Two silent attendants dressed in futuristic capes, bright white turbans and boots, welcome citizen researchers into the dimly lit Afronautic Research Lab. They guide visitors to a long table covered in books and photocopies of historical documents, including advertisements for escaped slaves placed by Canadian slave owners.
A looped recording of a woman’s voice recounts facts about Newfoundland’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The attendants hand visitors spaceship-shaped, plastic devices lined with tiny LED lights and magnifying glasses to illuminate and enlarge the texts.
Camille Turner’s consciousness raising, performance art piece, Afronautic Research Lab was presented at the A.C. Hunter Library as a part of a weekend-long series of events called New-Found-Lands, curated by Pamela Edmonds and Bushra Junaid. The events, which took place between September 9th and 11th, explored the connections between Newfoundland and the Caribbean diaspora.
Turner’s piece is inspired in part by the Dogon people of Mali’s stories. The stories suggest that the Dogon people’s vast knowledge of the solar system, which significantly predated Western science, was passed down to them by extraterrestrials.
In Turner’s narrative, the Afronauts are descendants of the Dogon people who left earth 10,000 years ago and have returned to save the planet by making visible hidden pieces of Canada’s history. For Turner, time travel grants us a better understanding of the present by giving us distance from it.
“Both history and the future are places to stand to give us more perspective,” Turner said about the significance of time travel in her work, “The future is an important perspective because it lifts you out of what’s happening now so that you can imagine what you want to have happen.”
During my conversation with Turner, she slipped into the voice of her Afronaut character, describing the Afronaut mandate by saying, “We unbury and unsilence histories, there’s so much the past can teach us if we only knew it.”
The Afronauts reveal hidden histories by literally shedding light on the documents in their curated reading room. They wave their futuristic flashlights over the pages before handing the light to visitors of the lab, encouraging them to sift through the documents.
It was deeply disturbing to hear the recorded voice that flooded the darkened performance space describe how Newfoundland’s salt cod industry supported and depended on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Newfoundland sent the most undesirable parts of the cod to the Caribbean to be consumed by slaves, fostering an industry that killed between 10-12 million individuals and created a continuing legacy of racism and inequity.
“Art can do all kinds of things, it can lull you into submission, it can support the status quo, it can be a way of domesticating people. But it can also be an amazing tool to challenge the status quo, to ask questions and provoke critical thinking and that’s how I prefer to use art,” Turner said about the relationship between art and education.
Many of the texts in the Afronautic Research Lab were photocopies of tattered documents and old books. Asking visitors to read those pages in a dark room with a handheld light and a small magnifying glass was a perfect metaphor for how Canada has attempted to obscure its own history.
The performance art/installation was an incredibly effective disruption of the grand narratives of Canadian history that refuse to acknowledge the country’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.