Digital Lab Africa – A spotlight on African multimedia artistry


By Mamelodi Marakalala 

The Digital Lab Africa (DLA) Awards is an annual celebration of the best of African digital creativity and innovation in categories of gaming, animation, extended reality (XR: VR/AR), music, and the digital visual arts. Initiated by the French Embassy in South Africa and the Institut français d’Afrique du Sud (IFAS) / French Institute of South Africa in 2016 and managed by Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct since 2018, the awards are aimed at offering a spotlight and springboard to creatives whose projects reflect the enormous potential of African cultural innovation in the digital age. 

South Africa has established itself as a significant contributor to digital innovation, along with other African countries, such as Zimbabwe, Mali, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, eSwatini, Mozambique, Uganda, Madagascar, and Togo, which have produced previous winners. In 2019, several digital creatives were recognized with a DLA award across various fields.

Sunkambe, which was founded by Shaka Ramulifho and is a platform that offers musical artists the opportunity to raise funds for the recording and distribution of an album, won in the category of digital music. It was created to bridge a gap between investors and musical talents that otherwise hinders their success. Imagine a world where your favourite singer or rapper never got the chance to be heard because they simply lack the level of financial means it takes to bring you good, high-quality productions. 

The animation award went to Lwazi Msipha for Ringa Mzansi – a satirical and comedic hybrid animation talk show that explores and comments on the current issues that our country is facing. “Think Coast to Coast with Space Ghost meets Daily Show but authentically South African,” says Msipha. His animated universe continues to shed light on current events and the social issues that South Africans experience. 

For the video game category, Precious Cargo took a spot. It was created by Simone Beneke-Graham, Shannon Bennetts, Rowan Brough, and Niall Graham of Falling Up Studios. The player follows the story of a pangolin and some other endangered species on a journey of escape through the savannas of Central Africa. The creators were motivated to bring awareness to these endangered species and the heinous practice of poaching. They are highlighting that even the smallest actions we take in the real world, like reaching out to wildlife agencies to learn more and be involved, can create significant change in the preservation of biodiversity. 

The Afrocyborg VR Film Collective by Shmerah Passchier and the Afrocyborg Collective that she formed alongside Moratiwa Molema won in the virtual reality category. The collective focuses on technologically empowering women through the medium of virtual reality, which results in films in the genre of African Sci-Fi. They are inspired by how “marvelously diverse” Africa is and are trying to change the negative narratives of African nations in global media, which are often false and disregard significant and aesthetic elements of the continent. The collective’s Eye of Rre Mutwa (2020) and The Cosmic Egg (2020) films were showcased at the 2023 Creation Africa Forum held between 6 and 8 October in France

It was Xabiso Vili’s AR exhibition, Re/member Your Descendants, that won a web creation award in 2019. The exhibition rests on one key question, “If you were an ancestor, what would your descendants call upon you for?” It reimagines the relationships that Africans have with their ancestors, and has constructed a space through which traditional practices as well as spiritual interactions can find their place in this contemporary and digital age and be entrenched in everyday physical environments. The exhibition was also part of this year’s Creation Africa Forum, along with Vili’s immersive experience project Kwasukasukela / In the Beginning – a 360° large-scale installation that reproduces a traditional healer’s hut. For audiences to enter to experience a series of poems and elements that reflect South Africa’s mythical heritage, and to achieve a healing of their own. 

The South African winners for 2020’s DLA awards were in the animation and video game categories. Mannerisms is a 10-minute animated film by Bokang Koatja that tells the story of a young man named Sello, who is faced with the loss of a loved one when his friend passes from suicide, and then unconsciously adopts the friend’s mannerisms in his grieving state. Qyn is an action-adventure video game created by Tristan Mocke. It follows a highly skilled archaeologist on her path to bring peace to the lands of Elberra and save the world. 

2021 saw seven digital creatives from five of the aforementioned countries take their spots as leading innovators in three fields: animation, gaming, and immersive realities. South Africa brought home an award through filmmaker Godisamang Khunou’s project, titled Black Women and Sex. The virtual reality film is about the politics of sex as it relates to the Black African female experience. In the film, are three women – from South Africa, Zambia, and Nigeria – whose bodies can be seen interacting with large bodies of water in the form of an ocean, a waterfall, and a river. The water in these scenes is a medium representing each woman’s intricate feelings towards sex. 

It is apparent that the awards shine a spotlight on the people whose works we could otherwise never know, providing them with the funding and support system necessary for their brilliant ideas to take shape and be witnessed across the globe. In addition to the spotlight, it becomes a springboard for the creatives to launch and further develop their entrepreneurial careers telling stories about an Africa with a spectacular heritage, reimagining African traditions and values, as well as presenting dynamic African individual and cultural identities – all through current technological advances. It is through initiatives such as the DLA that the future of creative innovation can be secured, because dreamers of tomorrow can be inspired by their predecessors and be enabled to create knowing they will be invested in and properly trained to take their place within a thriving cultural ecosystem. 

The 7th edition of the DLA runs two programmes – A/B (Acceleration/Bootcamp). The acceleration programme is for digital creatives who are in the advanced stages of their careers in the gaming, animation, and immersive realities (XR: AR/VR) industries, and are in need of masterclasses, mentorships, and support for their existing projects. There is space for two participating projects in each of the art forms, with one pitch in each art form for production support, a guiding mentor, and a residency that ultimately leads to a showcase. 

The bootcamp programme offers peer mentorship, peer creative group activity, and bootcamp building to 50 participants who are at the beginning of their creative journeys, which means ten spaces in each industry: gaming, animation, immersive realities, music, and visual arts. Five pitches – that is, one in each category – will be awarded production support, become a finalist in the 8th DLA acceleration programme, and showcase their productions at the Fak’ugesi Festival in 2024. 

Applications for both programmes of the DLA (7th edition) opened on 6 October and will be closing on 30 November 2023. Interested digital creatives who have an existing project or are emerging in their creative careers can go here for information on how to apply. 

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