Art and science collide at the University of Johannesburg 

Africa’s first ever Bio-art exhibition pulls in a large crowd of enthusiasts 

The Creative Microbiology Research Co-Lab (CMRC) has introduced biotechnological art (bior-art)– the use of living and non living matter such as, bacteria, yeast and wet biological practices to create art for South African audiences – at the faculty of Art, Design and Architecture’s gallery at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). 

The exhibition, which is the first of its kind on the continent, aims to establish the practice of bio art in Africa, while interrogating the relationship between humans and the environment. 

The gallery was filled with artworks by nine UJ artists and scientists, physically exhibiting in the space.

Upon entering the gallery, people were met with Dr Nathaniel Stern’s art piece, The wall after us which was littered with electronic waste and botanical installations. 

VIAD team member Sinead Fletcher setting up The wall after us. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov

Professor Leora Farber, co-founders of the CMRC together with Professor Tobias Barnard said: “This [exhibition] has been three years in the making, something that I passionately wanted, I did a five-month residency at a very prestigious bio-art laboratory in Perth at the University of Western Australia. I came back and thought [to myself], we just gotta have this and we’ve got all the facilities- so for me, this is a very special night.”   

The crowd was especially drawn to a work showing hands on which live bacteria were growing by Barnard titled, Come dine with us. This had a rotting stench which he attributed to the acidic contents and the fermentation stage.  

He explained that after Covid-19, people stopped washing their hands, and he wanted to illustrate to them how bacteria can find a home on human skin through touching everyday surfaces. He added that, “People don’t understand microbiology because its abstract, you can’t see it. So, we thought how we could show you what would grow on your hands if you didn’t wash them?”  

A picture of the Come dine with us exhibition showing a hand covered in bacteria at its rotting stage. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov

Another enthralling work on the exhibition was CEION, the growing room, by Nolan Oswald Dennis because of its purplish fluorescent light. This room had a collection of Southern African wildflower seeds which were cultivated between the pages of Sister Outsider a book by feminist, queer black Audrey Lourde, translated into Sesotho.

Art enthusiasts exploring the growing room by Oswald Dennis. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov

The exhibition marked the launch of CMRC bioart laboratory in the FADA building. Barnard, and architectural inventor, Xylan de Jager said that they hope to expand the space if granted funding. 

The UJ Vice Chancellor, Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi told Wits Vuvuzela that he was impressed with the event. “This exhibition emerges as a message of triumph and hope, it spurs us to embrace a journey of exploration and witness how interdisciplinary approaches blur the lines between traditional disciplines and transcend boundaries”, said Mpedi.  

UJ Vice Chancellor Professor, Letlhokwa Mpedi giving an opening speech at FADA Gallery. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov

The exhibition started on July 20, and it will end on August 19, 2023, with special walkabouts with the artists on July 22 and August 5, 2023.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Art enthusiasts walking past a Brenton Maart exhibition. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov

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PROFILE: Chemistry student uses AI in water treatment plants

Young prodigious scientist’s unwavering determination makes her strike gold.

Master of science student Taskeen Hasrod wowed judges during the Wits’ leg of the FameLab international science competition and scooped the first-place position.

Wits hosted the FameLab competition on May 10, 2023. FameLab is the biggest science competition that takes place annually around the world, it is designed to challenge science researchers and foster their communication skills in front of a panel of judges and an audience in just three minutes.

Hasrod grew up in Lenasia and has always been interested in maths and science from a young age. The young scientist’s interest grew exponentially by the time she reached high school. Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela Hasrod said, “I really like chemistry, learning the fundamentals, how really small things give really big effects.”

Taskeen’s mother, Nasreen Hasrod, says her daughter has always been drawn to chemistry, “our kitchen has witnessed many scientific experiments” throughout her childhood. She added that Taskeen still has her first kiddie’s laboratory equipment set.

The 23-year-old is currently pursuing her master’s degree in chemistry at the Wits school of chemistry. Her research focuses on applying artificial intelligence (AI) to environmental chemistry particularly in water management. Using AI, Hasrod predicts water quality in acid mine drainage treatment plants.

“Instead of doing the experiments to test the water for values we need, we would use historical data to train the models to predict it without having to do experiments,” said Hasrod. She added that the usage of AI has proven to be more efficient and cost-effective.

It was this research, coupled with her charisma, that made a lasting impact on the judges which got her the first-place finish. Hasrod was able to present clearly what her research is about in a simple way without using too much scientific jargon. The competition equips participants with communication skills and provides a platform for networking as it is centred around interacting with both participants and the judges. It also provides training exercises to its participants.

Professor Hlanganani Tutu, who is her research supervisor, says Hasrod has “a commendable sense of purpose in her research”. Tutu added that Hasrod is “dedicated and focused as a student.” Which has made the supervising experience enjoyable, he added.

Tutu, said Hasrod’s “research findings will have far reaching impacts in dealing with big data from water treatment plants and as well as how the treatment process will be improved.”

FEATURED IMAGE: The outside of the chemistry building with the periodic table on the windows. Photo: Sbongile Molambo.

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