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Traveling through time with Black Quantum Futurism’s ancestral exhibit

A mixed-media exhibition at Hatfield House explores how time isn’t linear. Looking at time another way, how do we see our ancestors and ourselves?

The time capsule & kindred temporal library exhibit is shown at The Hatfield House in Philadelphia, Pa. Wednesday, August 25, 2021.
The time capsule & kindred temporal library exhibit is shown at The Hatfield House in Philadelphia, Pa. Wednesday, August 25, 2021.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

What does it mean to have enough time?

From a Western viewpoint, time is a linear construct. It started at some point in the past, it will end at some point in the future, and our lives are an inexorable march from one end of the arrow to the other. But in many West African cultures, time is much more circular — the Kiswahili word Sasa refers to a broader present, and Zamani, an “ocean of time” that all things flow into.

And importantly, if an ancestor’s memory is still alive, that means they are still present in the Sasa.

All these cultural concepts are on display in Ancestors returning again / this time only to themselves, an incredible immersive art installation from Black Quantum Futurism. The question of time — what it means, how we move through it, and whether we can ever have enough of it — permeates the entire experience. This mixed-media exhibition at Brewerytown’s Hatfield House closes on Sunday.

» READ MORE: New Afrofuturism exhibit at Hatfield House explores time travel and storytelling forms

Staff reporter Cassie Owens and I, an interactive developer here at The Inquirer, talk about ancestors and time all the time. We took an afternoon to move through the installation and share the thoughts, feelings, and impact that it left. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Cassie Owens: What’s coming up for you right now?

Dain Saint: Wow. So we published the “Wildest Dreams” this week, which was titled after that saying, “We are our ancestor’s wildest dreams.” It took nearly a year from conception to release, but we finally got to publish it! After this, I’m going to go and work on my show, called “freedom is nonnegotiable,” that I wrote while processing everything that happened in 2020. And all of these projects deal with this question of what did we receive from our ancestors, and what will we leave behind?

It’s funny, I was going to record thoughts on my phone as we were walking through, and I quickly realized “Oh, that’s not gonna work.” It was like the experience was saying, “You’re supposed to stay in the present.” It was just profoundly moving. Octavia Butler would be proud. I’m kind of still processing [how it portrayed] what quantum entanglement feels like.

Owens: When I was watching the film, I sort of was getting caught up in the realization that so many rituals — not all rituals, but so many — across cultures do have to do with time. If you’re celebrating the harvest, if you are celebrating the birthday of a deity or a saint, if you are celebrating someone going to the prom or about to have they graduation — these are markers of time and milestones. And it made me feel like I was smack dab in the middle of a ritual of time not existing and time not being real.

Saint: Yeah.

Owens: And it just sort of really immediately was like, Oh snap.

[Upstairs] there was — I’m gonna call it an invitation — It was some text that was in a collage on the second floor, that basically was encouraging [visitors to] “take one of the past thoughts that you have reversed and walk into it as if it is unfamiliar, as if you are experiencing it for the first time.” Just that invitation made me think about, like, how much time do I spend revisiting past thoughts … outside of the context of trauma.

Saint: Yeah, that makes me realize that, outside of the context of trauma — maybe this is a common experience, but I think I’m a lot better at ruminating than reminiscing. And that’s something that I’ve been really thinking about. Why is it so much easier for me to sit in a painful memory, than it is for me to enjoy a joyful one?

» READ MORE: Are you thinking about time right now? For ‘Black Futures’ contributor Rasheedah Phillips, it’s a lifelong pursuit.

Saint: There was a description of Black Quantum Futurism up there as creating a Black space “outside of Greenwich Mean Time,” and I really appreciated that idea. The thing that struck me really was it felt like, “Here is a way for you to create more time.” And that’s a question we’ve had as Black people, like, “Will there be enough time? Will we have enough time?” We have cousins that are no longer here. Did they get enough time? Our histories, our stories, our cultures, you know, tribes that we belonged to that we no longer remember are all kind of subsumed under this mechanistic “Greenwich Mean Time.” Which is an excellent metaphor for how England and Western culture declared themselves the center of our universe, right? Even just trying to get here today, we were worrying. “Will we have enough time to take in the exhibit? Will we have enough time to process our thoughts?”

It really felt like an invitation to say, like, time is abundant. And not everything is going to happen in sequence. Not everything is gonna happen one after the other. And if you stop thinking about time as a linear story, you’ll have as much of it as you need.

Owens: I think that something that also stuck with me was the line, “only we/us can touch our grandmother’s face.” I’m very, very, very fortunate to have both of my grandmothers still alive. But I am also very unfortunate to have lost a lot of my loved ones. And I think sometimes I worry that I might not remember their face the way that you remember it [when they’re physically here.]

Not that you forget what they look like, right? Not that you lose access to the photos. But sometimes … even the grief can kind of fade the picture in your mind. [Being inside the exhibition] was reminding me that, you know, your ancestors are in you. You can’t exactly forget that, even if you don’t know all of them. And it made me feel like, when we tap into our memories of who our ancestors were and are, that that is something that is just ours. I mean, it’s a work that no one can take from you.

Saint: Yeah, it’s not a resource, to be exploited or something like that; it’s just written in us.

I just lost my grandmother a few weeks ago, and I was worried for a while, because she had been on the decline for so long I was worried that when I think of her I will remember her face on the decline. I was really worried about that, and that’s not the case. I … remember her in the kitchen, I remember making cakes and all of that. I just watched that new Matrix trailer, and one of the things that always struck me from that series is this idea of your “Residual Self Image,” where no matter what is going on in the real world, there’s this internal image of yourself that you hold on to. And I have her Residual Image that I’m holding on to. And Ancestors really validates that as just as real, if not more so, in a sort of cosmic sense. Remember the whole thing, her whole life, and all of it is real.

I think it was Louis XIII that did a movie where they filmed an ad, and it’s sealed in a vault, and no one’s gonna watch it for a hundred years. So none of the people that are even attached to the project are ever going to see this film. So why do it? Why do anything that outlives us? [Because we understand] that we are not the end of the story, that in the future somebody’s going to look back, and we’re trying to have a conversation with them. And I just think there’s something really beautiful about the way Ancestors portrayed that conversation.

Owens: To your point about the exhibition feeling like being about a way to create more time, I was really moved by them putting so many clocks in the time capsule right, almost like literally sending more time or sending time, you know?

Saint: Yeah.

Owens: It made me think about how, you know, a lot of time with different things in Black culture, there are so many things that different generations associate themselves with really strongly, especially when it comes to aesthetics and, you know, fashion and music and all of that. But this, like not sending any of those type of relics into the time capsule, really, I feel like it was challenging me to think about how there is a time capsule that isn’t actually aspiring to, like you said, tell the future who we were, but that there can be a time capsule that actually just makes it clear that we have always been.

Saint: Yes. I feel like, now, especially after the last two years, there’s a sense of impermanence to everything.

And especially as Black people, that’s really hard because you see how many futures have been taken from us. And there’s something about this exhibit that is like, hey, remember, nothing is permanent, but also, nothing is truly gone.Just creating more time, creating more and more space in which to exist, and expanding our conception of our own existence, and our past.

“Ancestors returning again / this time only to themselves” is on display at the Hatfield House through Sept. 19. Admission is free.