Point of View

Marvel's Black Panther is just the start. Why a new movement in black art is coming to Canada

The country's first festival of black speculative art heads to Toronto this weekend — here's why its futuristic vision matters.

The country's first festival of black speculative art arrives this weekend — here's why it matters

Tennesha Skyers is among the artists involved in this weekend's Black Speculative Art Movement convention at OCAD University. It's the first event of its kind to happen outside of the U.S. (Courtesy of BSAM)

This weekend, Toronto will host Canada's first Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM) convention. For two days, OCAD University will be buzzing with exhibits, performances, vendors, workshops, panels and even a cosplay party.

But what, exactly, is BSAM?

Cover image for an issue of the Black Panther comic book. (Marvel)

For days, I've been trying to understand the origins of the movement — but if you're a fan of Archandroid pop star Janelle Monae or Marvel's recently reinvigorated superhero Black Panther, you already know plenty about it.

Origins

The movement's origin story doesn't begin with those pop culture titans, though.

It starts in academia, and when researchers talk about BSAM, they're referring to an umbrella concept — one that includes aesthetic concepts such as Afrofuturism, Afro-surrealism, black science fiction and magical realism.

What connects all of these genres is a shared commitment to centre black experience and the importance of black people defining their past, present and future on their own terms.

"Archandroid" pop star Janelle Monae performs at the 2011 Wireless Festival. (Getty Images)

Because art is a powerful medium, it can shape the worldview of both artists and the audience. Through speculative art, black creators are able to imagine a future beyond the concrete realities around them, and the hope is that these worlds can be built into existence.

The Journey Begins

And before Monae or Black Panther arrived on the scene, there was the Data Thief.

For some experts, including artist John Jennings and BSAM co-founder Dr. Reynaldo Anderson (the other co-founder is Maia Crown Williams), the character is the guiding inspiration for the movement.

A scene from Final Frontier, an ongoing performance by Toronto artist Camille Turner. (Courtesy of BSAM)

A nomad who travels across time and space on archaeological digs, the Data Thief first appeared in filmmaker John Akomfrah's influential 1996 sci-fi documentary The Last Angel of History.

The character is a shape-shifter — part human, part cyborg — and s/he is searching for artifacts that will build a cohesive chronicle of black art history.

As Anderson and Jennings wrote last year, the character "represents what many people are seeking today: a history, a purpose and a connection to the past that informs our collective future."

Enter the hero

BSAM is experiencing a new moment, one that's directly related to the realities of life in America — and this most recent wave of speculative art is often traced to the mid-point of the Obama era.

Ekow Nimako. Flower Girl, 2014. (Courtesy of BSAM)

Right after Obama's historic 2008 election, there were proclamations from mainstream media and scholars alike that the U.S. was finally in a post-racial period. The reality of a black president apparently meant that racism was a thing of the past. The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and eventual acquittal of George Zimmerman silenced those naïve assertions. It was a moment that ignited a generation.

Quentin VerCetty. Ras Jamar Catch Ah Fiyah, 2015. (Courtesy of Quentin VerCetty)

In the subsequent years, the world saw the emergence of political movements like Black Lives Matter and unfettered global online networks like Black Twitter.

Mainstream black artists are producing complex works that illustrate black experiences and offer imaginative and often surreal possibilities of what is to come. Examples include Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, Beyonce's Lemonade and Donald Glover's Atlanta.

And BSAM cannot be understood outside a politics of resistance. It challenges the presumed authority of Eurocentric worldviews and argues that black people should be the primary interpreters of black lives and black futures.

It's the most recent chapter in black art history — it is the child of the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s, the Negritude Movement of the '30s and the Black Arts Movement of the '60s.

Quentin VerCetty. Olamina Restitution, 2016. (Courtesy of Quentin VerCetty)

A vision for Canada's future

So what does this U.S. movement mean in a Canadian context?

My friend, the multi-hyphenated artist Quentin VerCetty, is the executive coordinator of the BSAM convention in Toronto, and he believes that Canada can contribute critical additions to the movement.

"The main reason I wanted to bring it to Toronto is because I realized that the Caribbean influence was missing," VerCetty told me when we spoke on the phone earlier this week. "Also a pan-African perspective was missing and a narrative that's not rooted in slavery."

Here in Toronto we focus on a large and broader narrative, especially when we're trying to imagine what the future could look like.- Quentin VerCetty , executive coordinator, BSAM Toronto

"There [are] a lot of people here in Canada who come directly from the continent of Africa and don't have relations to the narrative of slavery as deeply but they do connect in terms of the colonial narrative. Not everyone is approaching [BSAM] from a North American slavery context, which I often found was the conversation when I was in the States. Here in Toronto we focus on a large and broader narrative, especially when we're trying to imagine what the future could look like."

When it comes to the movements that have helped lay a foundation for BSAM in Toronto, he cites the Dub Poets Collective, the Fresh Arts Movement and the Rastafarian community. He sees evidence of black speculative art in the work of Canadians such as the musician SATE, dancer Esie Mensah, performance artist Camille Turner and poet Lillian Allen.

When VerCetty thinks about Canada's future, he imagines an institution dedicated to our black artists — and he sees this weekend's BSAM convention as a step towards realizing that vision.

"Toronto is the only major city that does not have a major gallery dedicated to black artists. That alone is a void that we need to fill — quick."

Black Speculative Arts Movement. Oct. 21-22 at OCAD University, Toronto. www.ocadu.ca

Update:  A previous version of this story neglected to mention BSAM's co-founder Maia Crown Williams.

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