Ralph Borland


Zimbabwe Space Station


This is an ongoing project to depict a Zimbabwe Space Station, which draws on the iconic forms of Great Zimbabwe in a symbol of future African achievement in interplanetary exploration, in collaboration with Zimbabwean immigrant street wire artists in Southern Africa. The project works through image and sculpture: a public artwork in Cape Town, South Africa, installed in 2015, depicts the work in graphic form, while work is ongoing on a flying drone sculpture, which undertook it’s maiden flight in Cape Town in 2019. This is an African Robots and SPACECRAFT project.


Digi-Dub Club (2020)


An artwork taking place in shared Virtual Reality social space on the VRChat platform, Digi-Dub Club extends the world of Dubship I - Black Starliner (2019 – ongoing), a monumental music-making sculpture exhibited in 2019 at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town, into virtual space for global remote access. 

The larger project takes place over the centenary period of Marcus Garvey’s activist work from a century ago in establishing the Black Star Line shipping company (1919 - 1922) with the intention of returning the descendants of African slaves from the US and Caribbean to Africa. 

This new work centres on an animated 3D scan of the sculpture at the heart of the work to create a sonified, interactive social space – a compelling environment in which people can socialise and interact with the work and the issues it engages with.

VRChat, or just VRC, is a platform for remote social interaction in Virtual Reality ‘worlds’ (25,000 and counting). It takes Virtual Reality away from a solitary experience to a shared experience, in which participants can explore thousands of VR spaces while interacting with other participants via voice and gesture. To participate, a personal computer and internet connection is the minimum requirement, though a VR headset allows the full immersive experience. 2020 has brought increased attention to VRC, with events such as the Venice Film Festival hosting a VRC section, along with festivals such as Raindance, and the HBO TV show Lovecraft Country, which commissioned special access VRC artwork worlds as a spin-off of the show. 

Digi-Dub Club is an African Robots vs SPACECRAFT project by Ralph Borland, working with Jason Stapleton, Sean Davenport, Farai Kanyemba, Felix Mukuse and Lewis Kaluzi, with the support of a Covid-19 Relief grant from African Culture Fund. 


Dubship I – Black Starliner (2019 - ongoing)


Dubship I – Black Starliner is a monumental music-making wire art spaceship sculpture launched at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town in 2019, on the Afrofuturist show ‘Still Here Tomorrow’.
The work refers to the history of the Black Star Line shipping company, founded by the Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey in 1919 as part of his project for advancing black political and economic power and the interests of the African diaspora; his work’s memorialisation through dub music; and space travel as a metaphor for political and spiritual liberation, as seen in funk, hiphop, dub and science fiction.
The sculpture incorporates an electro-mechanical, analog sound system. At the heart of it is a rotating oil drum, pierced with a pattern of holes through which light shines, using a technique based on the ‘piano roll’ or barrel organ. The pattern of holes encodes a version of the dub track ‘Black Star Liner’ (1976). Light sensors are triggered whenever light passes over them, each causing a mechanical striker to hit a note in the track: the bassline composed of wooden marimba notes, while percussion plays on the ships cargo of plastic and metal containers. 
A bank of vintage sound-effect units introduce dub’s signature echo and delay to the track, while an old amplifier drives the sound through a custom star speaker-cabinet incorporating a 1960s 18-inch speaker along with a pair of second-hand 12-inch speakers. The resultant half-minute loop has a loping, walking bassline, with a mechanical undertow, as if a combination of the spaceship’s machinery and the cargo clinking together in the hold is producing the music.
The sculpture was produced with a combination of hand craft and high tech, as part of our engagement with street wire artists. We connect across spectrums: popular culture with fine art, hand-craft with digital, art with technology, and physical place with virtual space. We work across socio-economic and professional boundaries, bringing street wire artists into fine art spaces and artists into play with technologists. We celebrate wire art as an African vernacular artistic practice.
The work has received good recognition: funded by the National Arts Council of South Africa; launched at the Zeitz MOCAA; selected as a performance lecture by the National Arts Festival, with a version broadcast live on Pan African Space Station; and selected for exhibition at the Dakar Biennale 2020.
An African Robots vs SPACECRAFT project by Ralph Borland with Jason Stapleton, Lewis Kaluzi, Farai Kanyemba, Wellington Moyo and others. Thanks to Eden Labs and Thingking for their support. Funded by the National Arts Council of South Africa.


Artist Statement

“As an artist, I’m interested in identifying and working with other creative actors in my environment. Growing up in South African and Zimbabwe, I’ve seen and emulated many of the vernacular forms of art and craft around me: jewellery and toys and utensils made out of available materials such as wire, plastic, wood and metal. In my academic work, I’ve moved across sculpture, interactive electronics, design and development studies, and as an activist I’ve practiced creative ways of catalysing social change. These interests come together in my projects African Robots and SPACECRAFT, in which I have built relationships with wire artists in Southern Africa - men who started out making wire cars as children, and as adults lead the life of an informal sector artist making work to be sold on the streets of Southern African cities - to create new forms of interactive electronic wire art, often incorporating music and sound. The project is intended to celebrate wire art as an ingenious form of expression that uses available materials combined with years of hand-skill and technical knowledge. We apply it to new subjects while generating new opportunities for income for street wire artists. I’m very interested in, and committed to, hybridity in many forms: in connecting regional and global cultures, in combining art and technology, popular culture and fine art, and hand-work with digital processes.”