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Digital gallery shows art in fine new ways

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Behind Africa’s first physical digital fine art gallery in Johannesburg, called USURPA Gallery, are a few innovative Jewish guys.

And chief executive and former photographer, Steve Tanchel, along with co-founders Adam Trope, software engineer Devon Jacobson, Michael Salomon, multi-disciplinary artist Kay Kay Ribane, and artist and creative director Zele Angelides, are putting African art and narratives on the international platform in a way never done before.

Going into the gallery, the large digital frames that use Samsung Frame QLED technology, allow the artwork to come alive with subtle movement. Though at first appearance it looks like a normal art gallery, the unique artwork on USURPA’s walls contain movement and dimension that cannot be painted on canvas.

Looking at these works doesn’t feel like looking at a TV screen or a traditional artwork, but rather a totally immersive landscape. Some of the pieces are hand-drawn and then adapted to a digital format, while others are created through a fully digital medium. The pieces are also dynamically coded to create a unique viewing experience for each viewer depending on when they view it. For example, some of the artworks change from day to night, or have certain elements that appear every so often. In one of the pieces, you can sometimes catch a shooting star flying past. Other works include flowing waterfalls or moving faces.

The difference between what you find at USURPA and what you may find elsewhere on the web is that these are unique pieces sold as such to buyers. They can be viewed, purchased, and stored in the form of non-fungible tokens, known as NFTs (unique digital certifiers of ownership stored on a blockchain, used as a form of cryptocurrency). In other words, if you have bought one, it’s unique to you and irreplaceable, much like if you owned a Leonardo da Vinci original. If you buy a USURPA NFT, you are the sole owner of fine art, captured on the blockchain, and secured through individual smart codes.

Tanchel says they are reaching out to a “different market”. “It won’t be taken into the canon [of artwork] immediately, the same way impressionism, cubism, or even photography were met with scepticism in the fine art world,” he says. “We’re a future-thought company above everything else.”

He understands that people will view this new art form and format with excitement, but some will see it as a bit precarious.

Creating a physical gallery to view works often thought of as online territory, the curators of this gallery say they wanted the art to be viewed in its “natural habitat”, in a gallery amongst various other artworks of its kind.

“We needed a physical space where you could actually interact with the artworks,” says Ribane, “because it’s been so virtual, which creates a bit of a disconnect, especially in a third-world country.” He also emphasised the importance of creating a community where art enthusiasts can come together to explore the works.

One of their featured artists is a transgender Jewish man, Oliver Pohorille (AKA Scum Boy), whose work boldly challenges traditional artistic styles. The description of his work, Embrace of infancy reads, “Referencing a poem of the same title, the artist channels the idea of feeling safe as conjured in the 3-D scapes he creates. The elderly figure in the piece is representative of the artist’s entanglement with his creation of meta worlds that offer him refuge. Within Oliver’s world creation, the white palette is symbolic of an enveloping blanket that perpetually morphs to give the artist embrace, while the gold is indicative of the resultant ecstasy that emerges from those moments.”

The team plans to exhibit a diverse range of art. “There hasn’t been enough of a space for women in digital art thus far,” they say, and the gallery intends to give a voice to more women, particularly women of colour.

Another goal of USURPA, Tanchel says, is to empower a new generation of artists through tech labs and to teach them how to create within a digital medium. “We’re hoping to run a tech lab in every capital in Africa within the next couple of years,” he says.

“It’s not overnight that anyone can become a digital artist,” says Tanchel. “You can’t just take a sketchpad and create these kinds of pieces. It’s a refined skill, and it shows the importance of storytelling in a new medium, a new way of experiencing dynamic art. This is a new way Africa has been able to tell its own stories, and for us to experience a new narrative, what’s happening in the new South Africa.

“These are stories that are dying to be told, a vision that’s dying to be told,” he said. “It’s really all about African optimism and showing off the amazing visual artists that are out there at the moment.”

So much more of the artists’ narrative can be explored in this format, Tanchel says, because you can have an image on your wall that has tiny movement or the appearance of a creature once a week or even a year. “The possibilities are endless.”

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