Montreal

Montreal artist explores black, queer identities on interactive space odyssey

Montreal artist and musician Elle Barbara's new show, Elle's Black Space Mission: An Afrodiasporic Odyssey, combines music, acting and a bit of narration, as well as projected images that change with the movements of the crew's commander.

Elle Barbara's new show, Elle's Black Space Mission, combines music, acting and interactive elements

When they're not on a space mission, Elle Barbara and The Black Space are making music in Montreal. (Rebecca Schwartz)

A crew of experts is heading into space.

Their mission? Find proof of extraterrestrial beings that have been in contact with humans — and prove the theory, put forward by an astrophysicist from Mali, that this evidence has been hidden over time by the media.

The crew is all black.

And their commander: a black, transgender woman named Elle Barbara.

Barbara is the Montreal musician and artist who imagined this entire sci-fi saga, unfolding in the black box theatre at Montreal, Arts Interculturels (MAI) Saturday night.

"I'm just finding myself shifting my practice toward other art forms, and that's because I've lost a lot of interest in music performance spaces," Barbara says.

"Not to say that I don't want to do regular shows again, but it's just lost a lot of its allure. In order to keep me interested or invested in my practice, I had to shift it to something else. So the offer from the MAI came as a blessing."

The crew dons space gear on their Afrodiasporic space odyssey at the MAI. (Nantali Indongo)

An interactive production

The show, Elle's Black Space Mission: An Afrodiasporic Odyssey, combines music, acting and a bit of narration, as well as projected images that change with the movements of the crew's commander.

There are costumes, sound effects and a huge spaceship — obviously.

The show is the end product of her residency at the MAI, an artistic and cultural space on Jeanne-Mance Street that hosts plays, exhibitions and other productions put on by artists of diverse backgrounds.

But there's a secondary mission, one that Barbara said seeks to normalize black and queer identities in spaces people don't naturally associate them with.

In this case, that's outer space, science, and even science-fiction, all written, directed and played out on stage and with live music.

"I don't think that you should always resort to talking about racism as a black person," Barbara explains.

Elle Barbara, the crew's commander, says she hopes the show will help normalize black and queer identities in spaces people don't normally associate them with. (Nantali Indongo)

"You can have the agency to talk about other experiences knowing that your body is political," she says.

"But the show has a more historical bent, [a] political undertone. There are references to contemporary identity politics … [and] a thought on colonization versus decolonization."

Steeped in black empowerment

The references to those deeper issues are not in the music, however. 

Elle and The Back Space just want to make good music and not necessarily sing about the perils of blackness all the way through the show.

She said she hopes to see black people, and especially black people who live at the intersections of multiple identities, in the audience though.

"The whole idea of the play is steeped in black empowerment," she says. 

"Also, [it's] really [for] anyone who wants to see a manifestation of blackness that they're not used to, that they don't usually witness in the mainstream media."

Elle's Black Space Mission: An Afrodiasporic Odyssey begins at 8 p.m. at the MAI. Friday night's show was sold out, but tickets for Saturday are still available.

About the Author

Nantali Indongo is CBC's Arts & Culture contributor and host of The Bridge. Follow her on Twitter @taliindongo.