Smile Politely

Afrofuturism in the key of life at the University YMCA

The University YMCA’s collaborative Future Spaces in Community Places exhibition does more work for diversity, equity, and inclusion than all of the committee meetings, hand-wringing, and jargon-based academic debates combined. This is what art can do. Must do. And in the brilliant hands of collaborators Stacey (BLACKSTAR) Robinson, Kamau (DJ KamauMau) Grantham, and Shaya (Chocolate Star) Robinson, the YMCA’s Murphy Gallery explodes with the energy, musicality, and activism that only art can deliver.

The central theme of the exhibit, Afrofuturism, delights and provokes you the minute you enter the gallery. Assistant Professor Stacey Robinson defines an Afrofuturism experience as what it means to “be Black people active in the future; that may be utopian or dystopian. Afrofuturism is about the Afro-Now. Are we serving our Afro-Present? Are we securing a meal for our community now so we have a future? Are we securing a winter coat so our kids and community members survive into the future? Afrofuturism isn’t just about Star Trek and space travel. Though, those are important for the imagination too. But are we providing the resources now to get us into our future?” His digital collage work in the exhibit grabs you and lifts your imagination to what’s possible without ignoring the dark lessons of the past.

In Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson’s collaborative collage, Selection of Her Thoughts (aka Her Mind Spins), music, imagination, and a rainbow of possibilities explode from the work. The active spinning of the DJ dances with hints of the Sydney Opera House in the eyes and mind of the collage’s beautiful subject.

Artistic image of a Black woman with a DJ spinning records out of her head and an image of a rainbow bursting forth on the top. Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson, Selection of Her Thoughts (aka Her Mind Spins), Digital Collage, © 2021. Photo by Amy Penne.

Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson, Selection of Her Thoughts (aka Her Mind Spins), Digital Collage, © 2021. Photo by Amy Penne.

Robinson’s and Grantham’s Drapetomaniac compels the viewer to interact with symbols and multiple entry points in this impressive collage. Robinson discusses the symbolism in a Facebook live event for Kwanzaa 365 (also available on the University Y’s Facebook page).  The Roy Ayers record, slavery harness, the squint, and the track runner’s position create a narrative you have to work through, a narrative that punches you in the gut. View this—hear it—live in its space. Shaya Robinson’s poetry and journal entries are illustrated by Stacey Robinson’s colorful renderings. In their Ancestors Call, Shaya Robinson’s young character from her Stargazers collection is imagining her place in the world, and in particular, among the ancestors who birthed her, who animate her emerging voice. Shaya Robinson wants young people to “never let anyone take your voice from you. There are many ways to have your voice feel important. Writing helped me find my voice. It felt so small and so far away as a child but the more I wrote, the louder and stronger it got. Don’t be afraid to look for your voice in the bottom of a pen and paper.” Shaya Robinson, a poet and Case Manager for Emergency Housing with Cunningham Township, wants viewers, young and old, to “walk away from this exhibit excited to start a journal themselves. I want adults and children alike to be excited to write through some of their own life experiences. Writing saved me from a lot, and I hope to inspire others to use it to save themselves as well.” These beautifully illustrated images of a child’s journals and imaginative play do just that: inspire.


 Collage image of the top half of a Black woman, dressed in work attire, pieced with the bottom half of a track runner's legs. Coming from the woman's head is a Roy Ayers record entitled

Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson. Drapetomaniac, Digital Collage © 2021. Photo by Amy Penne.

Stacey Robinson and Kamau Grantham’s collaborations are lyrical in their musicality and movement. Grantham explains his artistic process and technique as finding “images that speak to me, then I put them together in a way that makes sense. The subjects of our collages are in an alternate universe, free of racism and oppression, where they can just be without fear. Or, maybe they are on earth, but far in the future. My art is connected to music because music has always been central in my life. Nine out of ten times, when I create a collage, I am also listening to music. Stacey and I are both DJs, so that is also reflected in the images we choose. Black music has always been connected to Afrofuturism—Sun Ra with “Space is the Place,” Outkast with “ATLiens,” Parliament-Funkadelic with “Mothership Connection,” Janelle Monae with “The ArchAndroid,” just to name a new. I think Black folks often use our art as a way to escape this harsh reality and to re-imagine a space where we are free.”

Digital drawing of a circle of black and brown faces surrounding a young Black infant. The loving faces of the ancestors is set against medium sky blue and pink background. Shaya Robinson and Stacey Robinson. Ancestors Call, Digital Drawing, © 2021. Photo by Amy Penne.

Shaya Robinson and Stacey Robinson. Ancestors Call, Digital Drawing, © 2021. Photo by Amy Penne.

One of the pieces that demonstrate in a single collage the freedom and artistic expression described by Grantham is their Temple of Stevie. With its stunning re-imagining of Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July album cover, the collage animates the visual and musical impact Wonder has had on our culture in time and space, from pyramids to contemporary architecture, the silent moonlit ripples lift the viewer into the power and majesty that is Stevie Wonder.

Digital collage centers on an image of Stevie Wonder, enhanced with black, red, and green stripes exploding from his eyes as he is surrounded by sky, water, pyramids, a contemporary urban work building, and two beautiful Black women blowing kisses at Wonder's head. Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson, Temple of Stevie, Digital Collage © 2019. Photo by Amy Penne.

Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson, Temple of Stevie, Digital Collage © 2019. Photo by Amy Penne.

This exhibit embodies collaboration and community but expands what we mean by both. Stacey Robinson states, “We want the community to understand the richness of the culture that’s here and now. This partnership with the University YMCA is the perfect space to create a template for how we do the real work of DEI, or Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.” Here, Robinson continues, “we showcase a community writer and activist, a clinical psychologist and DJ, and a university professor in the arts. That’s what real diversity work should do. The subtitle of this exhibit is Let’s Build This For Real! And we mean it. Let’s do this, right here in Champaign-Urbana.” The dynamic images of vinyl, old and new, African landscapes, and the generative play between the rainbows of possibility and the shackles of our past pull the viewer into the work and leave you wanting more. More talks, more interaction with these artists, and more dialogue about what we can do to heal the pain in Champaign-Urbana and in our larger national community.

Diversity work, according to Stacey Robinson, emerges from “the amount of energy given to those voices, and the equity, or breaking down of every single barrier that would be a hindrance to the progress of the future.” For Robinson, Afrofuturism is “an amazing lens to talk about equitable futures. What do equitable futures look like? What do they sound like? What are the sonics of equitable futures? I even like to think about what equitable futures taste like.”

Do not miss this vital intersection of community, art, and activism. What makes the exhibit powerful isn’t just the striking images, colors, and text that shout from every corner of the Murphy Gallery; what gives the exhibit its power is the collaboration and the conversation it sparks. Pull up Roy Ayers’ “Running Away” on your phones, pop those headphones in, and join this conversation.

Future Spaces In Community Places
Through December 17th
M-Th 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; F 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sa noon to 5 p.m.
Murphy Gallery, Art @ the Y Series
University YMCA
1001 S Wright St


Top photo of Stargazers Collection by Amy Penne.

Arts Editor

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