Source: Image Copyright_Adefoyeke Ajao

Nigeria in VR: Digitizing Heritage

By Adefoyeke Ajao

Digital platforms have recently become a staple of human interaction. As preventive lockdowns came into force globally, organizations and institutions sought creative ways of engaging their audiences in a time of social distancing. Activities moved online, and so did physical spaces (even cities), losing their brick-and-mortar status to occupy virtual platforms.

In some instances, it helped that there were existing frameworks to ease the transition from physical to digital. But what happens in cases where there are no defined procedures to accommodate disruptions - as recently revealed by policy responses to the pandemic and conflicts such as the post-EndSARS violence in which monuments were at the receiving end of vandalism?

Nigeria has a remarkable collection of tangible and intangible attractions and cultural artefacts; however, they are largely inaccessible to the public for various reasons including logistics, maintenance, awareness of their public value (or their existence), and security concerns. Even more unavailable are digitized versions of these artefacts - although, in recent years, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has partnered with domestic companies such as Dream Hive and Opinow Media to make these artefacts available virtually.

While many private and public enterprises rely on tech solutions for their operations, use of Virtual Reality (VR) and other digital solutions for preserving and showcasing local cultural attractions and historical artefacts is skewed towards private and foreign–aided institutions: In 2013, cultural heritage specialist and curator, Oludamola Adebowale founded Asiri Magazine, a digital platform that “strives to inform, preserve, and educate people about the powerful cultural, historical, and artistic heritage of Nigeria” and in 2016, the Nigerian institution, GTBank launched Art635, a virtual museum for contemporary art, and hosted VR art exhibitions at some of its branches to promote the work of African artists.

Filmmakers Joel Kachi Benson, Henry Nwokobia and Chiemela Peter have all used VR to tell immersive stories capturing the sights and sounds of places including Bakassi, Chibok, Kano, Maiduguri, Idanre, Ile-Ife, Badagry and Oworonshoki. In 2019, Jumoke Sanwo, a multimedia storyteller, released Lagos at Large, a VR short film that courses through the megacity. Creative tech start-ups such as Imisi 3D, Engulf VR, StanLab, Experis Immersive, Gidi Virtual Tours and Quadron Studios, besides using the medium to create cross-disciplinary solutions for private and public firms, are creating content to educate and entertain the public, while institutions like the Pan Atlantic University are providing training opportunities in virtual reality. What is more, numerous exhibitions have also taken place in virtual galleries as Nigerian artists and promoters get accustomed to the pandemic-induced status quo.

This begs the question of whether there are other concrete plans to transform Nigerian cultural and legacy heritage, including physical landmarks, into digital, globally accessible interactive displays, or if foreign institutions in (legitimate or illegitimate) possession of Nigerians artefacts plan to do so.

As part of the foray into the Nigerian gaming industry, Enter Africa Lagos (a creative collective of which I’m a member) hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with experts to find out more about heritage digitization in the country and to learn about the efforts and challenges peculiar to digitization in Nigeria.

One obstacle, according to Jumoke Sanwo - an immersive media artist and Creative Director at Revolving Art Incubator – is that we are not clear about what we consider worth preserving. Sanwo was recently part of a collaborative project that documented structures from the sacred Osun Osogbo grove (a UNESCO Heritage site) in collaboration with The Susanne Wenger Adunni Olorisha Trust, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Imisi 3D, the American conservation NGO CyArk, Google Arts and Culture as well as the National Geographic. “That is the thing with history or preserving cultural heritage; it is not something that is static; people need to come together at varied points and intersections in history and decide what parts of their expression they want to keep”, she says.

Copyright_Adefoyeke Ajao

This indecision might be due to unfamiliarity with what exists in the ‘archive’ and a belief that such knowledge is the sole preserve of experts – a consequence of history and cultural arts education having a minimal presence in the Nigerian school curriculum. “What we've seen for many years is that our heritage has been locked up in museums and archives,” Pelu Awofeso, who is an award-winning travel journalist and researcher, points out. “The current generation, so long as they are not in the academics or they are not journalists researching stories, they really don't have a care in the world for heritage," continued Awofeso. Pelu Awofeso also publishes Waka-About, an online travel magazine and has authored three books documenting his travels and Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage. “If we were to put it into something that they see and use on a daily basis, then heritage becomes very essential and a part of their everyday life.”

Another major obstacle is the overbearing red tape in the government agencies and institutions managing these resources. “I don't approach organizations anymore because of the bureaucracy," says Uchenna Okiya, a game developer and photogrammetrist who runs Digital Thingz Hut, a repository of realistic 3D models and digital assets. He adds, "You have to talk to somebody, come with letters. As a creative person, you get tired because ideas don’t remain in your head for long. If somebody wastes your time, you move on to something else.” The challenges Okiya faced while trying to access institutionalized resources forced him to focus his digitization efforts on artisans instead.

Incidentally, some artisans also resist efforts to digitise their work, as Awofeso experienced the first time he visited the Adire (textile tie and dye) community in the Nigerian town, Abeokuta. “There are so many tie and dye compounds in Abeokuta,” he says, “and if you want to take pictures of the finished product or the process leading to the finished product, the women will tell you ‘no’”. The fear is that the secrets of their trade will be divulged. Other artisans that Okiya collaborated with shared similar fears.

In recent times, the word ‘digitization’ or its variants – especially concerning identity and database management - has come to be associated with chaos, extortion and frustration. This in part due to the outcomes of government-driven digitization campaigns. For Okiya, awareness breeds trust and he was able to overcome the artisans' resistance by explaining the processes of 3D scanning and photogrammetry, as well as the benefits including royalties and exposure to a wider audience.

While it might take a village to embark on a project like that of artist Jumoke Sanwo and her partners in Osogbo, more people - like Okiya - might embark on personal or individual projects if Virtual Reality is demystified. Friederike Moeschel, Director of Goethe-Institut, Nigeria, suggests that the dwindling costs of equipment and software can improve access for amateurs: “Most people have mobile phones - smartphones and you no longer have to pay thousands of dollars for a VR headset. It's not just about experts anymore, it's about young people, middle-aged people, who are just curious and want to use their time during lockdown or a weekend to explore culture in other countries or other parts of their own country”. Moeschel adds that people should be willing to start with small projects that document what is readily accessible and seek partnerships with like minds who understand the benefits of digitizing –before embarking on large-scale projects. There’s so much that private citizens can do without government’s support or involvement.

While private digitization efforts are important for preserving artefacts of historical and cultural importance, they can also be used to create an assortment of assets that anyone including artists and enthusiasts can explore when seeking authentic references and elements of Nigerian culture and heritage. However, for this to truly happen, government bodies need to step up to their role as custodians, who instead of hoarding heritage, open it up for new audiences with engaging and innovative experiences.


Art 635:

Asiri Magazine:

Chiemela Peter:

Henry Nwokobia:

Joel Kachi Benson:

Osun Osogbo Grove:

Digitising Cultural Heritage a Virtual roundtable by Enter Africa Lagos:

 3D scan of Benin Bronze Bust (©Uchenna Okiya/Instagram):