Artivism Community Art has an out of this world, out-of-the-box mission that’s grounded in practical and very real African and African American history and genius.
Schetauna Powell, ACA’s founder, creative director and lead designer, says the organization is responsible for the Black Speculative Arts chapter here in Houston. And by the way, the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM) is Black people’s term for what most people know as “Afrofuturism.”
“Our main focus is teaching Afrocentric knowledge through design, as opposed through written knowledge and oral language,” said Powell. “We’ve been working for about six years on turning the theory of Afrofuturism into a K-12 curriculum that can be used.”
The first iteration of Artivism was born when Powell was an art major at UH.
“I was really annoyed that I had to go so far from the university to get my art supplies and how expensive they were. So, I started Artivism Community Art to provide art supplies to students living on campus or around Third Ward. From there, I developed it into a business I used to sell my own art,” shared Powell.
The transformation prompted Powell to ask herself, “What is the role of art”? The answers led her to join the BSAM and shift her business/organization into something that advocates of Black and Brown art and artists.
“During that questioning period I met Dr. Reno Anderson at a National Council of Black Studies conference and expressed my interest in using Black science fiction in an artistic space, and so Artivism became what it is today,” Powell stated.
Powell explains “Afrofuturism” is a pop culture term that is simply talking about Black science fiction or Black speculative thought; Black people imagining things that are not currently a physical reality. Black people exercising their agency and power to speculate on (imagine) what we want for the future.
Ironically, Powell says this ability to imagine, “see” and “paint” this future via art would not be possible without Black Studies scholars and pioneers unearthing Pan African histories that had been buried by the purposeful “whiting out” of Black contributions to U.S. and world history by generations and centuries of white “scholars.”
“Afrofuturism, in my opinion, is Black studies, because how do we have any of this information to reimagine the future If we didn’t have that base, if we didn’t have those Black Studies scholars who actually did the hard work in order to get us to this theoretical space where we can apply theory as opposed to trying to figure it out.”
Powell contends these scholars were/are heroes providing Black people today willing to imagine a preferred future for our people with the information and tools “to imagine the missing pieces of our past that has been destroyed or at least hidden via the work of colonizers of our ancient story.”
“So Black Speculative Art is any art that uses imagination to talk about the past, present or future of an African diaspora.”
And Powell, a former art museum worker and classroom educator, believes one of the main structures that needs to be decolonized is the education system.
“Black students usually don’t have access to classes that increase creativity and innovation. Some school districts tend to not even offer music arts or any kind arts or theater to their students. Instead, they focus on remedial classes,” added Powell. “In Texas, unless you go to HSPVA, which is overwhelmingly white and Asian, a lot of times Black and Brown students aren’t getting access to things that will help them imagine a different world. So, I’ve become very aware that Artivism is like a decolonization project.”
Much of Powell’s passion comes from her belief that public schools have been set up to ensure that Black and Brown people remain in a very specific place in the world. Thus, she views her push to get Black Speculative Arts in schools as a “decolonizing that space.”
But she also has aspirations to “decolonizing” teaching.
“We’re so used to our education being abstracted that we don’t ever consider things like our physical activities as applied math. Art is applied mathematics,” she said.
One of Powell’s critiques of status quo public education is that students spend a lot of time “not actually doing things,” i.e. teachers teaching students how to add, but never giving them an opportunity to apply actual mathematical equations. Powell believes we do the same thing with teaching Black culture, reducing it to abstract “past” realities without recognizing that “we are always reimaging and recreating our culture.”
The only places that many educational concepts and things like Black history and culture actually get consciously applied is through our art.
“We apply the lessons of community and what it means to be a community through interacting with each other. And in my curriculum, I don’t want to have a bunch of people read and write papers. I really want you to take this information and actually do something with it, actually make something, because in this day and age, anyone can talk, anyone can have an opinion, anyone can read a book and then recite that book. I don’t feel like that’s really giving me anything. What I really want to see is what are you going to do to actually affect the world that we live in. And that only happens through design and design thinking.”
Powell brings that point home while explaining that “Art is applied math.”
“Drawing involves a lot of perspective and involves a lot of geometry and involves like a lot of thinking about how things work in a space, in a plane, and then arranging things so that they look appealing to the eye. If you ever played an instrument, that involves a really mathematical understanding of time and rhythm. We have been conditioned into believing that math only exists in a theoretical space. But we use math equations all the time. We don’t have to write it down in an X + Y = Z equation. Every day in your life, when you’re making decisions, you are manipulating variables and doing math. Technically every time where you actually have to physically do something and you do it well, and you succeed at it, you have just applied math and solved an equation.”
The remaking of Artivism found Powell initially taking her show on the road as a mobile, art-based learning company providing art experiences for children in schools, community centers like SHAPE and any space where she was invited.
However, she said she realized Black people, children and adults, needed more. So, she changed her business model once again to providing subscription art and culture boxes.
“You can have these boxes sent to your house on a regular interval, like monthly or every other week, and when you get this box, it’ll have lessons, comic books and just a variety of resources for you to use as you continue creative journey.”
Powell realizes that many people view themselves as lacking creativity and artistic skills. She, however, counters that the creativity is inherent, but has been buried by an education system and a society that continually engages in anti-Blackness.
“A lot of people will say, ‘I don’t know how to be creative,” but what they are really saying is ‘My mental health isn’t at a place where I can imagine a different world,’ because that’s what it really is. Creativity comes down to your own health and your own internal understanding of what it is that you want. And that’s just been a real revelation over these past three years, that our creative life is very tied to our mental, internal health,” shared Powell.
And unlocking our inner artist, and claiming our right and ability to imagine our own preferred future, to Powell, is key to Black and Brown healing. Thus, it should be no surprise that Black women are viewed by Powell and others as founders of “Afrofuturism,” including Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Octavia Butler and others.
However, when asked who she thought were today’s groundbreaking BSAM pioneers, Powell basically quoted activism and womanist legend Audre Lorde who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Who are today’s Afrofuturism pioneers? Everyone who works on trying to figure out a different way of being outside of a white supremacist world. We are the pioneers and our children are the ones who really get to benefit from that. If we actually take this chance to honestly just use this information—Black history, current Black reality, applied mathematics, our inner creativity—and do the work of innovation.”
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