Social media's made the ancient art of paper-folding trendy

Origami is in vogue, writes Ufrieda Ho

20 November 2017 - 13:01 By Ufrieda Ho
Ross Symons of Instagram's White on Rice and Sanae Sawada of The Butterfly Guild.
Ross Symons of Instagram's White on Rice and Sanae Sawada of The Butterfly Guild.
Image: Supplied

And then there were creatures everywhere - sprung to life from the creases and folds in square pieces of paper. Butterflies and cats, and unicorns and cranes.

Menageries emerge from the endless possibilities of origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper-folding that's never really gone out of fashion and may now become a modern fad in the era of YouTube instructions and Instagram.

Capetonian Ross Symons, who posts under White on Rice, has 105,000 followers on Instagram. His spectacular story of giving up his IT job to fold paper for a living is the stuff of middle-finger-to-corporates fantasies. His animations, stop-frame film and still photography, featuring his bespoke paper creations, have made him a hit with fans and clients alike.

One of Ross Symons' amazing paper creations.
One of Ross Symons' amazing paper creations.
Image: Supplied

"The first thing I ever folded was a paper crane my younger brother asked me to make for his college project. That was three years ago. After that I started my 365 days of folding project on social media and things took off," says Symons.

Then he met the "rock star" of origami, Sipho Mabona, when the Swiss-born master visited Cape Town a few years back. Mabona, whose father is South African, is the genius behind folding a life-sized origami elephant from a custom-made single sheet of paper.

Symons also came across the works of Robert Lang. The US physicist tackles origami design from a maths and engineering angle. This discovery took Symons's folding technique and design to an expert level.

Symons can these days coax single flat sheets of paper into virtually anything, from dung beetles to Yoda models and even company logos. He admits there's something addictive about origami.

It's pushing through mistakes, relishing the satisfaction of recognising patterns, problem-solving and figuring out a sequence. Then there's the surrender to the rhythm of connecting hands and eye to transform a flat piece of paper into something with dimension and likeness.

"Origami is special because it can be made from any scrap of paper. You use the resources around you and turn them into an abstraction of something physical. That's magic," he says.

'Origami is special because it can be made from any scrap of paper,' says Ross Symons.
'Origami is special because it can be made from any scrap of paper,' says Ross Symons.
Image: Supplied

Cape Town-based public artist and yoga teacher Sanae Sawada uses origami in her installations and her art outreach project called The Butterfly Guild. She calls origami meditation and is convinced of its therapeutic effects.

Sawada's installations often include hundreds of folded butterflies concentrated and also scattered for visual effect. There's delicacy in an individual butterfly, then wonder and awe at the scale of her installations.

"We teach origami in prisons and to children in underprivileged communities. We use a philosophy of teaching someone to teach someone else. It's empowering and joyful," says Sawada.

There's an intimacy in sharing a simple skill, much like how Sawada learnt to fold origami by watching her mother imprint valleys and mountains onto paper till they turned into objects for her delight.

At the same time Sawada doesn't knock how technologies like YouTube have attracted more people to paper-folding, just by being able to back up a few frames till they get a fold right.

"We are in a time when we must use multiple intelligences, be they visual technologies or traditional ones," she says.

Origami is a lot like life, she adds: you make careful, hopeful folds only for the paper to unfold, so you start again.

• This article was originally published in The Times