From Western Sydney to Sotheby’s, digital artist Serwah Attafuah creates luminous renditions of our future, giving us the ‘floorplans to her imaginary universe’. Elizabeth Harris chatted to Serwah during the Sydney lockdown about afro-futurism, why Rococo architecture is part of her cyberpunk landscapes and the importance of home.

Elizabeth Harris  |  Ed. YoungMi Lamine | 27 July 2021

Serwah Attafuah’s interview

Serwah Attafuah in collaboration with Charli XCX, 1700 B.C. (X.C.X) (2021). Digital Animation. Courtesy of the artist.

The work you’re known for now is predominantly digital art. Did your digital art practice grow out of an ‘analogue’ art practice? 

So, for background, both of my parents are artists. My dad is a sculptor and my mum did graphic design, so I was always doing something creative when I was younger. I started to focus on oil paint, but of course, that takes up so much room, and there are all these chemicals. I only just found out this year that you can get non-chemical odourless oil paint thinner! This entire time I was thinking, ‘I can’t paint because I can’t do it in my house!’ It turns out I totally could have done it all these years. But I was sort of dabbling on the computer making little Tumblr gifs and PNGs when I was a kid, so I found myself liking digital art more and putting more effort into it. I was more in touch with the digital community rather than the traditional art community. But I still reference a bit of oil in what I do now. I’m still trying to pay homage to it all.

Serwah Attafuah, Garden of Bhabie (2021). Digital Animation. Courtesy of the artist. 

Speaking of paying homage, your works are so futuristic and otherworldly, but they do frequently cite art history. In 1700 B.C. (X.C.X), we see chrome pieces of Rococo sculpture, and Garden of Bhabie references Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Could you speak about the way that you weave those fragments of art history into your work?

That comes out  of personal experience and memories. I think the most significant moment in my childhood when thinking about art was going to the Vatican City and looking at everything going on there. I was actually really scared when I was there, but it was so beautiful and I was thinking  to myself, ‘I really want to create something that references people like me.’ Whenever I go to a gallery or a church or I’m looking at something historical, black people or other minorities aren’t showcased, or I know that their art has been hidden or stolen. So I’m trying to merge those archetypal art history references and then bring them into a new context, my context.

 Serwah Attafuah in collaboration with SOFT CENTRE, Apotheosis (2021). 3D animation and real-time motion capture performance. Courtesy of the artist.

Do you see it as a form of reclamation?

More like I think that everyone can be included and that we in the future have the privilege of reimagining the past. When you think about the future, people like to think about shiny, sci-fi robots everywhere and that we’re going to have flying cars and stuff, but I don’t think it’s going to be like that. We’re in 2021 now and we’re still driving cars from the 1980s. Stuff is still going to be here from before, we’re just going to be slightly more advanced. So I think that even if I’m trying to make futuristic art or cyberpunk art, I still need to reference the past. My work just presents a more accentuated version of the present.

Serwah Attafuah, Official video for Gold Chains – Harvey Sutherland Remix, Genesis Owusu (2021). Digital Animation. Courtesy of the artist. 

I was looking at Apotheosis, and it is almost like a happier, brighter, more surreal version of a Blade Runner landscape.  I think that your glittering hyperrealism better captures our visions of the  future than those dull, dark visions.

That’s it, because it’s sad to think of that, living in a future that’s dark and depressing and oppressive. I think that if we try to insert more positive images or more dreamy images into futuristic visions, then we can actually have something to aspire to or work towards, rather than predicting that we’re all going to be in this dark, bare, exposed world. It looks kind of cool in pictures, but then if you just think about it, we’re kind of starting to live like that now. It’s not that nice. 

That vision of a positive future really goes hand in hand with your references to inclusion. You describe your work as ‘afro-futuristic reflections of self’. So it’s not only a full, societal view of inclusion but also an inclusion of yourself, I suppose.

I think that it’s important to make art using your own voice and not to try to speak for other people. I don’t ever try to talk about somebody’s struggles unless they ask me to, we have a very big conversation, and we can actually collaborate together. I think it’s very important to filter your experiences and memories and personality through your art. I try to create avatars of myself in different forms and put them into my images, and usually they’re reflecting my emotions at the time or daydreams. They’re sort of abstract fragments of my soul or who I think I am, who I want to be. I work by creating a world in my head and then designing it in 3D, and just giving people the floorplans to my imaginary universe.

Serwah Attafuah, Creation of My Metaverse (Between this World and the Next) (2021). Digital Animation. Courtesy of the artist.

They’re very engaging works because they are so dreamy; they give space for your mind to bounce off into your own daydreams. The emphasis is on the visual world, but you’re also a musician and you’ve collaborated with hip hop artist Genesis Owusu. How do you adapt your practice to accommodate sensory experiences other than the visual?

Coming from a musical background, it’s maybe easier for me to translate sounds into visuals than for some people. When I was making music as the guitarist for Dispossessed [a heavy metal band], we got to a point where we were going to make a series of albums and visually colour code it. We had so many ideas about how we needed to make certain sounds to reflect certain visual images, or about poetry or films that we were going to create as a spinoff. I don’t think I’ve ever really made any music that doesn’t have an underlying visual thing that was going on. Because I had my start in the music field, people would ask me, ‘Can you do a poster for our show?’ or ‘Can you make an album artwork?’, up to making full-on music videos which were always been my dream.

Serwah Attafuah, Untitled (2020) Cinderella (2020). Digital Animation. Courtesy of the artist.

I was looking at the work you did with Sotheby’s for the Natively Digital exhibition and sale. You’ve engaged deeply with the rise of NFT platforms and you’ve sold your work on Foundation. As a digital artist, and also thinking about those ideas of diversity that you mentioned earlier, do you think that the world of NFTs is more inclusive than the traditional art market?

It’s still probably not at the place where it should be in terms of inclusivity, but it’s definitely a lot more open than the traditional art market. There is a lot more freedom and more opportunities than in the regular art world. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity and platform for anyone who’s making anything creative. This is a whole new technology that is so fascinating and we’re only scratching the surface with what we’re doing at the moment with NFTs. 

The Sotheby’s show was really powerful and they were very open to learning and they gave us a lot of support. I’m really excited to see how NFTs develop over the rest of the year because, in crypto, two days feels like two months. You wake up and there are a hundred changes – it feels like vertigo sometimes. My personal hope with NFTs is not to stop taking on commissions completely, but probably slow down to the point I can create more of my own art or experiment with other things I’m interested in, such as going back to playing music which I don’t get to do too much of anymore. 

The landscape of Western Sydney looms large in your work.  In Apotheosis, a collaboration with SOFT CENTRE, a lone character explores a hyperreal world inspired by Western Sydney. 

Could you tell me more about how you use the landscape of Western Sydney in your work and why it’s particularly important to you? 

I travelled a lot in my childhood. I lived in Canada for a bit and I feel like I’ve been bloody everywhere. When I was making my work I was really sick of travelling and I felt that I didn’t really care about anywhere else in the world but Western Sydney. Which everyone thinks is stupid, because truly there’s nothing going on here. But I like my house and I like where I live. The part of Western Sydney where I am, it’s sort of like close to Parramatta and that’s one of the most rapidly built cities in the country. It’s this massive, growing city that’s not too far from farms and open highways and it feels really weird. If you look at the whole of Sydney, it’s laid out really weirdly, just sprouts of cities and this open landscape. A lot of my work is heaps of green or quite hilly open landscapes and then bits of cities. 

But more of the Westie aspect of my work would definitely be the characters and their styling. We’re actually soft out here, even though everyone has this impression of us that we’re going to shoot you with a Glock and everyone’s going to stomp your head or something. There’s a lot of community and family values and multiculturalism; that’s the soft side. There is a lot of anger and struggles that people deal with, whether that’s addiction or mental health problems. But I’m trying to inject that ‘soft’ energy into the characters and the landscape.

Serwah Attafuah, Voidwalker (2020). Digital Animation. Courtesy of the artist.

How do you go about creating the characters or avatars of yourself that exist in these versions of Western Sydney? It seems that you’re not necessarily designing them with a story behind them, driving them.

I definitely don’t want to have a massive narrative behind everything. It’s just my hatred for the film that I’ve somehow picked up! I got into the Vancouver film school and I always wanted to be a director when I was younger. Then for some reason, I was thinking about it one day: If the Mona Lisa was a film, it would be the most irritating thing ever. There’s so much beauty to having a still picture. There’s so much mystery. Like, what is going on in the background, who is she? We don’t know where she’s going, we don’t know where she’s been. Because it’s a still image, you have to let the audience come up with the things to fill in the blanks. So I think that’s why I try not to give everything away in the images because I want everybody else to come up with what is going on. 

My favourite character is the one you can see in Voidwalker and Untitled 2020 (Cinderella). She was supposed to be exactly me, but I sort of ‘anime-fied’ her. I made an exact duplicate of myself in 3D, but I was like, ‘This is boring, I could have just taken a picture!’ So I distorted it and made it look really crazy and accentuated. 

I really like what you say about distortion – I guess we do always view ourselves as quite boring when we see ourselves. But that view isn’t always the truth and that distortion – or the crazy inside of us coming out – mirrors how we can present ourselves online. 

Yeah, that’s it. I spent a lot of time as a kid playing avatar-based games. There was this game called Stardoll, and you just had a character who goes to the shopping centre and you buy her mascara and change her hair. I was involved in a lot of games where it was about deleting your real persona and making whoever you want on the computer, and I’ve now somehow turned that into an art form, which is kind of fun. 

Finally, could you tell us who your favourite artist is at the moment? 

Someone who I really respect right now is my friend Lewis Ihnatko. He’s another artist from Sydney and he does drawings and paintings. He just has one of the most interesting brush strokes and styles I’ve ever seen in my life. We went to school together for a bit. We used to trade artwork a lot and I think his work is some of the best in the country.  

About the artist

Serwah Attafuah - Agora Digital Art
© Courtesy of the artist.

Serwah Attafuah (b. 1998, Camperdown, Sydney) is a self-taught 3D artist and musician based in Australia. Dubbing herself ‘West Sydney’s Finest Demon’ on Instagram – gently poking fun at Sydney’s upper crust – Serwah’s work projects a glittering, neon-lit future for her home near Parramatta.

Serwah’s work has been commissioned by clients including GQ, Adobe and Bhad Bhabie.

Serwah’s commercial success is exemplified by her work on Nike’s Space Hippie campaign, for which she combined her cyberpunk aesthetic of the future with Nike’s concept of a low-waste martian sneaker. In 2021, Serwah took part in Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale for Sotheby’s.

Also,  Prelude (2022) is sold as a charity NFT sales for supporting Great Green Wall Africa. The auction is organised by World Economic Forum, CodeGreen_NFT and World of Women, on SuperRare.

Serwah’s work is available now on crypto-art platform Foundation.

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