by Mark Van Proyen
One way of approaching Afrofuturism is to note its tragic opposite, Afrohistoricism, a long chronicle of systematic oppression that reaches back to and beyond the four-century-old legacy of chattel slavery that seems to be updated with alarming frequency in daily news reports. From the Afrofuturist perspective, the point is not merely to understand that sad history but to use the powers of imagination to change it into a new utopia that minimizes the socially coercive aspects of advanced technology while maximizing its potential to facilitate several different kinds of liberation. For this reason, Afrofuturism is not a style in any conventional sense of the term but a para-philosophical ethos (if not a full-fledged theology) anchored in the practices of speculative fiction and communal performativity. The generically understood museum (cast as a site for the rarified contemplation of exemplary artifacts) may not be the most natural of habitats for the Afrofuturist project. Still, I have to say that the current exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) titled Mothership: Voyage into Afrofuturism does a great job accommodating its unruly subject. The show, curated by Essence Harden and Rhonda Pagnozzi, features about 150 objects, most of which are archival documents of various kinds. It is the first exhibition to be held at the museum after a 16-month covid-related closure and the first to exemplify its recent rebranding as an institution devoted to “equity and anti-racism,” as a press release described it.
The exhibition takes its title from a flying saucer-like stage prop used in the 1970s by Parliament-Funkadelic (aka P-Funk), the idea of which was to convey that the band was delivering joy and celebration from “the final frontier” of some extraterrestrial world. Small digital video screens attached to the prop display archival footage of P-Funk performances, while a long playlist of related music, curated by DJ Spooky (aka Paul Miller), plays on headphones. I bypassed it because next to P-Funk’s Mothership stands a shrine to the musician most rightfully identified with Afrofuturism, Sun Ra (1914-1993), represented here by several video clips and record album covers from his “Arkestra.” In 1973, I was one of those suburban white kids who had his DNA scrambled by Sun Ra’s theatrical blend of ragtime, gospel, New Orleans jazz, big-band swing, bebop, free jazz and bombastic Varese-like soundscapes. All this after being prepared by Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic guitar frenzies and post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis. Thankfully, I never fully recovered from that experience. And although there is no way for any recording technology to fully capture the sonic fever dream of hearing Sun Ra perform live, the display brought back fond memories. Born Herman Blount, Sun Ra believed that he had been abducted by aliens so that he might return to earth with a message of liberation and redemption. Hence, his oft-repeated line, “Space is the Place.”
Space is indeed the place in a long, darkened hallway that connects the exhibition entrance to the main display area, functioning as a kind of liminal initiation chamber. Murals by Sydney Cain, executed in chalk pastel on blackboard surfaces like those employed by Raymond Saunders, flank it. As your eyes adjust to the low light, ghostly figures within these drawings begin to take shape in penumbral clouds of chalk dust, looking like visiting ancestors conjured in an Iboga ceremony. Cain’s murals are complemented by an eerie sound piece by Nicole Mitchell featuring, among other things, the semi-audible murmur of voices that float through the room.
Mothership celebrates the work of speculative fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) in various ways, including several vitrines containing scribbled notes and two 1984 photos of her by Patti Perret. Also on view is an interview with her done by Charlie Rose six years before her untimely death. Butler’s work looms large in the Afrofuturist canon, encapsulating many of the movement’s key ideas, including alien
abduction, which, from an African-American perspective, can be read as a kind of parable for having one’s ancestors abducted by slave traders. As Mark Dery put it: African Americans “inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassible forcefields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on Black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment and tasers come readily to mind)…Moreover, the sub-legitimate status of science fiction as a pulp genre in western literature mirrors the subaltern position to which Blacks have been relegated in American history.”1 I quote Dery because he coined the term Afrofuturism and promulgated the idea that Black people could use technology to empower themselves rather than allow it to exacerbate their subordination. This theme echoes throughout many of Butler’s novels, most of which she wrote when the genre was under the sway of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian sagas. However, in Butler’s case, the dystopian narration is balanced with a kind of utopian endgame that might more closely align with the work of Ursula K. Le Guin or Dorothy Bryant. The exhibition also includes a characteristically modest statement by Butler about her writing process: “I don’t predict the future. All I do is look at the problems that we are neglecting and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.”
Other clusters of archival documents seek to provide intellectual ballast, enriching the viewer’s understanding of the exhibition’s thesis. However, many of them stray off-topic and seem better suited to a different show focused on the history of American racism. Examples include colorful charts made by W.E.B. Dubois at the turn of the last century about the economic disparities of Blacks in Georgia, and photo portraits by Thomas Askew from around the same time, showing Black Americans dressed in their Sunday best. On the other hand, some of the archival documents are very much to the point, such as the copy of the Afrosurreal Manifesto: Black is the New Black (2013), written by D. Scot Miller, designed by Ben Blount and printed in old-timey letterpress, and nine black-and-white photographs that Pirkle Jones, Stephan Shames and Ruth-Marion Baruch made to document the Black Panther movement in Oakland during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That said, the preponderance of archival material tends to crowd out the visual art in the exhibition, much of which would be better located in an exhibition catalog. Mothership has no such catalog, which is unfortunate since this is the first museum exhibition to take Afrofuturism as its subject. But in saying this, I also realize that the exhibition organizers were working under unusual constraints: the OMCA has been chronically underfunded, and exhibition catalogs are the first things to be cut when the accountants have their way. Also, before the pandemic, the lion’s share of the OMCA’s attendance came from high school students on field trips, as the institution is not what chamber of commerce types call a “tourist destination.” Mothership might change that.
Of the many artistic highlights, Wangechi Mutu’s Misguided Little Unforgivable Histories (2005) looms large. It is an exceedingly tall mixed media work executed on transparent mylar, featuring a female figure that seems to be rising high and proud in the manner of a phoenix. Starting with Romare Beardon’s work from the mid-1960s, many Black artists have adopted collage as their preferred medium as its methods mirror the experience of building an identity from ruptured and disparate fragments of historical experience. Mutu’s work brilliantly extends that tradition. The same can be said for a trio collages by Chelle Barbour from 2018 that adorn photographic portraits of African-Americans with ornamental elements that are both futuristic and traditional. In another collage, Android/Negriod #13 (2012), Wayne Hodge grafts a vintage sci-fi illustration onto the head of a man wearing early 20th-century garb. Two photocollages, Parenting While Black and Thirst Trap (both 2020), represent Rashaad Newsome. Both are set inside custom resin frames
drenched in ultra-reflective black paint. John Jennings uses a similar strategy, except that he executes his collage, Megascope (undated), with image editing software rather than glue and scissors. It shows the bald head of a tribal warrior looking at the cosmos through a large telescope.
Two photographs by Alun Be from his Edification (2017) series summarize the core elements of the Afrofuturist esthetic. Both take a worm’s eye view of a presumably female figure garbed in diaphanous gowns, set against an expansive sky. Both figures wear virtual reality goggles, prompting us to imagine that what they’re seeing is more interesting than what’s shown in the photographs. Mohau Modiskakeng’s 19-minute, three-channel video installation, Passage (2017), exhibited in the South African pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennial, shows a prone, seemingly androgynous figure in a rowboat half full of water, buoyant enough to stay afloat, but just barely. The figure flails about wearing different costumes but without finding equilibrium. Still, the fact that the boat doesn’t capsize says something poignant about the traumas of the transatlantic slave trade while also evoking Winslow Homer’s famous depiction of maritime peril The Gulf Stream (1899).
While we’re on the topic of costumes, let’s not forget Ruth E. Carter’s academy award-winning costume for the Dora Milaje from the 2018 film Black Panther. In the movie and the graphic novels that inspired it, the Dora Milaje are a cadre of elite warriors who functioned as the royal guard in the mythical land of Wakanda. Carter’s stunning costume more than lives up to that role by accentuating the athleticism of the female form without sexualizing it. Though ornate, it still looks like it could be functional in a combat scenario. It’s one of the many highlights of Mothership, and its appearance leads me to wonder why some of the original drawings from the graphic novels aren’t included in the exhibition – and, more generally,
why there aren’t more works of art on view. Oddly, the part of the exhibition devoted to archival documents reaches back to the turn of the 20th century, while almost all the visual art is of 21st-century provenance. Notably missing are artists such as David Hammons, Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker and the Chicago-based AfroCobra group. All have done work with relevant Afrofuturist aspects.
Their absence tells us we will see many more exhibitions of Afrofuturism and more artists working within its still evolving parameters.
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“Mothership: Voyage into Afrofuturism” at the Oakland Museum of California through February 27, 2022.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.
1. Mark Dery, “Introduction: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose,” in Dery (ed.) Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Duke University Press, 1994, p. 80.