Good Good Good is in Vancouver this week covering TED2023. This article is part of our ongoing, exclusive coverage of the conference, with more interviews and stories to come. Follow along here all week, or on social media with our hashtag #GGGatTED.
Conceptual artist Tavares Strachan works in a variety of mediums: A block of ice transported from the North Pole to his childhood elementary school in the Bahamas, a golden satellite sculpture that orbits in space — and good, old-fashioned leather-bound paper.
When Strachan took the TED2023 stage in Vancouver, he reflected on his 1999 journey to the North Pole, which prompted his studies of unknown African American polar explorer Matthew Henson, a co-discoverer of the North Pole, whose contributions were lost to history.
“And I ain’t really cool with that,” Strachan said.
One of the artist’s most well-known projects is “The Distance Between What We Have And What We Want,” in which he excavated a 4.5-ton block of ice from the Alaskan Arctic and brought it home to his native Bahamas to put on display in a solar-powered freezer.
The 2006 installation leaned into the themes of Earth’s fragile systems, the strangeness of cultural and physical displacement — and the legacy of Henson’s contributions.
When Strachan’s Bahamian community received its first set of encyclopedias, the first person he looked for was his personal hero: Henson. When he didn’t find the explorer in these precious pages, he started to realize: No one from his community was in there, either.
“And if they were missing,” he pondered on the TED stage, “What else was lost?”
The Encyclopedia of Invisibility tells stories lost to history
It was then that Strachan began developing his own encyclopedia: “The Encyclopedia of Invisibility.”
The book is a 3,000 page, leather-bound creation with over 17,000 entries. It was created over the course of 12 years, alongside a team of researchers and explorers who “combed the globe” to find “people, places, and things that were mostly untold.”
The encyclopedia aims to include the kinds of things you may never learn about in school.
The first entry, of course, was on Henson, but Strachan also highlighted entries like those that tell the story of Minos, one of history’s only documented all-female armies; Robert Smalls, who freed a ship of enslaved people and later became the first Black congressman in the U.S; and Sister Rosette Tharpe, the godmother of rock n’ roll.
“My work became a quest to tell these lost stories,” Strachan said in his talk. “If you really pay attention, you start to see these lost stories all around you.”
The encyclopedia was published as an artwork, playing with the ideas of sculpture and installation. The enormous project made him realize:
“There are an infinite amount of stories to be told, and there are no limits on how they can be told.”
Tavares Strachan’s space sculpture
Strachan went on to employ that thought process in his future works, like his 2018 piece “ENOCH.”
Created in collaboration with SpaceX and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “ENOCH” is a golden sculpture inspired by Egyptian tradition of imbuing the essence of a person in a container.
The sculpture honors Robert Henry Lawrence, the first Black astronaut who never realized his dream of space exploration when he was killed in a flight accident at the age of 32.
Strachan’s dream was to “bring his profound legacy to space” and “celebrate it among the stars.”
In 2018, “ENOCH” blasted into space and orbited as a satellite — nearly 50 years after Lawrence’s death — combining the worlds of science and technology with art and humanity.
“I’ve spent my entire life being obsessed with these lost stories,” Strachan said in his talk. “Can these lost stories hold a key that unlocks our sense of belonging?”
Regardless, he said, they are worth telling.
“Lost stories definitely need to be told,” he ended his speech at TED2023, “Not in small ways, but in ways that match the ambitions of the people we speak for.”
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Header image courtesy of Jasmina Tomic / TED (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)