Meet the Brooklyn Artists Building a Future for the African Diaspora

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On a wall at the Iyapo Repository, tucked behind a cerulean body suit, reminiscent of the precious, shimmering scales of The Rainbow Fish, hangs a 22” x 28” purple ombre poster that reads, “Where are all the black people in science fiction?” The question, like the twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, alludes to the lack of, disregard for, and even erasure of black lives in pop culture, save for one-dimensional sassy sidekicks, budding sports athlete tropes, or stories of brutalization. This lack of representation of people of color in the media is not a new issue. An outpouring of think pieces, news stories, and commentary inundates our news feeds, but substantial change has yet to come. However, while some wait idly by for white mainstream media to acknowledge blackness, Brooklyn-based creatives Salome Asega and Ayodamola Okunseinde have created a space for imagining a future where the African diaspora exists in media as it does in reality.

Named after Lilith Iyapo, a black woman in Octavia Butler’s book series, Lilith’s Brood, who is the last semblance of the human race, Iyapo Repository is an archival library and a futuristic museum space of artifacts and inventions created by the current Eyebeam residents, with the help of a collective of other archivists, and community members who participated in the duo’s workshops or provided input in other ways.

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“I think the minute that Barack Obama was elected president, we were told this myth in 2008 that we now live in a post-racial America. And we’re clearly seeing that that isn’t the truth,” Asega, who is also the co-host of the HYPEROPIA 2030 podcast and assistant director of POWRPLNT, said. “And I just feel like the past three to four years, and coming into this 2016 presidential elections, we’re seeing a need for us to be excited about our blackness. Claiming our blackness is so necessary and healing, it’s a way of truth-seeking.”

Invention ideas include a color-coded daily vitamin that gives the taker a dosage of black history knowledge that delves deeper into the innovations and achievements of black historical figures, and celebrates their ingenuity and resilience far better than the typical textbook honorable mentions currently taught in schools and touted every February. Or there’s the spandex wetsuit that will act as a therapeutic aide for those suffering from the effects of water trauma after crossing over large bodies of water during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Tubes that protrude from the arms and legs will support the flow of water and vibration motors will sync with the tidal patterns of the Atlantic Ocean to help one better adapt to being uprooted from their country and set to sea.

“You see what people are anxious about and what we are still concerned about,” said Okunseinde, an interactive designer and educator who teaches robotics to children. “And that’s very important because science fiction has always been concerned about the anxiety of the current. You look at Star Trek, and you can see [anxieties] from the Cold War. So looking at these objects we see concern and anxiety over police brutality and the elimination of black bodies.”

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The idea for archival library formed around two years ago, when Okunseinde says he was assaulted by a police officer while crossing the street. At the time, he was working on his thesis, The Rift: An Afronauts Journey, about an African doctor from the future who travels to the present to observe and experience the contemporary society, at Parsons New School of Design where he and Asega were both graduate students. The incident coincided with the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. The Nigerian-born Okunseinde considers himself “an African in America,” rather than an African-American, and so his experience with blackness was different than those of Brown and Garner, but following his interaction with the policeman, Okunseinde realized that despite cultural differences, the destruction of black bodies in America was not separate from him.

“[He] wrestled me to the ground and all of a sudden, it just flashed in my head, ‘oh yeah, this is what happens. I can be killed right now like nothing.’ And that sort of sparked a lot of stuff in me, and propelled my thesis project for it,” Okunseinde said. “Since then, it’s been every month… every few weeks where you see something disgusting and vile. Not only an elimination of the representation of future projections, which then drives policy and perpetuates that elimination in the virtue sense, but then you have the physical elimination of bodies in the killing of black people and incarceration. It’s an existential issue now with this political quagmire that we’re in. We have an obligation to speak on it, and we do that through our work.”

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At its core, Iyapo Repository is about the preservation of black bodies and seeing oneself in the future, when everything in the media, and specifically science fiction, neglect to include people of color, suggesting that they’re not expected to be there. And while tapping into one’s imagination to concoct futuristic gadgets and multi-purpose space suits is something straight out a J.J. Abrams movie, it’s a virtuous task meant to cement the existence of black lives in the future, while affirming their purpose in the now.

“There’s something about unpacking what the future looks like from multiple perspectives,” Asega said. “Yes, we’re talking about African descent, but we’re also interested in the varied experiences in which we live, and want to see ourselves continue to exist in the future. So plurality is something that we talk about a lot. We don’t talk about future in singular terms, but in plural. So futures. [And] it’s carving out time to talk about the future. I think a lot of people fail to think about how important that is.”

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“The fact that one is able to consider one’s self next week or a month from now; by having that ability or by believing that you can exist beyond tomorrow beyond next month, you start planning differently. You start thinking.” Okunseinde added on. “A lack of representation in the future and the elimination denies us the capacity of organization and a future. And being that those capacities are innately human, that denies us our humanity. So to be able to enforce your identity or project your identity to the future or stand up against the elimination of bodies for no reason whatsoever, you reclaim your humanity.”

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