Diligent wordsmith, artist, author, and director Ian Keteku spares no effort to ensure that you understand the meaning behind his CBC Gem animated poetic anthology, “Dreams in Vantablack” — or more specifically, the word Vantablack.
“It’s known as the darkest black that ever existed,” says Keteku, explaining the way the branded dark coating allows objects to disappear in low-lit spaces.
Essentially, Keteku sees Vantablack as an analogy for the way audiences should see the authors themselves, beyond the superficialities of their skin colour.
“It absorbs the light around them — so I don’t want viewers to look at the poets in this project and see them as just Black writers, but instead I want them to recognize the light inside of them that can shift preconceived notions.”
The anthology series is based on the writings of 12 Black youth poets from across Ontario between the ages of nine and 20. Through the union of rotoscope and 2D animation styles alongside poetry, the intent behind each animated short is to allow a new generation of creatives to be heard in a manner that feels as current as their expressed ideas.
“The beauty of poetry working with animation is that it taps into the subconscious of the viewer,” says Keteku, a former world poetry slam champion who pitched the idea to the CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts. “It’s an entirely different way for the messages, symbolism, and metaphors to be absorbed.”
Issues explored in the episodes include mental health, identity, bullying, and racism. Keteku says that the animators working with the poets understood the beats, nuances and language of the source material, because a good deal of them were creators of colour themselves.
Furqan Mohamed, 18, a Black Muslim writer, poet, and undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, says that she immediately felt the impact of that creative decision to hire animators of colour.
“The animation really took me aback, because sometimes when you write something, it can feel like a very lonely experience,” says Mohamed who was asked by Keteku to join the series. “You feel like you are the only person who’s ever felt that way, or the only person who had to wrestle with the idea until you see someone empathize with your work.”
“If my obituary read like the contents of my purse, you’d ask how I didn’t die sooner,” Mohamed narrates in her poem Bag Lady, which explores the intersection of race, heritage, and growth with the inanimate objects that prompt her memories.
“There were outside forces that were causing me to consider my own identity and place in the world when I wrote this,” says Mohamed, whose Somalian heritage is rooted in a country steeped in civil war.
“There was this internal moment of realizing that I came of age, and here’s all the stuff that comes with that.”
It’s the collection of intimate conflicts like these, be they mental, physical, or spiritual, that make “Dreams in Vantablack” feel relatable, says Mohamed.
In another poem titled “Hurricane,” Aaliyah Aden, 17, likens her anxiety to the uncontrollable gusts of a cyclone. She leans into metaphor aided by pencilled animations of a mind spiralling towards panic attacks.
Aden says that for a good deal of her life, she struggled with identity as a biracial person while succumbing to overthinking. It was only when she started seeing a therapist that she was able to manage the anxiety, which she acknowledges can still be a problem. It’s a topic she says can be frowned upon within BIPOC communities as a whole.
“I can’t explain how much I hated writing the poem, to begin with,” Aden says through laughter. “But my friends said that maybe I just resented the fact that I was allowed to talk about it even though your whole life you were told otherwise. It really helped me work through a lot of issues seeing it performed.”
Much in the same way, all 12 young Black poets in this project use the literary tools at their disposal to provide texture to the best and worst parts of their world.
Seeing those ideas take shape on a national streaming platform is something Keteku says he feels thankful for.
“It could be a combination of white guilt or the world becoming more aware of the power and value of the Black voice,” he adds. “But the timing is serendipitous with more Black-centred programming and creators being given these opportunities even if there’s so much more work to do.” (TorontoStar)