Missing Black Technofossils Here: A Futuristic Tool for Engaging With The Past

Experiential learning is like oxygen in the water. 

As an a/r/tographer—an overlapping practice of being an artist, researcher, and educator1—I approach my practice as a griot, or an Afro-centric storyteller who keeps memories and creatively presents narratives to various communities at large. I do this by envisioning public monuments, which I refer to as technofossils or human-made artifacts2 that preserve stories and data about Black and Indigenous people in futuristic landscapes. These spicy dishes of art that I cook up consider statue monuments as parallels to my work as a griot, for they are also memory keepers and storytellers. By creating living inquiry points for various audiences, my works aims to challenge their imagination to learn and think more critically. During my 2020 Monument Lab fellowship, I created an afrofuturistic a/r/tographic project that combines all these elements: speculative art, storytelling, research, public engagement, and memory keeping in public space. The project is entitled, Missing Black Technofossils Here. It is a full course meal meant to feed the next generation of artivists, spawn a/r/tographers, and activate public art makers' minds. However, it is also a celebratory feast to show the abundance of flavorful stories yet to be told for African Canadian communities.   

Missing Black Technofossils Here is meant to get people curious and interested in learning through experiences and interactions. It aims to inspire people to deconstruct the public monuments they have seen in passing. It encourages people to be more critical of the stories they have encountered and to imagine the technofossils that might be missing. To aid public audiences with this kind of creative engagement, with support from a coder named Nick Spar, I developed Ancestral Technofossils, an interactive web and augmented reality piece that highlights the potential of what a decolonized monument could be.

Ancestral Technofossils (Montreal leaders) from Monument Lab on YouTube. Footage courtesy of Quentin VerCetty.

The project has three underlying aims. The first is for people to become aware of the gross under-representation of African Canadians in the public realm by acknowledging the historical leaders of the past, present, and future who pave the way in society for many. For example, while researching this project, I could only locate sixteen monuments in Canada that commemorate people of African descent. Conversely, Parliament Hill in Ottawa and Queens Park in Toronto host over twenty monuments depicting military, colonial, and federation figures of European descent. Out of the sixteen monuments to African Canadians, only six are Canadian-born.  This under-representation implies that very few African Canadians substantially contributed to Canada's history.3 Of course, this is not accurate.

Although there are hundreds of parks and streets that bear the names of various historical African Canadian figures, they are not physically represented. For myself, physical representation matters, and historically, always has mattered. Figurative commemoration has been such a long-lasting human practice—being able to see someone that looks like you creates connection and relativity. To witness the commemoration of someone that looks like you makes you feel valuable too. It is like sharing the success of a friend, relative or sibling. The absence of representation feels like an absence of kinship connection.

The second aim of the project is to reclaim monument-making as an African practice, challenging people to confront and decolonize their ways of thinking that monuments should be European by default.4 For example, the word "caryatid," or an anthropomorphic figure used as a pillar to support a structure, is commonly defined by and associated with classical art and architecture5 Many scholars have suggested that, through trade with older technologically-developed African civilizations, the Greeks and Romans were inspired by African monuments and architecture. Examples include the Aksum/Axum (Ethiopia)6 the Nok (Nigeria),7 as well as Kush and Kemet/Mizraim (Sudan and Egypt).8 The various practices of monument-making throughout Africa—from Egypt's Great Sphinx to Nigeria's iron and terracotta statues—leave traces of technofossils that pre-date ancient Greece and Rome's art and architecture.9 Hence, Missing Black Technofossils Here recontextualizes the familiar African masquerader mask, a tribute to African ancestors and deities, affixing it to a bust with pan-African-inspired designs. The concoction of imagery offers popular reference points for people to associate the work with monuments from historical Africa. In other words, African monuments are by default Afro-futuristic. 

Finally, the project aims to expand monuments beyond the current rationale that a memorial can only pay tribute to one person or one moment in time. Instead, the project demonstrates that a memorial can represent many ideas, people, and moments and still have a unified message and be figurative. 

Black Technofossils Walking Tour (clip) from Monument Lab on YouTube. Footage courtesy of Quentin VerCetty.

This project is like a growing tree, while public engagement and experiential learning are recipients of the oxygen it offers. As an a/r/tographer working in public art, inviting the public into a space of curiosity is essential. I created this project with augmented reality to plant the seed for future digital and virtual monuments. The next step is for people to use the online platform to help map out suggested leaders and places as missing technofossils. The process is wholly democratized. People are encouraged to upload their photos to the website and, if they want, to geotag their images. Uploaders are prompted to write a blurb about the location along with the Black person(s) or historical moment(s) missing from the landscape. From there, once approved, suggestions will be added to the virtual map. Another step is to expand the tours to other cities in Canada and across the world. This may include creating more augmented reality technofossils for people to choose from.

I believe art and learning, and more specifically, public art, are meant to be living and engaging. Missing Black Technofossils Here is just a small way that I am inspired to pay homage to my living history as a person of African descent. The project is a growing teaching tool meant to engage, confront, construct, and connect with art in today's public realm while trying to create new ideas for tomorrow.

Please visit Monument Lab's YouTube page and the Missing Black Technofossils Here website for more project videos. 

R. L. Irwin "A/r/tography: A metonymic métissage," in A/r/tography: Rendering self through arts based living inquiry, eds. R. Irwin, & A. D. Cosson (Vancouver: Educational Press, 2004), 27-38.
J. Zalasiewicz, M. Williams, C. N. Waters, A. D. Barnosky, & P. Haff, "The technofossil record of humans," The Anthropocene Review Vol. 1, Issue 1 (2014): 34-43; J. Farmer, "Technofossils," in Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, eds. G. Mitman, M. Armiero, & R. Emmett (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 225.
A. Gérin and J.S. McLean, Public Art in Canada: Critical Perspectives (Toronto: University of Press, 2009)
N.N. Mhango, How Africa Developed Europe: Deconstructing the His-story of Africa, Excavating Untold Truth and What Ought to Be Done and Known (Bamenda, North West Region, Cameroon: Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group, 2018).
J. D. Flam, "The Symbolic Structure of Baluba Caryatid Stools," in African Arts, Vol. 4, Issue 2 (1971): 54-59; J.L. Stanley, "African Art and AAT," in Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Vol. 4, Issue 3 (1985): 103-105.
A.C. D'Andrea, A. Manzo, M.J. Harrower, and Hawkins, A. L. (2008). "The Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite Settlement of NE Tigrai, Ethiopia," in Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 33, Issue 2 (2008): 151-176; J. Parker, "The History of African Cities South of the Sahara: From the Origins to Colonization," in Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Vol. 8, Issue 3 (2007).
S.B. Alpern, "Did They or Didn't They Invent It? Iron in Sub-Saharan Africa," in History In Africa, Vol. 32 (2014): 41-94; P. Breunig, Nok: African Sculpture in Archaeological Context (Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Africa Magna Verlag, 2014).
M. Bernal Black Athena (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987); C.A. Diop,The African Origins of Civilization, Myth or Reality (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1974).
W. Rodeny, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1972); F.M. Snowden,  Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1970); D.L. Stone, "Africa in the Roman Empire: Connectivity, the Economy, and Artificial Port Structures," in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 118, Issue 4 (2014): 565-600.
Quentin VerCetty Artist

Quentin VerCetty is an award-winning, multidisciplinary visual griot (storyteller), artpreneur, art educator, activist, and an ever-growing interstellar tree based in Montreal, Canada.