The seed of Afrofuturism was planted decades ago in the brain of a man named Harold Blount, a black musician who claimed aliens visited him from Saturn. He was so moved by the experience that he changed his name to Sun Ra, devoted his life to composing avant-garde jazz music, and penned several books of poetry and philosophy expounding on his cosmic philosophy.
Fast forward to 1994, when Mark Dery actualizes the term “Afrofuturism” in his essay “Black to the Future.” The aesthetic concept, inspired by Sun Ra’s writings and music, incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and non-Western mythology with Afrocentrism to envision futures for people of the African diaspora. Manifestations of this movement include the novels of Octavia Butler, the songs of Parliament-Funkadelic, and the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“The Shadows Took Shape,” an exhibition currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem draws its name from a line of an obscure Sun Ra poem released only after his death. The “shadows,” referring to the wealth of international artists influenced by Ra, have now found a place where their work can “take shape” in the form of a new Afrofuturism.
The collection of artworks is more of a theoretical journey than a historical survey of Afrofuturism. Though the aesthetic originally dealt with issues facing African-Americans, the term has now become a global discourse, including artists from all backgrounds.
One imagined site where utopian visions can be explored is the spaceship; such like the one Ra dreamed with which he would lead his followers into outer space. A model spaceship designed by Peruvian artist William Cordova, along with several other artists, sits in the middle of the room, with tiny classrooms with thumbnail-sized books on ethnic studies.
The exhibition encompasses a wide variety of mediums, including photography, video, painting, drawing, sculpture, and multimedia installation. The works investigate themes of African-American identity and self-determination through a science-fiction lens, and also interrogate techno-culture and preoccupations with time and space. Wayne Hodge, a collage artist, looks at the concept of the black cyborg in his “Android/Negroid” series, wherein his figures are half man, half machine.
A film by John Akomfrah, Last Angels of History discusses the Afrofuturism movement as a metaphor for the displacement of black culture and its roots; the estrangement and alienation felt among African-Americans being akin to that of an extraterrestrial landing on Earth. Among those interviewed are: musicians George Clinton and Derrick May, actress Nichelle Nichols (who played Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek), writers Ishmael Reed and Butler.
Included in the exhibition are works by artists Wangechi Mutu, Derrick Adams, Rahmmellzee, Crus Kabiru, Larissa Sansour, John Akomfrah, Laylah Ali, Robert Pruitt, Larissa Sansour, as well as original pages from Sun Ra’s notebook.
“The Shadows Took Shape” will be on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem through March 9, 2014.