June 21, 2019

Digital Diaspora: Building a New African Storytelling Tradition

A new wave of storytelling in Africa and the Diaspora is reinterpreting and globalizing narrative traditions, using digital tools and the power of the internet.

Being a creator in the African Diaspora means looking back. We look back at the stories we heard from our elders. As a child of the Tiv tribe in Nigeria, I heard a lot of folk-tales- they were about animals, humans and sometimes magic. In that classic Nigerian narrative tradition, people performed these stories during festivals, dressing up in costumes, assuming the identity of the characters, immersing the audience in the narrative. As a member of the Diaspora, looking back at these stories, and holding them tightly.

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November 30, 2013

Cancelling My Computer Arts Subscription

I was a Computer Arts subscriber for 2 years. I learned all sorts of things, from how to set up an augmented reality webapp, to creating efficient patterns in Illustrator. The new talent and agency features were also great, as I could see what others in the industry were working on.

I decided, though, to cancel my membership. The magazine had a serious lack of diversity in its pages. There were hardly ever any designers from South America, Asia, Africa, or 'other' design communities. The same few people were featured constantly, month after month, and I just got tired of seeing nothing but white European faces.

The design world is bigger than that. I wanted to also read about agencies in Lagos and Accra, translated interviews with Colombian designers, and tutorials from Indian typographers. I wanted to learn, not only about what has been in the design news, but what others were doing around the globe. That wasn't in the pages of Computer Arts, so I cancelled my subscription.

May 13, 2013

Converting Our Stories Into Multi-Screen Experiences

if you have a few minutes, check out the article I wrote on Smashing Magazine about multi-screen storytelling. I've spoken about this topic before, at Webvisions and NYUXPA, so I'm really glad the topic is being seen by a wider audience.

December 2, 2012

The Reality of Stories

Last year, I started on Pixel Fable, taking children’s stories from my native Nigeria and putting them online. For the very first one, I hit on using augmented reality and webcams to show additional content within the story. While it wasn’t ever crucial to the story arc, it added animation and illustration that was otherwise not there. The technology proved ultimately to be ineffective (only 12% of visitors even opened my AR popup), but I found it a great experiment in the art of the possible.

But why even bother? That goes back to how these stories were transmitted in ancient Nigeria. Oral literature has always been a critical part of our culture, serving to transfer morality, history, myth, and proverbs to each new generation. It serves to remind people of who they are, and the rich fabric they are a part of. Every member of society old enough to understand would remember these stories, but only a few people were qualified to tell them publicly. Griots, or professional storytellers, were our ancient cloud storage, before such a thing technically existed.

The video above was shot with a Super-8 by Arnold Rubin in the 60s, in central Benue. This was the original augmented reality. The use of props, masks, natural lighting, and acting- they all served to create an additional view of the listeners world. Even in traditional societies in Africa, the physical and the fantastical worlds were entwined, not considered separate things. This weaving of experience also happens today, in our digital, augmented lives, and it was the same back then.

Pixel Fable takes this and attempts to overlay it digitally instead of aurally, transferring information over the web and not from memory. Billions of stories are being enmeshed and collectively saved on our cloud storage every minute. I wanted my stories to be within this modern cloud, an interleaved part of our physical world, a digital facet.

African communities are now, more than ever, able to save, disseminate, and speak of their collective history. Pixel Fable, for me, brings that history fully into the modern. It is not digital dualism, the splitting of a digital and physical world, but rather an intricate layering, with access and endpoints, cubbyholes and tangents of content, as well as a strong common story that runs through it all.

November 25, 2012

Faces, Marks, and Brands

A few months ago, on a twitter rant, I commented on the mixing up of the words logo and brandAlexis Madrigal's reply, though, was a bit unexpected.


Animal husbandry is not my strong suit, but it did raise a very solid point. Our use of the words logo, brand, and mark seem hopelessly entwined.

Tribal Marks

Tribal marks in Nigeria were, for ages, a ready identifier or tribe and affiliation. They effectively served as your community brand, for lack of a better 21st century term. Not everyone was a fan. My father waited until he was in grade school to undergo the procedure (it started with small cuts around the mouth, in his case) but after they did just one, he realized how badly it hurt and chickened out. He still has a scar to the left of his mouth, but its hardly noticeable. Lots of others have written about their changing attitudes toward tribal marks, both physical and social.

Those marks signaled group membership to anyone who cared to look. But what is the difference between a brand as a mark of belonging, and a brand as a mark of ownership? Where is the line?

The Final Cut

In 2004, I saw a Robin Williams movie called the Final Cut. It was based on the idea that in the near future, all humans had bio-mechanical chips implanted in their heads at birth. The chips recorded everything you heard and saw. Robin Williams' character, called Hakman (yes it's a pun), met a group of dissidents who got heavy tattoos across their heads, in an attempt to prevent the chips from recording. That group of Neo-Luddites were happy to tattoo him up.

Although it is a commentary on our voyeuristic society, I found it interesting, that in this dystopian future, tribal marks became the only way of opting OUT, rather than joining.

Full Circle

So it comes full circle. From brand as a cattle mark, to the current social and personal tribal marks, and then (perhaps) to facial branding that prevents you from being watched.

Tribal marks are going way out of fashion in Nigeria. That permanence is being replaced by a more ephemeral mark of social status and wealth, marks that revolve around the logos on possessions, not on one's skin. Our new tribal marks are malleable, erasable, and over all, social. There's no guarantee, however, that they will remain that way. Neither will the language we use to discuss them.

November 13, 2012

About the Lagos Behance Portfolio Review Day

How This All Started

Behance is a wildly popular portfolio and social network for designers and creatives. I've been posting work on there for a number of years, ever since I saw an MTV/Behance collaboration on TV in Japan. It was always a bit tangential for me, until I had a typography project of mine get featured. Then it got real. The site also started to have more Nigerian designers posting work. Through this network I met Daniel Emeka, a designer and Art Director in Lagos.

Attending a Portfolio Review here in New York had crossed my mind a few times, but it can be a bit daunting to see Meetups with hundreds of people attending. I knew Daniel was hosting a Portfolio Review in Lagos, and it just so happened I was going to be there for Maker Faire Africa at the same time. I reached out to him.

The Discovery of a Community

What was the digital scene like in Nigeria? What kind of work was being created? I wanted to find out. The design scene in New York, while very vibrant, seems at times to be very myopic, and I wanted to see what links could be forged with a community that was not yet on the global design radar.

The portfolio review itself went smoothly, despite starting a bit late. We looked at the work of Karo Akpokiere, myself, and the other designers who brought work. People showed advertising, illustration, and photomanipulation work, but no interactive design or web work.

I think this has to do with the health of print advertising vs. the newness of the web as a medium. Internet connectivity is still very troublesome there, which closes off much of the casual browsing we take for granted in the West.

The Future of Digital Design in Nigeria

It's useless to focus purely on connectivity issues in Nigeria. This will work itself out, largely because there is massive demand for broadband Internet and new software. Instead, I tended to focus on design concerns. A lot of what I saw was based on a Western visual language. Nigeria is nominally part of the West, sharing the English language and a national culture that owes much to England and the US, but there seemed to be remarkably little work that addressed Nigerian culture as a visual foundation.

I would like to see more of a truly African design emerge, one that has roots in Nigerian cities and language. That could mean tutorials done by and for Nigerian designers, teaching us how to create that "look", or explanations of how to localize iconography for the Nigerian market. I'd like to see more homegrown publications asking hard questions about style vs. substance, and challenging the community to grow.

More links can and should be forged with communities in South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya. As Africa sees a resurgence in economic confidence, the voices of the design community need to speak clearly, across the continent.

Finally, startups like Behance can play a role. They can provide an organizing platform and a model for Nigerian startups to follow. There were smiles all around when the Behance video played, partly because of the high production quality, but also because of the positive message for designers. By showing what CAN be done, and done well, Behance and others give Nigerian designers and artists a model to implement in their own communities.

My first portfolio Review was an interesting one. Not only was it in Nigeria, my home, it was more than a visual showcase- it was about a nation struggling mightily to coalesce and thrive. I was impressed by what I saw, and hope I get the chance to attend next year as well.

May 8, 2012

The Code Behind Pixel Fable

When I set out to design Pixel Fable, I imagined a site overflowing with content and fun stories. Then reality happened. I needed to deliver a site that told a story, not just held content. A one page site was the simplest way to do this. I wanted the user to move steadily down, discovering new illustrations and sections of the story as they scrolled.

This post describes the markup, CSS, and javascript I used to create pixel-fable.com, as well as some of the pitfalls I ran into. I will not get into the augmented reality portions of the site, as that requires a longer and more technical post.

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March 21, 2012

My Mother’s Burden

Through this whole KONY2012 episode, I cannot help but think of my mother. She was quiet, almost to a fault. She spent 30 years working in Nigeria at a leprosy settlement, with people who were cast out by their families, working with the community and the Nigerian church to heal them. The spinal cord injury association she founded in Benue State, Nigeria, is still going strong, more than 17 years after she started it. Their headquarters is named after her, something that holds deep significance for us. It survived her death, and will likely survive all of ours.

After their marriage, she and my father got their first mission posting to Apir, a small village in the middle of nowhere. This were the chaotic years after independence, and most Nigerians were still desperately poor. The small bush clinic they started in Apir is now a full-fledged hospital, my father tells me. It will also survive all of us. She never asked people to buy bracelets and posters to support her causes. Perhaps she should have, if it meant more money for the leprosy settlement and the hospital.

Perhaps my mother was an example of the white man's burden. Perhaps the era she grew up in was tinted by colonialism. Perhaps. I think it more likely that she chose Nigeria, and Nigeria chose her. The Tiv people chose her. Her publicity was in the lives she helped heal, not in how many Americans she could get to mention her. She fought in Nigeria for a stronger civil society, better access to healthcare and education, and that powerful self-respect that comes with knowledge.

Africa, my complicated womb, you need better than campaigns like this. When I think of all this, I think of my mother, and then I forget the campaign, and remember my mother.

©Senongo Akpem. All Rights Reserved.