively. These words are mashed up, in a way that signifies the strength and collaborative spirit of SS Fabrik Party.

According to Okandlovu, the event was inspired by the idea to create a haven where creatives and artists from various subcultures can come together, collaborate, network, and share resources while showing their work and forming a sustainable creative ecosystem.

“It is an apt and contextual platform serving as a much-needed space for young creatives, artists, and designers in Zimbabwe to display their artistic talents in an uncut, unfiltered, uncensored, and raw manner transcending the dominant policing of fashion styles that characterizes our current era,” Okandlovu told OkayAfrica.

The Fabrik Party has provided a large number of local Zimbabwean brands to show their work with fashion labels. Haus of Stone, Rozebowl, Zimbabwean Sunshine, Rori Bisamu, and many others have exhibited it on the runway.

The Fabrik Party launched at the Mbare Art Space in 2020 with activations that led up to the main event, which was held towards the end of the year. It then grew strength with multiple venues for future editions including the First Floor Art Gallery Harare, Old Mutual Greatermans building, and IBUHUB. In 2022, it was staged three times.

Scenes from the 6th Edition of the Fabrik Party photographed by Kuda Chakwanda.Scenes from the 6th Edition of the Fabrik Party.Photographed by Kuda Chakwanda.

Reflecting on the lessons learned from the previous Fabrik Party editions, Okandlovu expressed how each edition welcomed a new challenge presenting a learning opportunity. He emphasized the importance of collaboration in bringing each event to life. “We always work as a collective of like-minded individuals allowing every individual to shine,” Okandlovu said. “We make sure to credit everyone accordingly.”

Okandlovu cited the First Floor Gallery Harare, Caligraph collective, Mbare Art Space, and many others as frequent collaborators that work behind the scene to make the Fabrik Party a reality.

The Fabrik Party has grown beyond being an art and design event as it is now a creative community. “The movement has inspired people to appreciate local streetwear and homegrown products as well as to adopt environmentally sustainable practices,”Okandlovu said.

The Fabrik Party has amplified an era that many people have termed the Zimbabwean creative renaissance. Okandlovu believes that Zimbabwe’s creative scene is still emerging and there is huge growth and cross pollination between artists from different disciplines.

Apart from curating the SS Fabrik party, Okandlovu is a multidisciplinary creative who uses music, fashion, and journalism to tell stories. He is also one half of the Bantu Spaceships along with Joshua Madalitso Chiundiza, a Zimbabwean band modernizing traditional sounds such as Jit and Sungura for a unique soundscape that can be described as “New Jit Wave.”

As a collective, the Bantu Spaceships have performed internationally, featuring at this year’s MTN Bush Fire event in Eswatini, alongside acts such as Stogie T, Ami Faku and Black Motion.

The future of the Fabrik Party looks bright as Okandlovu plans on expanding its reach and territory. “We have been working in phases,” Okandlovu said. “We are now approaching the fourth phase which is to take activations to other cities around the country and region.”

Chenesai Africa at the 7th Edition of the Fabrik Party.Photographed by Vigorous Youth.

Models wearing designs by Rozebowl at the SS Fabrik Party photographed by Vigorous Youth Models wearing designs by Rozebowl at the SS Fabrik Party.Photographed by Vigorous Youth.

Scenes from the 7th edition of the Fabrik Party photographed by Vigorous YouthScenes from the 7th edition of the Fabrik Party.Photographed by Vigorous Youth

Outfits on show at the 5th Edition of the Fabrik Party photograph by Lennox MakurumizdeOutfits on show at the 5th Edition of the Fabrik Party.Photograph by Lennox Makurumizde.

Models wearing Haus of Stone at the 7th edition of the Fabrik Party photographed by Opus Photo.Models wearing Haus of Stone at the 7th edition of the Fabrik Party.Photographed by Opus Photo.

Thandi Gula-Ndebele at the 7th edition of the Fabrik Party Photographed by Vigorous Youth.Thandi Gula-Ndebele at the 7th edition of the Fabrik Party.Photographed by Vigorous Youth.

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