A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself at different scales.
It is ideal for modeling nature: A tree is a branch of a branch of a branch; mountains are peaks within peaks; clouds are puffs of puffs, and so on.
But modern computer scientists aren’t the only ones to use fractals — Africans have been using them for centuries to design textiles, sculptures, architecture, hairstyles and more.
Ron Eglash, professor of information in the School of Information, and professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, is widely known for his work in the field of ethnomathematics — particularly for his study of these African fractal patterns.
He recently lent this expertise to the production of “Enslaved,” a new six-episode docuseries that explores 400 years of human trafficking from Africa to the New World.
It largely documents the underwater archaeology work of Diving with a Purpose as they locate six slave ships that went down with their human cargo, while weaving in other aspects of African culture and history related to the slave trade.
Eglash was filmed at sites in Ethiopia and Ghana in 2019 and appears in the fifth episode, “New World Cultures,” airing Oct. 5. In it, he discusses fractal structures in a 1,000-year-old church in Lalibela, Ethiopia; modern African textiles at a market nearby; and adinkra symbols that are part of his current research in the village of Ntonso in Ghana. He also demonstrates his fractal simulation tools that were developed at UMSI.
Simcha Jacobovici, director of the series, contacted Eglash after coming across his TED talk and reading a book he published in 1999, “African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design.” Jacobovici invited him to come to Ethiopia to explore a church that was included in the book as an example of a fractal pattern.
According to Eglash, Ethiopian churches are quite unique — instead of being built brick by brick, they were carved out of a single bed of rock, more like an excavation dug down into the earth.
“The photo in my book is an aerial one — a series of crosses within other crosses,” he said. “During the filming, there was a real sense of exploration and discovery. I had been looking at a photo of the roof of this church for 20 years, but had never visited the site and had no idea what was inside. They had the cameras rolling when I went down into it and what we found was truly amazing.”
After visiting the church and discovering a staircase shaped like a logarithmic curve, Jacobovici and the crew accompanied Eglash to a market, where he pointed out other scaling designs that could be found printed on African fabrics, jewelry and other common objects for sale.
The findings supported Eglash’s work that proves Africans had some of the first fractals in architecture and the arts, and that the West has slowly been catching up to it.
“One of the things our research has been gradually piecing together is the profound complexity of the ‘heritage algorithms’ that we can see reflected in African buildings, objects and prints,” he said. “We are used to thinking about mathematics through a very European lens — that it is a process of doing theorems and proofs — but that’s not the way that mathematical thought expresses itself in these African traditions.
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“There it’s more like a cycle: Fabrication designs support spiritual practices, those support ecosystems and those provide design materials. So it makes sense that a circular economy might inspire a recursive geometry.”
In addition to appearing in the series, Eglash also worked with producers as a consultant.
“I was thrilled to be a part of this team,” he said. “It was a really exciting endeavor and a great way to get the fundamental message out that Africa not only has an amazing art and humanities heritage, but also a mathematical heritage.”
The series, which was produced by and stars Samuel L. Jackson, premiered Sept. 14 on EPIX, with new episodes airing each Monday at 10 p.m. through Oct. 19.
Audiences can stream episodes of “Enslaved” on the EPIX app or by subscribing to supported TV or digital providers.
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Our lab meetings are always exciting. This fall we have some students working on AI for distinguishing factory fakes from handmade African kente; a group helping artists in Detroit and abroad use laser cutting for culture-inspired masks; and other social justice work in gaming, solar, and urban agriculture. Everyone trades ideas and inspirations.
What can’t you live without?
My wife (Audrey Bennett, University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor and professor of art and design) and I have a little ritual where we grab a sprig of live peppermint and throw it in hot water for evening tea. The taste is amazing. Although I guess if all our peppermint vanished we would just use something else. It’s really her I cannot live without.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
Green Road studio where the art and design folks do their projects. Faculty put up their art on the walls just to share it. Students fearlessly break things in the wood shop. There is just a buzz to the place that makes it feel liberating to be in.
What inspires you?
I have put a lot of effort into working with indigenous groups: Yupik in Alaska, Navajo in New Mexico, Shoshone in Idaho, Anishinaabe in Michigan, lots of groups in Africa (in Ghana, Mali, Cameroun, Senegal, and so on). India, Ecuador. Any group that has retained its traditional lifeways can give you a glimpse of the complex network of ecology, fabrication, spiritual beliefs prior to colonialism. … These indigenous groups are research labs that have been working on one problem for the last few thousand years: how to lead a good life.
What are you currently reading?
We have a lovely reading group in SI on race and technology, and I offered to lead a discussion on AfroFuturism and “race-positive design” more generally. So now I have to put my eyeballs where my mouth was and catch up to a body of literature that just exploded. Top of my list is Nnedi Okorafor’s “Lagoon” sci fi; Nettrice Gaskin’s new book on “Techno-Vernacular Creativity,” and some of the papers my colleagues have been writing, for example Tawanna Dillahunt’s papers on AfroFuturism in design workshops.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My doctoral adviser, Donna Haraway, used to have these friendly but intense arguments with the other faculty there that helped me see what engaged scholarship is really about; how to steer a path between old-school cultural identity and postmodernism; and just generally why academia is one of the best places on earth if you love theories and social justice with equal passion.