AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Toronto’s Afrofuture
Netta Kornberg | February 27th, 2014

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Toronto’s downtown core feels like a city of the near-future these days. There’s the condo boom that, as someone said to me recently, makes TO feel like Gotham City on a sunny day; more and more surfaces are being used as a canvas for the bright barrage of shiny advertising, like a futuristic cautionary tale about corporatism and consumption; and there’s buildings you’ve long suspected are alien spaceships in disguise. Point is, Toronto lends itself to sci-fi imaginings, so it’s not surprising when Danilo the Artist says that he thinks Toronto could be a capital of Afrofuturism.

It’s one of the reasons he curated Black Future Month 3014 at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood. It is the first ever Afrofuturism group show in Toronto, bringing together artists who may or may not see their work as Afrofuturist. Coined in 1993, it’s often a retrospective label, something used to corral together disparate projects.

For Danilo, it is the only movement with which he identifies his work. A lover of science fiction from childhood, much of his artistic work consists of, in his words, “space shit.” On the other hand, Javid Jah, another featured artist, considers Afrofuturism an external, curatorial label. Yet Danilo identified in all the artists an “Afrofuturist flavour” which compelled him to include them in the show.

The nature of an Afrofuturist flavour was up for discussion during the artist panel. Moderated by Hillina Seife, it included SoTeeOh, Komi Olaf, Samson Brown, Quentin Vercetty, Chris Ak, Chanel Kennebrew, Javid Jah, Ola Ojo and Danilo, whose works are either featured in the show or who have been otherwise involved. What came through was the future as a canvas on which to project visions culled from black history, contemporary society and fantastical technology. Afrofuturism: where the future is mythological.

As Quentin Vercetty commented, those futuristic visions are often more about ideology and spirituality than technicalities. Jordan Clarke’s “Balance,” for example, is set nowhere and notime in particular. The figure’s yogic pose, meditative calm, open eyes and the halo around her head suggests holy transcendence firmly rooted in the space she occupies. It’s got the flavour. The Terra Archipelago Infrastructural Commune (TAIC) Project by Ola Ojo, on the other hand, is set in a very specific location. It is architectural planning to address desertification in North Africa. Ojo took architecture to be a biomimetic technology, potentially with a life of its own. The project looks futuristic, but it’s meant for implementation now. TAIC may be the exhibition’s response to one panelist’s observation that any vision of the future depends on what we do now.

Large-scale forward planning is an especially relevant topic in Regent Park, where the exhibition is held, as the neighbourhood’s future is under construction. Originating in the late 1940s, the area was Canada’s first social housing project, and is currently about half-way through a 15-year revitalization project.

I recently spoke to SoTeeOh, a Toronto street photographer and one of BFM 3014’s artists and panelists, about what’s going on in Regent Park and how to understand BFM 3014 within it. Originally expecting a short response to use as research for this article, it was soon clear there was no point in rewording what SoTeeOh said so well.

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Netta: I’m writing you because I’m at an impasse. I’m trying to place the BFM 3014 exhibition within the context of Toronto, and specifically the Regent Park revitalization, but all my research pretty much amounts to the usual story of crime and violence with a strong sense of community (which may not be wrong, but seems incomplete), and either the revitalization is the answer to all the area’s problems or it hasn’t changed anything. During the panel you commented that the revitalization doesn’t necessarily work for Regent Park’s original community, and you were the first to bring out Afrofuturism’s political implications. I guess I’m wondering if you can shed some more light on Regent Park’s history and community. Sorry if this is kind of vague. I’m trying to capture how BFM is not just about the far future, but also about the here and now, and how that might be a potent topic when the exhibition is physically located in a historically POC [people of colour] neighbourhood that is in transition.

SoTeeOh: I’m just speaking from personal experience. I’ve made a number of connections both socially and in my role as a youth outreach worker. Recently I’ve spent a lot of time in the area documenting the changes through my photography.

From an urban planning perspective, Regent Park was a mistake. It’s a horrible design for a neighborhood (it’s modeled after US style social housing projects and that’s a whole essay in itself), but the bottom line is that many of the area’s problems stem from that design. Now while the revitalization does address some of these issues, the timing is questionable. Why now? Why after almost 50 years of community development? Many of the residents that helped build this community and have made lives and raised families in Regent Park will be displaced by this process. They’re told they can come back and find space in the affordable housing units which are structured in to all the new developments. But to move out of Regent is an expense, and to move back is an expense, and when the Coffee Time in the neighborhood turns into a Starbucks, and the No Frills becomes a Metro, the cost of living in the neighborhood goes up. All this means many of the families that leave will never return. It’s more of a gentrification than revitalization, and going back to the question of “Why now?”, is it really out of concern for area residents? Or is it just part of the overall trend in Toronto which is vertical development to cash in on rising property values? And how this all connects to Afrofuturism for me is the parallels it draws between being written out of a context and writing oneself back in. Most of the families being displaced by Regent Park’s ‘revitalization’ are POC. The script of the neighborhood is changing and POCs simply have a smaller role in this new narrative. Historically POCs have been heavily underrepresented in all political and administrative roles so it’s not surprising that when neighborhoods go through transitions like this, the interests of POCs are often compromised. Similarly, POCs in pop/sci-fi culture just don’t have a very big role. Afrofuturism is a response where artists of color attempt to write themselves back into the script. Unfortunately it’s not quite as clear how POCs in Toronto’s new ‘revitalized’ neighborhoods will do the same.

It’s great to have a more concrete possible answer about why the revitalization is happening, rather than a vague “The municipality decided to.” I wonder what your sense is of Regent Park before the revitalization/gentrification project began or was in the works. I grew up in the suburbs of North York, but as a teenager spent a lot of time at Carlton and Parliament and would occasionally explore the surrounds. I remember one time when I was around 15 years old, I was walking around and figured out I was in the middle of Regent Park. Nothing shady was going on, but I started to feel unsafe because I realised I was in Regent Park, and I started walking faster to get out of there. I thought about it later and realised that I couldn’t even pinpoint how I got a sense of the neighborhood’s reputation–it hadn’t been in the news, of the people I knew who grew up in TO’s poorer neighborhoods none of them were from there. I still don’t really know where those impressions came from that made me rush out of there, but it was definitely widespread (some guys in high school once bragged about how they had gotten drunk and walked around Regent Park, as if it was the most badass thing to pass through an area where people live permanently). Now with the place being bulldozed, and the most accessible stories about the area being far from complete, it’s probably going to be difficult to actually get a sense of what Regent Park was like beyond its reputation.

Regent before the revitalization has two aspects to it. There’s the myth of Regent Park which is generally constructed by people that don’t live there, and then there’s the reality for the residents of the area. Both the myth and the reality involve a number of issues, but I think the implications of those issues are what’s important. The myth of Regent is that it’s dangerous, it’s a hot bed for murder and drug dealing and prostitution. And the implication is that people outside of Regent feel threatened. In reality, though, it’s not like stray tourists and innocent passersby were wandering into Regent and disappearing.

The reality for the residents, however, is that the buildings were in horrible shape. Also as part of the revitalization they’ve built an aquatic centre, fixed up the school (Nelson Mandela PS) and fixed up the community centre. But prior to the revitalization the basic resources that a lot of neighbourhoods take for granted weren’t available to Regent Park residents. Now add to this the fact that the neighbourhood itself was poorly designed (it’s completely inaccessible except on foot which makes for a lot of secluded areas where bad things can go down) and yes, there was an extremely high concentration of low income families living in the area. What you get is a neighbourhood with a lot of social issues. But to me, these issues could be addressed without displacing so many people. You could start by fixing the existing buildings and bringing in better resources for the existing residents. They could have put a better community centre there and fixed the school 20 years ago. If the revitalization was only about the residents of Regent that already live there, the solutions would be much different. I think the myth of Regent Park though, that it’s dangerous, makes everyone feel better about levelling an entire community and displacing so many people. The thing is this approach works quite well for the city as a whole. Other than the people that live there, who wants to see large scale social housing projects sitting on valuable real estate right next to the downtown core? Toronto is going through a “Manhattanization” process. We’re looking at large scale development and a drastic increase in density and it’s gonna get harder and harder to exist in the core of the city unless you’re wealthy. I think ultimately these ‘revitalization’ efforts (it’s not just Regent, it’s gonna happen in Alexandra Park, too, and a number of other areas) are just part of this process.

I must say I’m all for mixed income housing. But at the same time you don’t see efforts to bring social housing to Rosedale or the Beaches [two of Toronto’s wealthiest neighborhoods]. Imagine the outcry if the situations were reversed and people were displaced in one of those communities to make room for affordable housing units. My issue is that the most vulnerable members of society end up paying the heaviest cost for the efforts to fix these communities. At the end of the day, the new communities will probably function way better than the old ones, but getting there is a painful process and the people experiencing the majority of that pain probably won’t be around to enjoy the end results of that transition.

I definitely see what you’re saying in terms of that externally-created myth being solidified in the official narratives about the revitalization/gentrification. It’s basically taken off the pages of municipal statements and reproduced in Toronto’s media coverage. The story about the dark, threatening past that necessitated the glorious future. That brings me back to the exhibition and what Danilo said in the panel–that BFM 3014 this time was purposefully curated to have optimistic visions of the future. But I think the optimistic future in the exhibition has a different logic than the optimistic future in the revitalization narrative, if only because the Afrofuturist label connects the art works to more complicated engagements with black history. What you’ve been saying makes me think about how to reconcile Afrofuturism’s presence in Regent Park when it maybe conflicts with its gentrifying location, and I keep coming back to something else Danilo said when he was talking about his “Dream Guardians” series, that they are portraits of figures that have “ephemeral conversations” across space and time. Isn’t that how art works, maybe how this exhibition works–the art and the neighborhood having an ephemeral conversation with each other? Or is something more concrete going on?

I think you hit the nail on the head with art being an ephemeral conversation. That’s all it really can be in the realistic sense. As I said before the only other connection I feel that exists is the idea of POC being aware of the social scripts they are written in to (and out of) and taking on the role of writers, as opposed to being content with simply being a character. Artistically this happens when someone like Sophia Stewart creates a pop culture vision of the future that portrays POCs as integral characters. Socially and politically it’s a little bit trickier but the mentality needs to be the same. Attain positions of influence to ensure that the interests of POC will be protected.

* Image: Danilo McCallum. Freedom. Collage/Oil on Wood. 3014. @DaniloTheArtist.

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Netta Kornberg

Netta Kornberg is an editor, researcher, writer and programs coordinator, currently based in Toronto. She recently completed an MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, focusing on literature.

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