Meet Ralph Borland, the Artist Behind Playful 'African Robots'

Ralph Borland shows us one of his 'African Robots'. | Michael Rupp / © Culture Trip
Photo of Andrew Thompson
Freelance Writer - July 2018

South African artist Ralph Borland has captured the country’s hearts and imaginations with a fleet of charming robots. His current project, African Robots, has lead to various whimsical, animalistic creations that incorporate wire art and basic electronics and automation.

Borland was born in South Africa and grew up in both Cape Town and Harare, in neighbouring Zimbabwe. He has also lived and studied abroad for several years, and this global influence, mixed with southern African trends, shows through in many of his projects.

He studied Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, and his specialisation in Sculpture set him up to explore several unique projects. In many ways, African Robots is a futuristic culmination of his previous works, and it’s easily his most accessible.

His collaboration with street wire artists in Southern Africa has enabled him to produce ‘electronic and mechanical wirework automatons’. With wire art, a common sight in markets and on street sides throughout South Africa, Borland’s project has created a quirky point of differentiation that helps those he collaborates with to stand out.

His latest project offers employment to skilled artists whose work may otherwise have been ignored by adding value. Instead of overshadowing the traditional wire work, he compliments it.

In this way, the small robots – typically some kind of futuristic African mammal, insect or bird – are more than just intriguing artworks. Each tells a story of its prior materials (many use recycled wire and electronics from disused toys and other electronic items), and reflects the creative spirit and personality of the artists who helped bring them to life.

According to Borland, as with all his work, African Robots ‘pursues an interdisciplinary approach to teasing out issues of power, activism, social engagement via designed objects… and combines interventionist art, design fiction and social engagement’.

The beauty and genius of his African Robots project is that it does this in a seemingly simplistic, engaging and non-threatening way that appeals to a broad spectrum of society. The project has lead to an offshoot called SPACECRAFT, which explores a ‘near-future fictional world of African space travel‘. In 2018, African Robots will be heading to Brazil for its first international leg.

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