Journeying through Black GeographiesOjo Agi
“Traveling entails a shift from being oneself to being a different person. Travelling also entails an understanding of alterity, that there is a chasm that separates you from the citizens of another world. The more one travels the less the world as a totality of experiences seem foreign or alien.”
—Òké Rónké, 2019
What exactly is a map? How do we articulate our sense of place, our sense of belonging, or our experiences of the physical environment when they may not match the borders, boundaries or coordinates we’ve come to understand as objective? How might storytelling be an alternative method of mapping? How might this transform how we experience and travel through space?
In Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, feminist scholar Katherine McKittrick, a professor in Gender Studies at Queens University, writes that to understand the ways in which Black people relate to space, we must understand geography as an act of social production. Geography is not simply an empirical process of mapping borders, coordinates, and boundaries. Rather, geography is a discursive process by which human beings assign meaning to the spaces around and between them. It is a mapping of human and non-human relations, a representation of one’s knowledge of the social world imprinted on the physical. With this foundation, McKittrick introduces us to the concept of Black geographies—“a black sense of place”—that “is not necessarily a bound or unintelligible place for the black subject, but a condition of “all-too-human” existence, which is understood through the displacement of difference and future possibilities.” (28) “Black geographies,” she writes, “locate and speak back to the geographies of modernity, transatlantic slavery, and colonialism; they illustrate the ways in which the raced, classed, gendered, and sexual body is often an indicator of spatial options and the ways in which geography can indicate racialized habitation patterns; they are places and spaces of social, economic, and political denial and resistance; they are fragmented, subjective, connective, invisible, visible, unacknowledged, and conspicuously positioned; they have been described as, among other things, rhizomorphic, a piece of the way, diasporic, blues terrains, spiritual, and Manichaean.” (7)
I can’t tell you what story you are going to resonate with when you step into Library of Infinities. The exhibition houses books by African, Caribbean and Black diasporic writers from generations ago to contemporary times. You can choose to travel with Octavia Butler into a dystopian reality marred by corporate greed and relentless environmental extraction (Parable of the Sower), or you can visit with can visit with Canadian author Marie-Célie Agnant and experience the political resistance of a Haitian journalist (Femmes au temps des carnassiers). There are non-fiction books, memoirs and children’s literature to escape to. You can travel to new worlds—both real and imagined—with the words on the pages, or you can transport yourself through the eclectic rhythms of Grace Jones and Gil Scott-Heron emanating from a record player stationed on an altar. Perhaps you will feel most captivated by the playful sculptures and colourful illustrations that give personality to the space. They may even remind you of a specific country flag, which reminds you of another memory you hold dear. The choices are abundant, and the expert design facilitates a curious, tactile and childlike experience of the exhibition. You pick up books, feel the weight in your hands, thumb through the pages, and turn the book over to read the summary before placing it back down. You climb over steps, walk under towering structures, and marvel at new discoveries. You play, you touch, you learn. Repeat. Consequently, the experience is unique to each visitor.
Library of Infinities is not only a collection of stories—maps, Black geographies, a “black sense of place”—waiting to be discovered. Library of Infinities is a story in and of itself. It is a story of collaboration. A story of communion. A praxis of knowledge production and dissemination. The exhibition is a collaboration between Ottawa-based artist and curator Shaya Ishaq, SAW, and a charismatic team of local artisans and architects. Ishaq, who is of Kenyan and Ugandan descent and is currently completing a BFA at Concordia University, specializes in Fibres and Material Practices. She expresses her knowledge through her imaginative designs, bringing together colourful African-inspired motifs and playground-inspired architecture to create an accessible space in which Black and non-Black communities can learn. She realized her vision with the support of curators, friends and fellow artists, who brought together their knowledges, and resources, to strengthen her own. The exhibition welcomes contributions from attendees—either in the form of a physical book or a title recommendation for the digital library (link)—encouraging even more knowledges to be shared and benefitted from. In a profound way, you are never alone when you move through the space, even if no one else is physically present. Every interaction with Library of Infinities is a communion between oneself and those who walked the space before, those who left stories behind, those who gifted their knowledges, those who share the value of learning. There is something for everyone to take from this space, and that is exactly the premise of Black geographies—we are all empowered to make meaning from our experiences, and to build a collective understanding.
For me, I’m leaving behind the following book. The knowledge was gifted to me from a colleague and friend who researches Black and Indigenous relationalities, and I want to share it in this space given the context of this exhibition (SAW is located on Algonquin territory). It’s called Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness, edited by Tiffany Lethabo King, Jennell Navarro and Andrea Smith. It’s important to understand the ways in which Black and Indigenous knowledges interweave and diverge, and I think both communities have much to share with each other and the world. As for what I’m taking with me—I’m joyfully holding the memory of this space, this time, this convergence of an infinite number of Black geographies, the library of infinities.
Ojo Agi (she/her) is a Nigerian-Canadian artist and researcher working at the intersections of Black feminism, postcolonial theory and art history. She is currently completing a PhD in Art History at Concordia University, supported by the Joseph-Armand Bombardier SSHRC award. Learn more at www.ojoagi.com.