Theme: Future Thinking

In the African tradition of making something you desire with what comes to hand, artist/curator/designer Ralph Borland’s futuristic sci-fi installation, SPACECRAFT, an off-shoot of his African Robots series, lovingly acknowledges the “art of necessity, observation and representation” that is inherent in the street wire-art culture of South Africa and Zimbabwe. 

This intriguing, charming exploration is Borland’s cross-play on the wire artists’ realisation that imagery from popular movies makes for good sales and his own nostalgic fascination with early computers, 1980s’ arcade games and the science fiction of his childhood. With a group of accomplished wire-work artists he has developed a range of iconic spacecraft from the original Star Wars movies which has taken several forms, notably in small perfectly rendered spaceships which can be sold individually. But the latest is DS Tableau, a huge seven-metre-long installation depicting scenes from the movies, an African Robots vs SPACECRAFT commission for the entrance to the Cape Town offices of an international corporation.

 “I see SPACECRAFT as an interventionist art project – an original reimagining of and contribution to the Star Wars universe, which is itself a combination of many influences,” he explains. “We started making the small Star Wars spaceships in 2015 as the first of the new wave of Star Wars movies were coming out. I also grew up on Star Wars, and the early arcade game Star Wars uses wire-frame 3D, which inspired the idea of using actual wire art to make ‘wire frame’ spaceships like 3D models come to life, in an African vernacular style. It’s a tactical and subversive act to depict these symbols from a Western movie in an African style.” Contrasting with the corporate lobby, the basic wire wall sculpture is recognisable to anyone remotely in tune with a galaxy far, far away. The eye-catching centre depicts the spaceships in a full dog-fight scene around the mighty Death Star, while the panels on the left and right show other significant scenes in the ‘Battle for the Death Star’ in 1977’s Star Wars (and the 1980s arcade game). 

On close inspection the wire work is next level; crisp and tight, obviously hand-made but with perfectly straight lines devoid of the usual wiggle or wobble found on pieces bought on the street. To achieve this precision Borland employed a team of high-tech cohorts to create the low-tech streamlined look – fellow creatively technical whizzes, who no doubt used to spend their childhoods pulling things apart to see how bits work. 

The perfect execution is thanks to a collaboration with virtual reality specialist Jason Stapleton of Ambient 3D, who enabled Borland to create renders in 3D of the whole installation and the individual components. “VR is an incredibly effective communication tool,” explains Stapleton, “and pushes forward the process quite a bit. Designing with it is not as complex as one thinks and once you get used to it it feels instinctive.” (And one suspects that donning the VR gear, controls in hand, puts the artist into fighter pilot mode.) The complex components, once drawn up, were then produced as three-dimensional templates in polystyrene by a computer-controlled cutter from which master wire workers such as Lewis Kaluzi, Franco Shiduma and Farai Kanyemba could accurately build. 

The process was particularly relevant for the most complicated part of the scene, on the left-hand side of the installation; the intricate details of the ‘trench’ of the Death Star, an iconic part both of the movies and the game, in which the spaceships battle it out. The overall framework was constructed by industrial designers Thingking, who also installed the old-school, interactive, low-tech text scrollers and lightsaber-style florescent lights, which they programmed to constantly change and are a hark back to the 1980s vision that has enraptured Borland. Occupants of the building can also interact with this and set the programme themselves. The final work is not just a collaboration of like-minded geeks but a nod to the complexities of cross-cultural dialogue – it’s a creative high-five between fans who for different reasons are drawn together to extol and exploit popular culture. 

And perhaps more importantly to celebrate each other’s heritage in the process of creating something; whether it is to earn a living, in the simple pleasure of making, or in forming an intriguing piece of art. It surely furthers a conversation on our creative future, on how the coming together of multi-faceted skills, the well-honed and traditional handcraft, with the technologically advanced, can create things of wonder that have global reach but could be conceived nowhere else but here.

100 Beautiful Things is presented by the V&A Waterfront in celebration of South Africa’s creativity, compassion, ingenuity and resilience. Every week we will be showcasing five amazingly beautiful creative things that make us proud. It is curated in partnership with Platform Creative.