Black Artist and Scientist Series
Spotlight Artist: Teajai Travis

Written by Dunia Roba

My name is Dunia Roba. I am a Biochemistry major at the University of Windsor and a research assistant at the INCUBATOR art lab. I first met Teajai Travis during a drum circle he held in 2021. I was quiet, but I found my voice with every new beat I made on the drum. Travis is an artist, musician and storyteller and Executive Director of Artcite Artist Run Centre and serves as the City of Windsor’s Multicultural Community Storyteller (2022-2024). Last month, local afro-indigenous storyteller and educator Teajai Travis and I sat down to discuss his ancestral inspirations and futuristic ambitions.

Teajai Travis was born and raised in Sandwich Towne, an area in Windsor’s west side. He came from a very large, tight-knit family, which laid the groundwork for his work in community engagement. While the art of storytelling was new to his family, he was always supported and given the space to explore his imagination. Teajai told me about his visits to the Mackenzie Hall Cultural Centre and how he would create with local artists as a second grader. As a teen, he found his poetry in the booming scene of hip-hop. A young Teajai would hire local buskers to perform at the open-mic events he held, titled “Words by Teajai Travis.” Through these experiences, he not only learned how to actualize his projects but also how to nurture groups of people. These experiences laid the groundwork for Teajai to discover themes of community, ancestry, and identity.

From Bermuda to a small town in Pennsylvania, Teajai has travelled the world to understand his past. He remembers the stories he has learned over the years, forming a mental database of common themes. He relies on these experiences to inspire new creative projects. His imagination sparks an idea, and he runs with it! Accountability is key, so he makes sure to formalize his work and share it immediately. Teajai finds that he feels a responsibility to create, for himself but also for his community.

Something I found interesting from our discussion the is way Teajai views his art. While sharing ideas that are integral to yourself are important, he considers how his art can create lasting, positive impact on others in his community– from his local family in Sandwich to the international Black diaspora. In 2016, Teajai created a project titled “Missing from History #womenfromfheundergroundrailroad.” For readers not familiar with the region, Windsor-Essex was the final stop in the path formally enslaved people took gain freedom, i.e. the Underground Railroad. Teajai observed how fundamental women were to the movement, both during and after slavery. However, no one today really knows the legacies of Mary Bibb, the founder of the first abolitionist newspaper, or Teajai’s grandmother Loise, who nurtured the Sandwich Towne community. He realized that without someone there to tell their stories, their influence would be lost to time. He travels to understand his family’s routes. He told me, “I want people to feel the pink sand of Bermuda between their toes while listening to the sound of the Atlantic Ocean going in, going out. Let that be reminiscent of and connected to the waves that are moving between West Africa, Brazil, through Bermuda, into the United States, and talk to the migration of previously enslaved people as they made revolutionary movements…” His creative process is to get out and do, not to think.

After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was established, Black and Indigenous folk who had been living in the freedom town of Liberia, Pennsylvania were forced to flee north. Many eventually settled in Sandwich and other parts of what would be called Windsor-Essex. Teajai is a direct descendent of Liberia’s founder and conductor of the Underground Railroad, Richard Travis Sr. He would give formerly enslaved people a means of income by offering plots of land to farm and cultivate. When Teajai went to visit modern-day Mercer Country, he was given access to death, birth, marriage, and land certification of the residents of Liberia. Through this, he was able to map out a family tree. Descendants of formerly enslaved people can feel disconnected from their ancestry as much of it is unknown due to the disenfranchisement of their people. He notes that by sharing the details and documentation through his art, other descendants can come to learn about who they are. These discoveries flourished into his project titled, “Born Enslaved, A Freedom Story.” Teajai mentions that he is also very careful to not be too literal in his work as that can unearth deep-seated trauma for individuals in the community.

When asked for advice for young artists, Teajai said, “Whatever it is, just do it.” He shared that artists may feel like their career should be linear, starting in small galleries before becoming world-renowned. What is most important is developing themes within yourself to create works that can grow as you do. He emphasizes that documentation of the creative process and community engagement are what creates the impact to push your project forward. Teajai reminds his fellow educators to acknowledge how great of an impact they have on their students: one action can change someone’s life. Mindfulness is key, and positive impact can be found when emphasis is placed on continuous improvement of Safe Space.

Teajai has several upcoming creative works. From March 3rd – 9th, his exhibition titled “Space. Time. Illusion. The Travisian Triangle of Smoke and Mirrors: Ancestral Magic for the Uninitiated” will be displayed at Arts Council Windsor Essex. He informed me that the title has themes of sci-fi mystery by alluding to the infamous Bermuda triangle, shaping how some may feel about their unknown ancestry. The installation will include a performance of an ancestral ritual and a collection of photography. Teajai is also conceptualizing a new book titled, “Moon, Magik, Musings: A Rhymie, Rhymie Book of Cosmic Meta-Verse & Runaway Poems with Loose Lips.”

Find Teajai and his work on his socials:
Instagram: @storytellingpoet
Facebook: @storytellerTJTravis