Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African diaspora culture with technology. It was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 and explored in the late 1990s through conversations led by Alondra Nelson. Afrofuturism addresses themes and concerns of the African diaspora through technoculture and science fiction, encompassing a range of media and artists with a shared interest in envisioning black futures that stem from Afrodiasporic experiences.
Seminal Afrofuturistic works include the novels of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler; the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Angelbert Metoyer, and the photography of Renée Cox; the explicitly extraterrestrial mythoi of Parliament-Funkadelic, the Jonzun Crew, Warp 9, Deltron 3030, Kool Keith and Sun Ra and the Marvel Comics superhero Black Panther.
Mid- to late 20th-century developmentEdit
What would later be called an Afrofuturist approach to music was first propounded by Sun Ra. Born in Alabama, Sun Ra's music coalesced in Chicago in the mid-1950s, when with the Arkestra he began recording music that drew from hard bop sources, creating a new synthesis that used Afrocentric and space-themed titles to reflect Ra's linkage of ancient African culture, specifically Egypt, and the cutting edge of the Space Age.
For many years, Ra and his bandmates lived, worked and performed in Philadelphia while touring festivals worldwide. Ra's film Space Is the Place shows The Arkestra in Oakland in the mid-1970s in full space regalia, replete with science-fiction imagery as well as other comedic and musical material. As of 2018, the band was still composing and performing, under the leadership of Marshall Allen.
Afrofuturism was a label also retroactively applied to George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic with his magnum opus Mothership Connection and the subsequent The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, P-Funk Earth Tour, Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, and Motor Booty Affair.
In 1975, Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo used elements of science fiction, along with Eastern subterranean myths, to depict an advanced civilization in his design of the cover art for African-American jazz musician Miles Davis's live album Agharta.
Other musicians typically regarded as working in or greatly influenced by the Afrofuturist tradition include reggae producers Lee "Scratch" Perry and Scientist, hip-hop artists Afrika Bambaataa and Tricky, electronic musicians Larry Heard, A Guy Called Gerald, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, Newcleus and Lotti Golden & Richard Scher, writers of "Light Years Away", described as a "cornerstone of early 80's beatbox afrofuturism".
Cultural criticism in the 1990sEdit
In the early 1990s Mark Dery in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future," began to write about the features he saw as common in African-American science fiction. Dery dubbed this phenomenon "Afrofuturism". Afrofuturist art has been written about by scholars like Alondra Nelson, Greg Tate, Tricia Rose, Kodwo Eshun, and others. In an interview, Alondra Nelson explained Afrofuturism as a way of looking at the subject position of black people which covers themes of alienation and aspirations for a utopic future. The idea of "alien" or "other" is a theme often explored.
Additionally, Nelson says that discussions around race, access, and technology often bolster uncritical claims about a so-called "digital divide". Nelson is of the opinion that the digital divide overemphasizes the association of racial and economic inequality with limited access to technology, and that this association then begins to construct blackness "as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress".
A new generation of recording artists has embraced Afrofuturism through their music and fashion, including Solange, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. Other artists such as Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe have expanded on these themes incorporating the use of cyborg and metallic visuals into their style. Other 21st century musicians who have been characterized as Afrofuturist include singer FKA Twigs, musical duo Ibeyi, and DJ/producer Ras G.
Janelle Monáe has made a conscious effort to restore Afrofuturist themes to the forefront of urban contemporary music. Her notable works include the music videos "Prime Time" and "Many Moons", which explore the realms of slavery and freedom through the world of cyborgs and the fashion industry. She is credited with proliferating Afrofuturist funk into a new Neo-Afrofuturism by use of her Metropolis-inspired alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, who incites a rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society, in order to liberate citizens who have fallen under their oppression. This ArchAndroid role reflects earlier Afrofuturistic figures Sun Ra and George Clinton, who created their own visuals as extraterrestrial beings rescuing African-Americans from the oppressive natures of Earth. Her influences include Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Star Wars. Other musical artists to emerge since the turn of the millennium regarded as Afrofuturist include dBridge, SBTRKT, Shabazz Palaces, Heavyweight Dub Champion, and "techno pioneers" Drexciya (with Gerald Donald).
Nick Cave, known for his Soundsuits project, has helped develop younger talent as the director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Other artists include visual artists Hebru Brantley as well as contemporary artist Rashid Johnson, a Chicago native currently based in New York. In 2013, Chicago resident Ytasha L. Womack wrote the study Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy, and William Hayashi has published all three volumes of his Darkside Trilogy which tells the story of what happens in America when the country discovers African Americans secretly living on the backside of the moon since before the arrival of Neil Armstrong, an extreme vision of segregation imposed by technologically advanced Blacks.
Krista Franklin, a member of University of Chicago's Arts Incubator, is currently exploring the relation between Afrofuturism and the grotesque through her visual and written work with weaves and collected hair. Recently, she also created an audio narrative in collaboration with another Afrofuturist, Perpetual Rebel, called The Two Thousand and Thirteen Narrative(s) of Naima Brown, which explores the ideas of identity and transformation within the context of hair and African-American culture.
The movement has grown globally in the arts. Afrofuturist Society was founded by curator Gia Hamilton in New Orleans. Artists like Demetrius Oliver from New York, Cyrus Kabiru from Nairobi, Lina Iris Viktor from Liberia, famed Nigerian American solar muralist, Shala., and Wanuri Kahiu of Kenya have all steeped their work in the cosmos or sci-fi.
The creation of the term Afrofuturism in the 1990s was often primarily used to categorize "speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture," but was soon expanded to include artistic, scientific, and spiritual practices throughout the African diaspora. Contemporary practice retroactively identifies and documents historical instances of Afrofuturist practice and integrates them into the canon. For example, the Dark Matter anthologies edited by Sheree Thomas feature contemporary Black science fiction, discuss Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in her introduction, "Looking for the Invisible," and also include older works by W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles W. Chesnutt, and George S. Schuyler.
Lisa Yazsek argues that Ralph Ellison's 1952 science fiction novel, Invisible Man, should be thought of as a predecessor to Afrofuturist literature. Yaszek believes that Ellison does not offer any other futures so that the next generation of authors can.
A number of contemporary Black science fiction and speculative fiction authors have also been characterized as Afrofuturist or as employing Afrofuturist themes by one person or another. Nancy Farmer won a Newbery Honor for her afrofuturist young adult novel The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Steven Barnes has been called an Afrofuturist author for his alternate-history novels Lion's Blood and Zulu Heart. N.K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, and Colson Whitehead have also been referred to as Afrofuturist authors. Octavia Butler's novels are often associated with Afrofuturism; this association has been somewhat controversial, since Butler incorporates multi-ethnic and multi-species communities that insist on "hybridity beyond the point of discomfort". However, the fourth book of the science fiction Patternist series, Wild Seed, particularly fits ideas of Afrofuturist thematic concerns, as the narrative of two immortal Africans Doro and Anyanwu features science fiction technologies and an alternate anti-colonialist history of seventeenth century America.
Museum and gallery exhibitionsEdit
As a part of the MOMA's PS1 festival, King Britt curated Moondance: A Night in the Afro Future in 2014. From noon to six p.m. on 13 April, people could attend Moondance and listen to lectures, live music or watch dance performances in celebration of Afrofuturism in contemporary culture.Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture held a seminal group show of Visual Afrofuturists focusing on unambiguous science fiction and fantasy based art. The show, titled 'Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination' ran from 1 October 2015 – 16 January 2016. The closing night coincided with the Schomburg Black Comic Book Day. Unveiling Visions was curated by artist John Jennings (Co-founder of artist duo, Black Kirby w/Professor Stacey Robinson) and Afrofuturist Scholar, Reynaldo Anderson (founder of The Black Speculative Arts Movement). The show featured artists such as Tony Puryear, Sheeba Maya, Mshindo Kuumba, Eric Wilkerson, Manzel Bowman, Grey Williamson, Tim Fielder, Stacey Robinson, and Shawn Alleyne. Unveiling Visions liner notes state: "exhibition includes artifacts from the Schomburg collections that are connected to Afrofuturism, black speculative imagination and Diasporan cultural production. Offering a fresh perspective on the power of speculative imagination and the struggle for various freedoms of expression in popular culture, Unveiling Visions showcases illustrations and other graphics that highlight those popularly found in science fiction, magical realism and fantasy. Items on display include film posters, comics, T-shirts, magazines, CD covers, playbills, religious literature, and more."
In April 2016, Niama Safia Sandy curated an exhibit entitled "Black Magic: AfroPasts / Afrofutures" at the Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The multidisciplinary art exhibit looks at the relationship between magical realism and afrofuturism through the Black diaspora. In a description of the collection, Sandy stated: "There's a lot of looking back and looking forward happening in this work... [and there's a lot of] celebrating those journeys whether they are intentional or forced journeys."
The exhibition Afro-Tech and the Future of Re-Invention is running from 21 October 2017 until 22 April 2018 at Dortmunder U in Dortmund, Germany and "looks at speculative visions of the future and current developments in the field of digital technology by artists and inventors from Africa and the African diaspora...."
The exhibition,'Black Metropolis: 30 Years of Afrofuturism, Comics, Music, Animation, Decapitated Chickens, Heroes, Villains and Negroes' is a one-man show focusing on the career of cartoonist and visual afrofuturist, Tim Fielder. " The show, designed to travel over multiple gallery spaces, opened at New York Gallatin Galleries from May 23-May 30th, 2016. Curated by Boston Fielder, the exhibit featured both published and unpublished work ranging from independent comics art for alternative magazine, Between C & D and mainstream comics work done for Marvel Comics. Black Metropolis, revived at The Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, GA for the museum's 30th Anniversary October 12-November 25, 2018."
Jared Richardson's Attack of the Boogeywoman: Visualizing Black Women's Grotesquerie in Afrofuturism assesses how the aesthetic functions as a space for black women to engage with the intersection of topics such as race, gender, and sexuality. The representation and treatment of black female bodies is deconstructed by Afrofuturist contemporaries and amplified to alien and gruesome dimensions by artists such as Wangechi Mutu and Shoshanna Weinberger.
Beyoncé's 2016 short film Lemonade included feminist afrofuturism in its concept. The film featured music duo Ibeyi, artist Laolu Senbanjo, actresses Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Zendaya, as well as YouTube singing stars Chloe x Halle, ballet dancer Michaela DePrince, and 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Serena Williams, and the sophisticated womanist poetry of Somali-British writer Warsan Shire. The through-line is the empowerment of black women referencing both marital relationships and the historical trauma from the enslavement of African-Americans from 1619–1865,‹See TfM›[failed verification] through Reconstruction and Jim Crow (1870–1965). The mothers of Trayvon Martin (Sybrina Fulton), Michael Brown (Lesley McFadden), Eric Garner (Gwen Carr) are featured holding pictures of their deceased sons in homage to the importance of their lives. The novel Kindred by Octavia Butler also explores the empowerment of women though the story of her protagonist Dana. The book explores the idea of autonomy and having control over one's life/destiny. Through the exploration of women's power in the time of slavery to the more current time, Butler is able to demonstrate the endurance of women through the harsh social factors.
In the Afro-Surreal Manifesto, Afro-Surrealism is juxtaposed with European surrealism, with European surrealism being empirical. It is consistent with Trey Ellis' essay, "The New Black Aesthetic" in that the art seeks to disturb. Afro-Futuristic art samples from old art pieces updating them with current images. This technique calls to the forefront those past images and the sentiments, memories, or ideas around them and combines them with new images in a way that those of the current generation can still identify. Afro-Futuristic artists seek to propose a deviant beauty, a beauty in which disembodiment is both inhumane, yet distinct; Afro-Futuristic artists speculate on the future, where Afro-Surrealism is about the present.
Afrofuturism takes representations of the lived realities of black people in the past and present, and reexamines the narratives to attempt to build new truths outside of the dominant cultural narrative. By analyzing the ways in which alienation has occurred, Afrofuturism works to connect the African diaspora with its histories and knowledge of racialized bodies. Space and aliens function as key products of the science fiction elements; black people are envisioned to have been the first aliens by way of the Middle Passage. Their alien status connotes being in a foreign land with no history, but as also being disconnected from the past via the traditions of slavery where slaves were made to renounce their ties to Africa in service of their slave master.
Kodwo Eshun locates the first alienation within the context of the Middle Passage. He writes that Afrofuturist texts work to reimagine slavery and alienation by using "extraterrestriality as a hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation, and the constitution of Black Atlantic subjectivities". This location of dystopian futures and present realities places science fiction and novels built around dystopian societies directly in the tradition of black realities.
In many different Afrofuturist works, water and Black women are symbolically linked in their connection to both the erasure and emergence of black life. These meanings, while seemingly contradictory, actually play off and inform each other. Examples of Afrofuturist work dealing with the theme of water include the 2009 Kenyan film Pumzi, various songs in Beyonce's Lemonade, and Kara Walker's 2019 sculpture Fons Americanus.
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Afrofuturism has to do with reclaiming the lost identities or lost perspectives that have been lost. When Mark Dery coined the term, he saw Afrofuturism as giving rise to "a troubling antinomy: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?" Furthermore, Afrofuturism is not restricted to any single medium; there are Afrofuturist novels and musical works. But whatever the medium, Afrofuturism involves reclaiming some type of agency over one's story, a story that has been told, throughout much of history, by official culture in the name of white power. It is for this reason that Dery says, "African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart." Because the ancestors of many African-Americans were forcibly removed from their homelands and stripped of their history like most slaves, any culture that has found its way into the Black lexicon is at its roots an Afrofuturist notion. It is at its heart reclaiming a past erased and creating a future based on that reimagined past.
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