Abyssinian Cyber Vernaculus

Miriam Hillawi Abraham
2019 - 2022; Graham Foundation New Media Grant 2020

Still from Virtual Reality / 2019
From The Abyssinian Cyber Vernaculus (first iteration)

The Abyssinian Cyber Vernaculus is a series of visual narratives that unfold over the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia. Using methods of virtual immersion and narrative mythmaking, this work seeks to uncover and reinstate the presence of those marginalized and maligned by the dominant conservative ethos of contemporary Ethiopian society, while pushing up against the apocryphal stories of Africa.
The virtual reality component of this body of work activates the existing architecture of the site through three parallel narrative-driven experiences constructed around the perspectives of the self-proclaimed experts of the site: the western academic or white savior (depicted by an Indiana Jones spoof), the conservative Orthodox Christian Ethiopian man and the Hotep (pro-black yet non-progressive cis man). After being awarded a new media grant from the Graham Foundation in 2020, the project has featured in the World Around Summit at the Guggenheim Museum and will be featured in the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia as part of the Special Project “Guests from the Future”, curated by Lesley Lokko.

In each instance, the player assumes the role of one of these heroes in VR and drives the narrative forward, ultimately going on an unexpected journey of unlearning.

The Abyssinian Cyber Vernaculus can be regarded as Lalibela’s “digital twin”, however intentionally inaccurate and often contradictory.
Through the form and presence of this digital twin Lalibela resists destruction in the physical present, be it through a gradual decay (natural erosion) or immediate threat of violence of man (the current war in Northern Ethiopia), and extends its life through digital continuity, refabrication and mythical mutation.

Stills from Virtual Reality Experience / 2022
From The Abyssinian Cyber Vernaculus (with support from Graham Foundation



Selected Works

Publications & Talks


Miriam Hillawi Abraham is a multi-disciplinary designer from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With a background in Architecture, she works with digital media and spatial design to interrogate themes of equitable futurism and intersectionality. She holds an MFA in Interaction Design from the California College of the Arts and a BArch in Architecture from the Glasgow School of Art. She has worked as a game-code instructor at Bay Area Video Coalition’s youth program for over three years and is now a Mellon researcher for the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Digital Now multidisciplinary project. Abraham's work has been featured in the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia as part of the Special Project “Guests from the Future”,  as well the "/imagine: A Journey into The New Virtual" exhibition at the MAK Museum of Applied Arts, the 2nd Sharjah Architecture Triennial and the 14th Shanghai Biennale, “Cosmos Cinema.”