A new exhibition celebrates black artists who use themes of time travel, technology and heroism to convey a broader image of the African experience.
While Black Panther has carved its place in history books as the first major superhero blockbuster with a black director and almost entirely black cast, it’s also notable for bringing afrofuturism to the mainstream. The film’s African sci-fi aesthetic has taken cues from a movement which has been gaining momentum since Sun Ra took the jazz stage in the 1950s.
It’s a discipline that includes literature, music, fashion and art, and in a new exhibition called In Their Own Form, opening at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago on 12 April, the work of 13 black artists is being celebrated. They used key afrofuturist themes of time travel, technology and heroism long before Marvel’s adventure hit the silver screen.
The goal of the show, says curator Sheridan Tucker, is to show a wide range of the Afro-diasporic experience through photography and video. “I wanted to show escapism, nostalgia and time travel, recurring themes in afrofuturism,” said Tucker. “I’m excited people can tap into what I’ve been talking about for a long time.”
The exhibition includes works by Senegal artist Alun Be, whose aim is to change people’s perceptions of Africa. Taken from his Edification series, he has photographed children draped in heroic capes while wearing VR goggles. It suggests some parts of Africa could be as hi-tech as the futuristic world of Wakanda, but few have taken notice. “Are African children the future of Africa, a place others might not think as a forerunner of advanced society?” asks Tucker. “That’s part of common misconception and Alun Be is working to change those ideas.”
How did afrofuturism start? It’s unsure, but Sun Ra, the prolific jazz musician who took to the stage in futuristic regalia in the 1950s, popularized the movement long before it became widespread. Even though the term afrofuturism wasn’t coined until the 1990s, the movement digs back to 20th-century writings of WEB Du Bois and Charles W Chesnutt, and surfaced in pop culture with jazz musician George Clinton, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and the music of Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe. “It was speculative futurism before we had a name for it in literature and film,” said Tucker. “Since afrofuturism includes literature, poetry, art and mysticism, you can find different starting points.”
It traces back to activist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery at 20 years old to write three autobiographies in the late 1800s. “He changed the notion of what black was at that time,” said Tucker. “Douglass was a former slave, he showed himself in a particular way that changed how people perceived black Americans at that time.”
Tucker connects this with how black artists represent themselves. “When I’m speaking of doing away with negative portrayals or misrepresentations of blackness in the west,” she said, “it’s allowing people to decide how they want to be represented and being the author of that representation instead of the other way around.”
That self-image, fuelled with futuristic outfits and science fiction, is a blast of Technicolor and the exhibition proves to be as entertaining as it is educational. South African artist Mary Sibande, who is known for dressing up in altered domestic worker’s clothes, shows a piece called A Terrible Beauty is Born. One black female figure is dressed in a purple dress, which is symbolic of the 1989 anti-apartheid protesters who were sprayed with purple dye to be identified by authorities. “Sibande’s work not only has science fiction-like figures, she references racism, class and apartheid South Africa,” said Tucker. “Her work shows how apartheid affects people then and now.”
French artist Alexis Peskine is showing the video Aljana Moons, which was shot in Senegal, tracing black masculinity from childhood to fatherhood. Many of the men are wearing space-age outfits made from trash, like plastic bottles and cans. “It’s about not having access to a lot but inventing your own identity out of what most people wouldn’t consider valuable material,” said Tucker. “It takes on a new function.”
While science fiction may represent childhood nostalgia for some, it has a different meaning when it comes to afrofuturism. “Sci-fi can be fun, imaginative and fantastical, but I think it becomes serious when you think about the ‘why’ behind one thinking of alternative realities,” said Tucker. “For afrofuturism, my take is that tapping into alternate realities is because your current experience is so problematic and so fraught and not fun. I would say it’s an escape from one’s current situation.”
- In Their Own Form opens at the Museum of Contemporary Photography on 12 April and will run until 8 July