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In grade school, many of us were taught to think of Christopher Columbus as a valiant explorer of the New World, a narrative that overlooks his flagrant abuses of power and his decimation of Indigenous people. Monuments glorifying his legacy abound — including one at the center of Columbus Circle in the heart of Manhattan. Idris Brewster and Glenn Cantave, two activists using art and technology to advance social change, dreamed of seeing the likeness of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, atop the 35-foot granite column instead.
They set out to develop an app that would make their vision a reality — an augmented reality, to be exact. Kinfolk, launching on February 24, uses AR to render new monuments of Black and Brown icons, sorely lacking in a nation where more than 1,500 Confederate memorials still stand.
“We initially started using the app as a way to circumvent a lot of the red tape that exists in taking down monuments and erecting new ones,” Cantave told Hyperallergic. “The beauty of this technology is that we could put up our own stories with or without permission from an institution.”
Kinfolk is part of Movers and Shakers, an organization Brewster and Glenn Cantave co-founded in 2017 to inscribe Black and Brown history into the American curricula using AR tools. With the advent of remote learning at a massive scale during the pandemic, the two saw an opportunity to engage younger audiences through technology.
“The problem that we’re looking to solve doesn’t stop at representation in terms of monuments, it’s about uprooting white supremacy at its core,” Cantave added. “We want to use the Kinfolk app as an entry point to an entire retelling of history through a more equitable lens.”
Six monuments will be available on the app’s launch, with more to come. Among them are Louverture and politician Shirley Chisholm, whose histories have been mostly excluded from mainstream curricula in the US.
“We could have gone the easy route and chosen figures that are usually represented in our education systems, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but we wanted to make it a point to bring stories about figures that haven’t been talked about or gotten their due,” Brewster said.
“One of the reasons we selected [Louverture] comes from the perspective of uplifting the story of the Haitian Revolution,” Cantave said. “Most people don’t know that the Haitian Revolution was the only successful slave revolt that resulted in the creation of a new state. When we’re talking about Louverture, we’re also talking about the colonialism and its impact on the present day.”
Similarly, he adds, few people know that Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress, was also the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president. “She literally paved the way for national icons all the way up to our Vice President Kamala Harris to Stacey Abrams,” he notes.
Each monument design takes around 200 hours to create, painted stroke by stroke using a VR headset and a software called Quill. Working with researchers and historians, they determine the figures’ clothing, posture, and color palette.
“In the digital space, you can make them way more dynamic, animated, and interactive. You can portray them in full color, which was really important to us,” Brewster said. “We want people to see these figures as they were, as actual people. We’re adding a human element to something like a monument that is sometimes really static and cold.”
“We see these monuments as a work of art,” he said. “And we treat them as such in order to pay as much homage and respect to the lives of these powerful Black heroes from history.”