Ferenj: A Graphic Memoir In VR

What Africans and African Americans hold in common is “the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and themselves, held by other people.”Rautenbach, Anneke. “The House of Exile.” Africa Is a Country, africasacountry.com/2019/01/the-house-of-exile.James Baldwin

Ferenj, is a VR pointcloud dreamscape generated using crowdsourced data and built using gaming technology. I asked people to contribute 3D scans of Cleveland and Addis Ababa for my creative exploration of what it means for “home” to be constructed immaterially via fragments of culture and oral history distorted by the filter of time. In this immersive graphic memoir, the idea of "home" is experienced as a post-spatial non-space of history, language, culture, music, and time as you drift through my reconstructed memories from Empress Taytu Ethiopian Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio to the streets of Piassa, Megenagna, and Merkato in Addis Ababa. This afrosurrealist experience is an experimental form of emancipatory thought and resistance to othering, reclaiming my Ethiopian-American mixed race identity, and redefining boundaries between fragmented memories and the digital imaginary.

I can’t say that I’m from here…
…but I can’t say that I’m not, either.
I occupy multiple spaces at the same time.
What is home?

Image courtesy of the author

Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos meaning home / return and algos meaning pain.

Tezeta is an Amharic word that can be translated as ‘a state of longing’.

Tezeta also refers to a melancholic subgenre of traditional Ethiopian music and Ethio jazz. Upon hearing it for the first time, someone completely unfamiliar with Ethiopian music and the significance of Tezeta once told me that its sound reminded them of wanting to inhabit a memory.

I crossed MLK Jr. Blvd to go to private schools in White suburbs every day for my formal education. Before I knew what it was, race and its divisions were embedded in my daily life. No one at school or at home looked like me.

Excise: to cut out surgically.


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Ferenj is structured around a one-way conversation between the narrator and Empress Taytu, who represents both my parent’s restaurant and the historical figure. Users enter into the VR environment but are never addressed directly, experiencing the conversation with varying levels of access but never agency. This intentional subject / object (viewer) misalignment serves two purposes: 1) to create a safe space for the narrator to share extremely difficult personal information (such as my mother’s immigration story) and 2) to destabilize and excise the White/Western gaze. My film refuses the labor of explanation: it is not a guide to understanding mixed race identity. It is, rather, an opportunity to be let in and exercise “the muscle,” as the artist Arthur Jafa says, of knowing how to enjoy a story even if it is not created for you. In an interview with Carrie Scott, Jafa explains:

“White men don’t get to exercise that muscle enough. White people don’t get to exercise that muscle enough. I’m not doing anybody any favors that is White or male by speaking to them. So I don’t speak to them. I speak to who it is I know and I feel I can make a complex and embodied thing to. And everybody else gets to listen in. Why would you want me to speak to you in the first place? Everybody else is talking to you. What’s there to be learned from that?”SHOWstudio, “In Your Face: Interview - Arthur Jafa.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Nov. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=XAk0dk0IAWw.

This is quite different from a typical VR experience where the expectation is to participate, to escape one’s own body and become someone or something else.


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A custom shaderThe custom shader used in this VR experience would not have been possible without the collective Unity scripting talents of Keijiro, Alexey Marfin, Tobias Heinemann and Memo Akten.is used to make pointclouds morph, form, and explode. The constant movement of the points represents liminality in home and identity. These impressionist memories are ever-changing and post-spatial, subject to appear, transform or vanish at any given moment.

“We are. We are here.’ And we are not willing to be excluded from any part of our heritage; which heritage includes both a Bradford-born Indian kid’s right to be treated as a full member of British society, and also the right of any member of this post-diaspora community to draw on its roots for its art, just as all the world’s community of displaced writers has always done.”Rushdie, Salman. “Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991.” Choice Reviews Online 29, no. 03 (January 1991). doi.org/10.5860/choice.29-1340

Exclusion can be a significant narrative device. When a viewer does not understand a reference, they experience a moment of alienation that I find productive in this context. I find that this partial, or fragmented degree of access mirrors my own experience. The mass media that I consumed as a child and teenager never included anything close to my perspective, and I was frequently put in the position of not understanding an expression or musical reference considered to be “normal” to those around me. Although I wasn’t aware of it yet, I had to routinely exercise “the muscle.”


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Inspired in part by the work of Njideka Akunyili CrosbySee her talk at the Whitney to learn more about her work: youtube.com/watch?v=HPU8W2xBBf4., I have built in layers of meaning that resonate with different audiences depending on levels of exposure to Cleveland, Addis Ababa, PWIs (predominantly white institutions), Amharic language, and/or Ethiopian history and music. For example, understanding the relevance of the music goes beyond merely understanding the Amharic lyrics.An HabeshaHabesha refers to both Ethiopians and Eritreans.viewer would understand the qené or multiple meanings of AlteleyeshegnemA song by Alemayehu Eshete whose title can be translated to ‘you have not left me’ and Lanchi BiyeA song by Tlahoun Gessesse whose title can be translated to ‘what I did for you’ or ‘it was all for you’. Both are about tezeta and thus further our understanding of the narrator’s relationship to Ethiopia; they emphasize that I depended on a romanticized notion of it as a coping mechanism, because of my geographic separation from it and cultural alienation at school. Additionally, a viewer familiar with the music’s particular socio-historical context would understand that the songs are from the 60s and 70sAlthough not discussed in this essay, Azmari culture also plays a significant role in the story. Azmaris are traditional Ethiopian “bards” for lack of a better term. Playing traditional instruments such as the masenko or krar, they improvise witty and poetic lines that simultaneously entertain their local bar audience while interpreting culture to society.which were regarded as the golden era of Ethiopian music—especially because this was before the downfall of Emperor Hailesilassie and before the beginning of the brutal Mengistu dictatorship. The years that followed are known as The Red Terror, and because of the horror that they endured, many Habeshas are overcome with an overwhelming sentiment of nostalgia when listening to these songs that have come to represent the years beforeFalceto, Francis. “'Cliche vs Cliche'.” Art Africa Magazine, Art South Africa, 22 May 2017, artafricamagazine.org/cliche-vs-cliche-by-francis-falceto/.. Thus in Ferenj, different layers of meaning can be accessed by viewers of different backgrounds based on the life experiences with which they interpret their VR experience. This defines the interactive role of the audience, and it is, at any given moment, marked by either exclusion or access.


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Aesthetically speaking, because I crowdsourced the source materials for the environments, when processed into 3D, they produced irregular fragments with missing pieces. These form a curated collection of spatialized memories while uniting the visual with the conceptual. Memory is always in a state of fragmentation; some moments are irretrievably lost, and the remains are scarred for better or for worse by the imprints of what was there before. In his essay Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie writes:

“Of course I’m not gifted with total recall, and it was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation, that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities. There is an obvious parallel here with archaeology. The broken pots of antiquity, from which the past can sometimes, but always provisionally, be reconstructed, are exciting to discover, even if they are pieces of the most quotidian objects.”Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 11-12.

Pointclouds are beautiful and ethereal. As you near them in proximity they become abstract and intangible whereas when seen at a distance, they form a discernible image—much like the cognitive process of trying to remember, like tezeta itself. This world-design choice complicates the viewer’s experience of reality. Rushdie writes that “the metaphor of a cinema screen” can be used “to discuss this business of perception: ‘Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, …until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars’ faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; …it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality.’Ibid, 13.


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Asserting my story while avoiding the reproduction of the static, binary terms and experiences that I am attempting to excise was challenging. I debated whether or not it was productive to include voices acting out the ignorant comments made by those who previously made me feel othered. On the one hand, these are real statements and questions that I will never forget because of their profound impression on me. On the other hand, I hated the idea of giving these voices precious space and time in the story. However, they needed to be included to be excised, for catharsis. It just had to be done very carefully and in a way that was empowering rather than replaying my trauma. I felt more comfortable with found sounds of Addis Ababa’s rich streetscape playing simultaneously. In the BBC documentary “Under African Skies”, Afework Tekle speaks with a group of a Ethiopian artists, poets, scholars, and philosophers, and one of them said “the most comforting thing about Ethiopian culture is this character that it assimilates any other culture that comes onto it with arrogance and overcomes it.”BBC. “Under African Skies 'Ethiopia'.I wanted the Addis street sounds to be heard, to exclaim their presence with me, holding my hand, speaking for me when I had no words. To me these sounds are beautiful, chaotic, and complex.

Ferenj means foreigner in Amharic and that is precisely what the viewer is in my story—foreign in my experience. Harnessing photogrammetry as a tool to reclaim these 3D scanned spaces and redefine my relationship to them on my own terms, ‘Ferenj’, a word that used to cause me pain can now be excised.


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“The broken glass is not merely a mirror of nostalgia. It is also, I believe, a useful tool with which to work in the present.”Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 12.