This Black History Month, I attended an interesting panel discussion with some talented artists. The subject: Afrofuturism. What is it, you ask? In a nutshell, it is a futuristic sci-fi vision of Afrocentricity. It includes many mediums, from the written word to visual arts to music. Think of the novels of Octavia Butler and the music of Funkadelic. The panel was part of Black Future Month: Toronto’s First Afrofuturism Group Art Exhibition-A Collective Look Into Our Distant Future. The exhibit was held at the Daniels Spectrum, a new building that is part of the revitalization of Regent Park, a well-known low-income neighbourhood in Toronto that has had a peppered past.
The artists were asked by curator and artist Danilo M. McCallum to create a vision coming from the distant future of 3014. These artists to him, had unique takes on the subject, were already in an “outside of the box” futuristic mindset, and represented the essence of Afrofuturism. He asked them to create “optimistic images of a Black future not tied into the slave narrative and the weight of all the cruelty”. He wanted them to be free of that heaviness; to create positive possibilities and a Utopian vision. Their contributions were thought-provoking, beautiful and otherworldly. Mediated by Hillina Seife, a diasporic historian, the artists touched on many subjects, but the major themes were identity and acceptance. The panel consisted of the following artists:
Danilo M. McCallum: www.danilommccallum.com afrofuturist portrait painter
Komi Olaf: www.komiolaf.com multimedia artist
Soteeoh: www.soteeoh.com a futuristic vision captured by photography
Javid Jah: www.javidjah.com artist and architect
Quentin Vercetty: www.vercetty.com spoken word and multimedia artist
Chanel Kennebrew: www.junkprints.com multimedia artist (via Skype)
Samson Brown: actor and playwright of the one-person show Futur-log
Chris Ak: www.iamchrisak.com musical artist and producer
Ola-ife Ojo: www.atelierozero.net architect and graphic artist
Each artist had their own take on Afrofuturism. Soteeoh felt there was very little representation of Blacks in the future, so to him, it meant us writing ourselves back into the script. He admitted to having identity issues and recounted how his shoot in the financial district of Toronto made his model feel unwelcome, like she didn’t belong there. He called for a reclaiming of spaces where we don’t feel welcome in an attempt to eradicate subversive racism. Quentin Vercetty felt it was “realism, not surrealism, it’s idealism”, that it was projecting towards the future with an unrelenting creativity. Samson Brown’s Afrofuturism meant conversations between himself and his future descendants and what the world would be like for them if they weren’t caught up in “endless cycles of nothingness”, or things that didn’t matter. Komi Olaf thought that it manifested itself in music, theatre, imagery and dance, not looking towards the future, but seeing it happen now in this generation.
Almost every artist on the panel spoke about identity, or the “we” that referred to the Black population. Olaf felt that hip hop laid a platform for Afrofuturism because it brought all races together, and agreed with Brown’s description of the “we” as including all races and every generation. Ak’s take on identity was smaller, unique groups working toward a larger purpose in the community, and Kennebrew also felt that the “we” had to be all-inclusive in order to unite humanity. What stood out for me was how even though Afrofuturism is essentially Black-centric, all the artists called for a unity from all races, creating an inclusive distant future. They all said that their identity was inevitable in their work. They all expressed a struggle at some point with who they were, and they all agreed that their identities were in a constant flux with their past, present and the future. Olaf summed the answer up nicely: we all need to celebrate where we are from and where we are going to.
Acceptance was a huge point during the discussion. I asked about their identities as artists revolving around this notion of claiming their Black identity and moving through non-Black spaces and how they placed themselves in society; how they have been accepted outside of their communities since we are not in 3014 just yet and have a long way to go. I likened it to my experience as a Black woman at horror film festivals and very often being the only woman of colour in attendance. Vercetty expressed that taking up space and ownership of your vision is paramount to create an inclusive environment. In terms of his art, he called for limitless creativity that is seen by all, opening doors for others. To me this meant that these afrofuturistic artists see people as pioneers for inclusiveness.
When asked about their thoughts on the changing face of Toronto and their role in the revitalization (or what some might call gentrification) of the Regent Park area and other low-income neighbourhoods in the city, Vercetty stated that the artist’s job is to promote creative thinking to educate society. He felt that Toronto should be accessible to all and that projecting creative ideas into reality would get people thinking. Soteeoh had a more political slant and called for artists to encourage people to be more civically engaged and get involved in their community. Voting to promote change and rebuild our communities was key for him. Olaf expanded that by stating that everyone is an artist in their own right, and creativity should be encouraged in every field so that it shifts people’s thinking to create change.
Another attendee asked the panel as Black people specifically, when dealing with historical trauma as a Black person, and a skewed vision of progress and improvement, as well as holding on to some semblance of community, what the narrative in their minds was as they created this future vision, speaking specifically to McCallum’s Dream Guardians portraits. McCallum explained that these Dream Guardians travelled through and manipulated time. It was his duty to bring them to us through art so they can nurture dreams, allowing the dreamers to follow them. His hope was to open up the science fiction world to more Black youth, but also for everyone to see the universal story behind his work first, and race second. Kennbrew’s view of 3014 was abstract, or a “Jackson Pollack vision of the future”. She felt it was difficult to tap into our full potential because it is so obscure: to her it will be what we make it. As humans, as long as we can continue to live individually, in communities and nations alike, it will be the best and the worst of what we are currently living. Soteeoh used pop culture to look to the future; how we will, as a race, continue to innovate, support and build together to create new culturally significant movements.
Olaf and Brown both referred to “Ubuntu”, which, defined by both artists, means “a person is a person through others”. In other words, we need to work as a collective force to address and change the negative effects the present may have on the future. Olaf saw the future as a post nuclear war environment in enclosed spaces with a melding of advanced spirituality and technology. Brown was adamant that positivity and love was essential to overcome negativity for future generations. He stressed that we need to give ourselves, as Black people, permission to dream and encourage our own creative potential; to say “yes” when we hear “no”. To him, this will lead to a future abundant with love.
After doing extensive research on writers Octavia Butler and Sophia Stewart (of The Matrix and Terminator controversy), conspiracy theories, NASA, and listening to Sun Ra and Andre 3000, Vercetty’s vision of the future was really interesting. He saw the elimination of time because it limits our productivity. Instead we will control time, using untapped areas of our brains. Occupying other planets and galaxies will be a reality because of a population explosion, and societies will follow a more holistic Rastafarian movement living without capitalism.
An attendee left us with the final word. With wild black hair, bright makeup and colourful dress, this self-proclaimed “64-year-old Jewish lady” was blown away by the panel. Her entire life, she had felt misunderstood by her family and felt she didn’t belong on this planet. Brown’s message touched her deeply and she wanted to also give love. She felt that for the first time she could go to bed feeling optimistic about the future because of what was said. Her message for the future was to change inner consciousness, reconnect with our own inner beings, and stop seeing each other as the enemy. She finished by giving them all a heartfelt thanks for being on the planet right now. What a fitting ending for the discussion, showing that these futurist artists have already made an impact.
Some may think that the above discussion was full of flight and fancy, but to those in attendance, it had so much substance. To be in a room with all that forward thinking artistic talent was overwhelming, and to know that they shared my vision of a future with a multi-racial, harmonious environment was comforting. Who is to say what the future will bring? I just think this discussion was extremely important to promote dreaming and futuristic possibilities so people of colour can get their heads out of preconceived notions, unfettered by what we are supposed to do and tap into what we can do…and if we let ourselves, that is limitless.