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Afrofuturist artists highlight Black history you likely didn’t learn in school with new website

Antoine Williams Conversation w/ LaTanya Autry & Tiffany Holland

Monday, July 13 at 6 p.m., online (facebook.com/afrofuturiststudies)

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Black Fusionist Society project, 2020 — Antoine Williams

On Nov. 10, 1898, a massacre occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina that you can add to your mental list of “shit you didn’t learn in school” right between the destruction of Seneca Village in Manhattan to make way for Central Park in the 1850s and the razing of Black Wall Street in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Some 2,000 white men staged a coup to overthrow the (majority Black) city’s legitimately elected Fusionist government. Black and white political leaders were expelled from the city, Black property and businesses were destroyed and an estimated 60 people were killed.

The incident is the subject of a transmedia historical fiction project from Antoine Williams, current artist in residence at the Center for Afrofuturist Studies. And Williams’ project is the inaugural work on the CAS’s new website, launching July 1.

“Antoine was supposed to be an in-person resident this summer, and just because of COVID, we didn’t think it was safe to bring him out from North Carolina,” said Anaïs Duplan, founding curator of the CAS, a program of Public Space One. “But he had these ideas for a digital project that he was working on, and I knew that we were building this platform, and so the timing just kind of aligned.”

“He’s going back into that moment and imagining a mythology for [the Fusionists], imagining what it would have been like had that not happened,” Duplan said.

Black Fusionist Society project, 2020 — Antoine Williams

In addition to building the project on the site, Williams will present a program on Monday, July 13, in conversation with arts advocate, organizer and curator La Tanya Autry. In conjunction with that, the CAS will begin collecting public responses to Williams’ work, which will also be hosted on the website.

CAS began developing the new site with web designer Rahul Shinde a year ago, with the goal of engaging more meaningfully with out-of-state audiences. Based on analytics, Duplan notes about 50 percent of visitors to the current site are local. The other 50 percent, he says, are from New York, Chicago, L.A. — CAS wanted a better way of reaching people who couldn’t attend programs.

“[Shinde] basically built something that was customized to what we needed as an organization. Kalmia [Strong, PS1 program director], specifically, is an archivist, and so having her present in those conversations was helpful. Even on the back end, the website is … based on a database; whenever we’re inputting things, we’re archiving and making that available.”

The project took on new weight when COVID-19 hit.

“I think that not being able to gather during the pandemic has forced us to come to a new understanding of what we do and how we can do what we do without being able to come together. And one thing that has emerged from that is that at the core of our work is a desire to preserve Black culture,” Duplan said. “An archive is kind of a game-changer in that we can start to think about decades down the line, these artifacts are preserved for audiences of the future.”

Duplan, who also works as program manager at Recess in Brooklyn, New York, has seen a push in other arts spaces for archiving (which he calls the “forgotten aspect of arts administration”), specifically of Black art and stories.

“It feels harder to access Black art history than it is to access white art history,” he said. “It’s in these archives at museums or universities, but if it’s not on view or it’s not being taught, nobody really knows it exists. So [we’re] really just trying to make something that’s widely accessible, but that’s still interested in preservation.”

In August, CAS intends to expand that with a broader call for submissions from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) contributors that will be collected into a printed publication of written work and an album of oral histories. The hope is that people will use that rhetorical space to explore the world happening right now, around them.

Black Fusionist Society project, 2020 — Antoine Williams

“The website launch is kind of the beginning of this larger campaign for us around thinking about archiving but also citizen journalism,” Duplan said. “The fact that everyone has a smartphone now means that we can all be watchers and all be protest documenters, and we can more easily expose injustices because we have these tools. So not just thinking about archiving in terms of artworks but also in terms of day-to-day lives.”

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Ed. note: Earlier versions of this article mistakenly located the 1898 massacre in Wilmington, Delaware. We regret this error.

Genevieve Trainor, LV Arts Editor and board member at PS1, believes in the power of stories. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 284.


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