Uzoma Orji

The spiritual undertones of virtual reality

May 6, 2021 / Interview by Alex Westfall | Photography by Ajay Abalaka

On the homepage of Uzoma Orji’s website, users have the choice of viewing the work of ‘Uzoma the Artist’ and ‘Uzoma the Techie.’ These simultaneous threads have intertwined into practice that spans photography, virtual reality, websites, and physical installation. “I want to explore the ramifications of present-day technology to ancestral beliefs,” Uzoma tells us. “How can these help us situate ourselves in the world that preceded this one that we live in?”

Uzoma called us from his home in Abuja, Nigeria. We speak here about anti-colonial notions of time, what it means to create an ‘ancient African future,’ and why everyone should be ‘tech-agnostic.’

What was your childhood like, and the landscape you grew up in?

In Nigeria, you’re from where your father is from. I grew up in Port Harcourt, an hour away from Owerri, in the Southern part of Nigeria. My childhood was a very creative one. My mom really created a bubble for my siblings, and me to live in. It was like many childhoods—it was full of play, adventure, and exploration. We weren’t really aware of what was going on in the city or town around us.

Port Harcourt in the 2000s was becoming progressively dangerous. It’s the heart of the oil-producing parts of the country. We eventually had to leave because there were a lot of kidnappings going on. We weren’t really aware of that. There was a lot of tension there, but we didn’t know all that. We were living in our fantasy world.

Our games involved world-building and imagination. We had this one game called the ‘wrestle drill’ where we would pretend all adults were really into WWE, like SmackDown and RAW. We would pretend that all adults were wrestlers, and they lived in this community of wrestlers. Everyone was a wrestler, and their lives revolved around their wrestling, obviously, but they all lived together in the same community. Outside of the wrestling matches, like what goes on on the day-to-day. We had imagined that each of us was the president of our own imaginary country. World-building and creating alternate realities really resonated with me. I can see how it has continued with a lot of my work now.

I’m curious about your studies at LCC and how that has shaped your practice.

I feel like a hybrid being in that I have inhabited both these worlds, which of course, have such intertwined histories. I’ve experienced both in a way that people from either of those worlds haven’t. I have cousins in the village who maybe haven’t been outside of our town or the country. I have friends in London who were born in London, grew up in London, but they’re Nigerian. I can understand both realities and my cousin and my friends are coming from and act as a bridge almost. It’s an interesting place to be with your perception of the world and your understanding of the world and references, things you can reference.

My course was very theoretical. I felt disconnected from what I was learning, to be honest. It’s a great school for Media Arts. My education was really from being in the city, being in London. Those three years, the growth happened outside of the classroom or outside of the institution.” Having to navigate the city as this 18-year-old kid from Nigeria. I’d never been out. That’s where the real learning was.

When did you first learn that you could bridge art and technology?

Programming started towards the end of high school. I had this idea for a social app where the ideas actually get you off your phone, offline, and into the real world. I told my friends about it in school, they were really excited. I had meetings with technology companies in the city. “Okay, I have this idea how much would it cost to build this?” Then they give me these ridiculous bills that I obviously can’t afford as a 16-year-old. I’m like, “Okay, screw this. I am going to do this myself.” That’s what started me down this exciting journey of trying to figure out computers. I remember learning HTML and my mom’s pink HP notebook laptop. That was the beginning. I went to South Africa for two years for A-Levels, but I still taught myself how to code. I went to London for this programming boot camp called Makers Academy, and I spent three months there.

With arts, it’s almost like a simultaneous alternative timeline that happened when I was in London. I have a friend who is an amazing photographer. I would dress up, I’m really into fashion. I do costume design as well. She was like, “Let’s start taking pictures of you putting on Instagram.” From ordinary fashion shoots that evolved into, I’ll develop these concepts for the shoots. It wouldn’t just be to wear clothes and take pictures, there will be a story.

From conceptual photography, it continued evolving into whatever it is now. I was interested in bringing those two sides of my work together. That’s what birthed this interactive media path that I’m currently on. It’s exciting to see how interwoven these two things can be. I’m excited about interactive experiences like immersive exhibitions, to see people engage with things unique in an artistic way. It drives me.

The homepage of Uzoma's website.

You mentioned that your education at LCC was theory-heavy, but you need this practical knowledge to make something with technology. When you’re about to start working on a project, Does it come from this world of ideas, or are you experimenting with the tools first? 

Your interview with Salome Asega was amazing. She mentioned being tech-agnostic. I see that I am committed to the idea or to the concept, and I will do whatever it takes to make the concept happen. If I need to learn something new, if I need to reconsider using the tool that I think I already know how to use, I will do that. Anything that is in service of the idea, I will do.

Below, the VR component of "Baptism of an Igbo Man."

That speaks to how “Baptism of an Igbo Man” exists as both a photo series and a virtual reality experience. That simultaneity feels important—it proves that the work is in service to the idea. How did this project come to be?

The concept is really simple. It deals with the idea of colonialism and how that completely transformed value systems, ways of seeing and being in the world, ways of understanding our place in the world. Which is something that I think about a lot. In the images, it’s one man who’s wearing a red hat. That hat is called an Ozo hat. It’s worn by Igbo elders. If you were initiated into the committee of elders, you’re privy to wearing that hat. This man is wearing the hat. He’s submerged in water, the process of baptism, and he emerges from the water. He’s wearing a more English bowler hat. Obviously, the symbolism is in the hats and how they changed through baptism, which is a symbolic process in the Christian faith.

I like the idea of using these simple visual metaphors to express complex social or philosophical concepts. That’s what I was trying to do there. I like to start from a visual place, just because it’s easier to think that way. With that project, almost simultaneously, as I’m thinking about colonialism, the effects of colonialism. At the same time, I’m also thinking about translating that to visuals. That thinking is happening simultaneously—I like to create the visuals first because it now opens up so much more possibility when it exists.

The photographic component of "Baptism of an Igbo Man."

For Abuja Art Week in 2019, there was a physical space that I created. You come into space, and on the one hand, there’s a traditional Igbo shrine where you can do a divination process and all of that. As you move through space, you encounter the baptismal river. That’s where you put on the VR headset, and you’re transformed. Then the final part of the room is like a Christian altar. I decorated the space to sort of reflecting that journey.

All of that just begins with having the visuals first. That helps me think about all the different forms that the work can take. I like to work that way. Simultaneously, it’s also with technology to offline. My most recent project, “Welcome to Instaland,” exists as a website. That’s the first form it took. Now I’m working on a physical exhibition that borrows concepts from the website, but it’s not online. It makes physical the website so you can walk in the space—and interact with the website as if it were a physical thing. I like the idea of starting from somewhere and then seeing all the different paths that you can follow to realize the work to the fullest.

The physical installation of "Baptism of an Igbo Man."

Working in VR, did you find that there were certain biases in the technology or challenges in creating something that is meant to be transcendent, spiritual?

I’m currently a Digital Earth fellow with my partner, Sheila Chukwulozie. Our work is concerned with creating a mathematical interpretation of Igbo proverbs. For that project, that has been at the front of my thinking. Proverbs are so spiritual and poetic. Creating an algorithm around them seems like boxing them in and defeating the essence. That permits all the confrontations between technology and ancestral practices an ancestral spirituality.

That being said, I was having a conversation once, and the person I was talking to mentioned that modern media and technology, especially VR and AR have spiritual undertones. The map very well to a lot of ancestral practices because they allow you to embody a lot of what ancestral practices promoted or put forth.

I’m reading Starbook by Ben Okri. He talks about how we are no longer heirs to the people that came before us. Somewhere in the process of colonization, there is a severance between people and cultures of the so-called ‘third world.’ There’s a disconnect between who we are, where we are now, and those who came before us. I’m interested in seeing how the digital technologies we are comfortable with and are used to get more familiar with how those can help understand those worlds we’ve been cut off from.

The VR component of "Baptism of an Igbo Man."

Those tensions exist on the surface. Digital technology can be construed as un-African depending on the lens one adopts to look at it. I think it’s about your intentions and how you approach them. This is why art is important—we can co-opt it almost to what we’re trying to do with it.

I recently came across this exhibition called Ancient African Futures. Already, just that title speaks to what we’re trying to say. The work is all about what future exists without acknowledging all our past or where we come from? That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. I look around where I live: in contemporary Nigerian society today, there’s so much  systemic denial which trickles down to individuals and society. There’s a denial of where we come from, and that’s the success of the colonial project. They typecast things in a negative light.

That has negatively affected us because we’re shooting blanks, shooting in the dark. We’re taking foreign concepts and applying them. We’re not passing it through a filter that’s relevant to us, based on understanding where we’re coming from. It’s like, “Oh, this works here, like boom, boom, boom.” There’s such an identity crisis that arises from that. The idea of Ancient African Futures, or this idea of what you’re saying, like alternative history, alternative timelines. Also, what is time?

"Welcome to Instaland."

Time is colonized.

Time is colonized! The concept of time that we’re currently inhabiting is very colonized and doesn’t serve us. That idea of devising alternative futures is exciting. I think the digital is an amazing tool to help us even conceptualize that.

Notes for "Welcome to Instaland."

Time and technology have contributed to the erasure of history. So what happens when we use those same tools to unerase what has been erased? Speaking of possible futures, what are you currently working on?

I just completed a project called “Welcome to Instaland,” which is about the social media landscape that we currently live in, which is very algorithmic and is driven by algorithms that serve corporate interests to the detriment of peoples’ souls. These things are harming us. I’m happy that I could express many of those thoughts in this interactive way because there are so many ways. I’m thinking about this project that explores an alternative—I hesitate to use the word utopia—but explores an ideal African reality, a physical reality that people can visit and interact with firsthand. I’m thinking of long-term, setting up space where you can walk in, interact with the buildings. It’s like an urban space where you can come in, interact with the buildings, interact with people, go to the market and do all the things like you would in a normal city. It’s an artistic interpretation of what an alternative African future would look like, free of all the ills of neoliberalism and then all the corruption and everything we face now.

I’m also trying to do this VR project with kids. We’re calling it “The Nigeria of my Dreams,” and we’re going into local school communities; organizing workshops where we get primary school-age kids to engage in dreaming work: “What kind of community do I want to live in? What kind of city, what kind of country do I want to live in?” Then creating their imaginations in virtual reality and having them explore those spaces. That could be big in terms of opening up horizons and inspiring hope.