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Art by Andre Allan.

Afrofuturism in Ottawa: An underground space shuttle going north

By Apartment613 on January 25, 2017

Post by the nth digri.

As a kid, I was a big fan of movies like Poltergeist, ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and just about any other Spielberg production of that era. This was a natural extension of my reading preferences, which included, most notably, authors like Phillip K Dick, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, and Octavia Butler. In short, I loved the science/speculative fiction genre! It was when I came across the novels of Octavia Butler that I had my first experience with the hotly contested movement called ‘Afrofuturism.

Just how hotly contested? When John Boyega starred as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the trolls came out in droves. His response was hilarious yet dead serious:

“I just don’t get it… You guys got every single alien in this movie imaginable to man – with tentacles, five eyes. Aliens that, if they existed, we’d definitely have an issue… Yet what you want to do is fixate on another human being’s color.”

By flipping the script to self-position as not just object or side-kick, but protagonist, Afrofuturism aims to “break down racial, ethnic, and all social limitations to empower and free individuals to be themselves,” according to filmmaker and author Ytasha L. Womack on iafrofuturism.com. She also highlights visual art and hip-hop, noting that Afrofuturism spans underground and pop culture with “elements of the avant-garde, science fiction, cutting-edge hip-hop, black comix, and graphic novels.”

Artwork by Komi Olaf.

Artwork by Komi Olaf.

Visual artists often linked with Canada’s growing Afrofuturism movement include Ottawa’s Kalkidan Assefa and Komi Olaf, and their work shows not only imagination, but also commitment to addressing pressing political issues like police brutality. Assefa and Andre Allananother brilliant Ottawa artist who is also the 2016 Art Battle national champion – famously painted a tribute to Sandra Bland on the tech wall in July 2015, a mural that was defaced shortly after a Black Lives Matter message on the same wall was similarly defaced.

Art by Maliciouz.

Art by Maliciouz.

The striking work of Montreal artist Maliciouz, is an example of the linkage between Afrofuturism and one of the most loved and hated of hip-hop’s elements: graffiti. On her website, one can see just how strongly graffiti influences her work, which resonates with the energy of Basquiat in pieces such as “Typical Negus” and street art style in pieces like “De Mont Royal à Kenscoff”. Indeed, her mural on de Boisbriand, created for the Under Pressure street art festival in 2016, was cited on the wall2wallmtl website as one of the best murals in Montreal.

The inclusion of hip hop and spoken word poetry in House of PainT, Ottawa’s own street art festival held annually in late August, is characteristic of the collaborative, inter-arts nature of Afrofuturism.

Ian Keteku is a celebrated Ottawa spoken word artist who has featured at the festival. A World Slam Champion and acclaimed cine-poet, Keteku is now based in Toronto, but is returning to the Capital for a show on February 18 at St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts. The VISUAL17E show will also feature his collaborator from The Recipe performance group, Komi Olaf, a poet and visual artist whose art will be on display at the VISUAL17E exhibit on February 17 (also at St. Brigid’s).

Keteku’s fantastically creative work in film and video, like the futuristic piece Proxima Centauri, will also be screened during the exhibit, along with other landmark examples of spoken word video productions. Another artist strongly influenced by Afrofuturism, Toronto’s Quentin VerCetty, will also have his striking 3D/digital art featured in the exhibit. The exhibit includes a panel with VerCetty, Maliciouz, Assefa, and Ottawa sculptor Dominique Dennery, discussing their artwork in the context of imagining “Our Beautiful Future.”

Art by Dominique Dennery.

Art by Dominique Dennery.

African American authors such as Octavia Butler, with her mind-blowing Patternist novels, and African Canadian authors like Minister Faust (The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad) and Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring) have produced powerful fiction blending elements of Caribbean and African culture under an aesthetic umbrella that includes genres such as Afrofuturism, Black science fiction and magical realism.

Tanya Evanson, photo courtesy of Visualize Ottawa 2017.

Tanya Evanson, photo courtesy of Visualize Ottawa 2017.

Spoken word artists like Keteku and Olaf, or Montreal’s Tanya Evanson and Liverpool’s Malik Al Nasir – all of whom will be performing at the VISUAL17E show – reflect the common thread in these genres, identified on the Black Speculative Art Movement website as “a shared commitment to centre black experience and the importance of black people defining their past, present and future on their own terms.”

It is, I think, this empowering and delightful sense of seeing oneself reflected as central in an imagined future, in a richness of dimension, which is at the heart of the Afrofuturism movement. It is not just about ancient Kemetic science, robots that speak ebonics, or space shuttles painted in kente patterns. But if I ever get a chance to ride such a shuttle, I won’t hotly contest at all – especially if it’s northward bound and underground!

About the author:

The nth digri is a spoken word artist, writer, and arts activist. He organized the legendary Ottawa spoken word series, Golden Star Lounge, and is a co-founder of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. He has been recognized with awards by both the CFSW, VerseFest and Kola literary journal for his contributions to Canadian spoken word poetry, and he has traveled to the Caribbean, USA, and Africa to perform and conduct workshops. His most recent book is a collection of poetry and fiction, Sirius Ting, and his most recent record is the music/poetry LP, South is North. As part of the Northern Griots Network artist collective, he is helping organize the VISUAL17E OTTAWA project.

VISUAL17E_FLYERIn February 2017, the NGN, in partnership with House of PainT and the Origin Arts & Community Centre, is launching VISUAL17E OTTAWA with a live music and spoken word show on February 18 at St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts, as well as an art exhibit and panel discussion of Our Beautiful Future, on February 17 (also at St. Brigid’s) featuring acclaimed African Canadian visual artists. The February 17 Art Exhibit is free. Tickets for the February 18 show are available via the Origin Arts & Community Centre Facebook page.

For ticket info, phone 613-986-5526 or email justjamaalthepoet@gmail.com.

For further info about VISUAL17E and the NGN, visit www.northerngriotsnetwork.com.

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