Memorializing in Lower Case: Danilo McCallum
by Chelsea Rozansky
Something of a rabbit hole led me to the artwork of Danilo McCallum. I started my research in C’s archive by taking note of the outside hands which were gestured to but omitted from the magazine’s pages—like, say, a review mentioning the presence of an assistant left unnamed. Such omissions were innocent enough—their labour may have offered a technical insight, but was otherwise beside the point. Other times, the presence of such hands was, as an aside, lamented—odd that a curator chose to leave out the contribution of so-and-so, a critic might offer, before dedicating the rest of their attention to the already foregrounded artist. Conversations about marginalization through omission are not new; reading C from its earliest days illuminates how such discussions were at once always present and suppressed for reasons that were structural and otherwise impersonal, indifferent, and banal.
The genealogy of Western academic citation encourages what I would call a banal procession of omission—a tradition carried on through a pattern of selective citation; writing ought to reference reliable sources in order to be credible, we’re taught. Most academic or art-historical writing thus forecloses entrance. The most fruitful spaces for my research have often been in published interviews, or in the magazine’s paratext, especially letters to the editor. In these candid spaces, writers did not hesitate to praise those they work with. And often, when someone who should have been mentioned wasn’t, a caring reader would pen a letter to correct the oversight. Such dialogues, unanchored by various legitimizing apparatuses, are invaluable. In an interview published in C145, Dr. Andrea Fatona, whose work focuses on racial equity in Canadian art, especially regarding Black practitioners, said: “[T]he big ‘A’ archive exists to overshadow the little ‘a’ archive, which, for me, is the archive that I know and touch and feel.”1
Danilo Deluxo McCallum is one of the artists listed in a Wikipedia forum called the “Black Lunch Table,” a running document of more than 1000 Black artists who are under-represented on Wikipedia, with the intent to implore users to make and edit pages for them. I stumbled upon it after reading a piece in C’s Spring 2015 issue on Wikipedia edit-a-thons hosted by Art + Feminism, a collective initiative to build Wikipedia pages for women whose artistic practices are similarly under-represented.2 The project piqued my interest, and as I explored Art + Feminism’s website, I noticed links to resources like the Black Lunch Table. From there, I clicked on Danilo’s name because he was based in Toronto. Turns out he lives around the corner from where I grew up.
McCallum was unaware of the resource document, let alone his name’s presence on it. Interesting, then, that he built an archive called “Black Canvas 101” to address the very problem of omission exemplified by such big “A”s as Wikipedia. A painter as well as a curator, McCallum founded and co-organized the exhibition “Black Future Month,” held annually from 2013 to 2016—a play on Black History Month guided by Afrofuturist theories. The exhibition’s display of such myriad disciplines created a tour of Afrofuturist world-building, which McCallum’s own painting practice also deeply engages. The first iteration was mounted at ÁCCENTS on Eglinton, a specialty bookstore of African diasporic, Latin American, and Caribbean literature. Titled “Black Future Month 3013,” it was a solo exhibition of McCallum’s work set 1000 years into the future. The following year, McCallum partnered with Artscape and curator Elle Alconcel to present a group exhibition of eight Toronto-based visual artists, architects, and designers.3 It featured a talk by African diasporic historian Hillina Seife, as well as performances by musician Chris Ak and spoken-word artists Samson Brown and Quentin VerCetty, the latter of whom also co-organized and co-curated the subsequent iterations of “Black Future Month” alongside McCallum. The following instalments of “Black Future Month” were held at OCAD University, which Fatona helped organize as a committee member.
Afrofuturism, as artists who have engaged with the genre such as Martine Syms and Camille Turner have highlighted, is at its most generative when it brings sci-fi aesthetics down to earth by anchoring them to the real work of dismantling concrete oppression in the past and present—reckoning with Black histories, the archive, and the afterlives of slavery in the contemporary moment. For instance, Syms’s The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto (2013), begins with the reminder that “We did not originate in the cosmos,” and states that “This dream of utopia can encourage us to forget that outer space will not save us from injustice and that cyberspace was prefigured upon a ‘master/slave’ relationship.”4 Syms suggests that such far-out aesthetic tropes as aliens and space travel typical to portraits of Afrofuturism may offer a fantasy of Black liberation, but as McCallum’s practice highlights, these visions are not a hypothetical way out, but an opportunity to address material conditions. Presenting “Black Future Month” during Black History Month tethers the exhibition’s utopic vision to the past and the present.
“We unbury and unsilence histories,” writes artist and researcher Camille Turner of her installation the Afronautic Research Lab (2016–present).5 Here, time travel and utopias become the projects of Afrofuturist historians. In this work, Turner and fellow performers Karen Turner and Lee Turner fashion themselves as the Afronauts, fictive descendants of the Dogon people of Mali, who in Camille’s performance, have left Earth 10,000 years ago and have returned to save the planet by researching suppressed Canadian histories. The Afronautic Research Lab takes the form of a reading room where visitors are provided with documents on Newfoundland’s participation in transatlantic slavery. Costumed in space-travel accoutrements, the performers provide magnifying glasses and shine flashlights in the dark reading room to help visitors read these tattered documents and old books—texts that have been obscured, and stories instrumentally made opaque. The difficulty to read here literalizes Turner’s experience researching slavery in Canada, uncovering information excluded from official archives. Images of redemption and futurity find expression through Afrofuturist aesthetics as symbols or ideals, which Turner riffs on in her performance, yet as Syms reminds us, they are motivated by real histories, just as gazes toward the future are haunted by a past that creeps up.
While sourcing artists to participate in “Black Future Month,” McCallum leaned on his personal archive—a network of Black artists working in Toronto that he knew off the top of his head. Aware that this archive was built by experience, he wondered how those outside his community might find local Black artists. Shocked to find that a database of Black artists in Toronto didn’t already exist, McCallum formed “Black Canvas 101,” an Instagram account that features Black artists in the city. The use of this everyday technology represents the kind of lower-case archive that lives outside of institutions and their tradition of selective citation and exclusion—a “racism of omission,” as McCallum describes it. More than being a useful tool in the here and now, McCallum’s efforts contribute to memorializing members of a lower-case archive, as every document eventually refigures as historical. But the history-making potential of projects like “Black Canvas 101” rely on dismantling the gatekeeping citation practices that legitimize capital “A” archives at the expense of their lower-case cousins.
The subject of McCallum’s painting I’m not an Astronaut, I’m the Ocean (2015) gazes back, while faced forward—a new angel of history aiming to take off. It’s Frank Ocean in a chrome astronaut helmet, looking like he belongs in a movie set in outer space. McCallum imagines future Frank Ocean as an astronaut instead of an R&B star. “He’s also just become one with the sea,” McCallum says, dramatizing the artist’s moniker, an example of the lore he creates around each portrait. McCallum started painting as a graffiti artist, and although he now mostly works with oil, acrylic, and ink, the jagged line work in his portraiture is reminiscent of old-school block lettering; the mixing of colours and shadowing has an airbrush quality that looks like it could have been produced by a can. It’s visually reminiscent of graffiti, as is his understanding of art-making as community building. “When you’re doing murals right there in the community, people are coming by—might be a mother with two kids, might be a homeless guy—and you’re hanging out with them for a while. They’re telling you about your piece,” he explains.
Picturing Black actors, pop stars, and members of his community in Toronto as science-fiction heroes, McCallum’s future levels known and lesser-known figures to legendary status. The Weight of The Wizard (2014) is a portrait of Dameion Royes, who founded the Toronto hat shop Big It Up, and later Brimz. Taking up the majority of the canvas, Royes’s head, cocked slightly to the right, as if he’s listening or thinking, is encased in a steel-blue helmet floating over a grey backdrop. Royes is an entrepreneur and local activist, who McCallum describes as having “a really big heart.” In the portrait, Royes’s eyes are soft and slightly bloodshot, and his icy-blue helmet, adorned with spikes and a forehead plate inscribed with a spider, is cooler than Ocean’s—“because of his hats,” McCallum explains. In the painter’s vision of a liberated future, a local activist gets decked out like a dazzling superstar. Most recently, McCallum was selected by the city to create a vinyl wrap around the “Toronto” sign in Nathan Phillips Square, titled Patterns of the People (2020). Fittingly, he painted portraits of Black Canadians to wrap each letter, including poet M. NourbeSe Philip and previous contributors to “Black Future Month,” like VerCetty and Jah. Paying homage to his collaborators and influences, McCallum’s portraits, murals, and public artworks create an archive of faces.
“The issue of ‘what constitutes notability for artists’ was thoroughly discussed and debated,” wrote the 2015 edit-a-thon organizers. According to the site’s guidelines, a Wikipedia page is deemed acceptable if it is “notable,” which the guidelines define as “worthy of notice,” clarifying that “determining notability does not necessarily depend on things such as fame, importance, or popularity—although those may enhance the acceptability of subjects that meet the guidelines.” One marker of notability, by their definition, is press coverage, which is to say something is notable if it’s (already) been taken note of. This tautology offered as definition, plus the weird italics that ironically suggest that notability is exactly the things it claims it is not—namely fame and popularity—only obfuscates notability’s meaning, and distracts from the questions it importantly begs. What makes someone “worthy,” and who decides that? The cyclical nature of the explanation suggests that a subject is worth taking note of only if it’s already been noted, concealing the politics and power struggles embedded in discourse’s procession of omission that predetermines visibility and attention. Black portraiture practices like McCallum’s interrupt such notation systems because the presentation of a face is an insistence on being seen.
To its credit, Wikipedia’s convoluted explanation of notability implicates writers, who quite literally take note. Artists, critics, and curators ought to evaluate the resources we champion, those legitimizing infrastructures governing our attention, if we don’t want to bow down to prejudice’s banal procession. This means taking seriously the little “a” archives. Discussing the inception of “Black Future Month,” McCallum offers this: “[T]here’s a class division if you can’t afford to go through the process of all the [post-secondary] schooling; you’re excluded from the conversation of creating conversations.” He speaks of his curatorial work and his guerrilla archiving practice as a way of creating conversation. McCallum’s paintings, on the other hand, make mythic those entries into an archive we know and touch and feel: our pop stars, our friends. “When I speak to anyone in terms of Blackness,” said Fatona, “about the everydayness of our life, our heroism and our ability to circumvent, to come up with ways that are outside what’s expected of us—that becomes a motivation to continue. That’s why it’s important to tell our own stories.” McCallum paints this everyday heroism as though, if continued, it could become the stuff of legends. He tells it like a story about salvation.
For the introduction and previous parts to this series, please visit: Shifting Spotlights