Conjuring an Afrofuturist Classroom with Paint and Chalk

Nyame Brown has transformed the Museum of the African Diaspora into the time machine that a museum should be.

Nyame Brown, “Lesson 4: C.R.E.A.M.” (2016), oil on blackboard (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SAN FRANCISCO — Nyame Brown has transformed MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora) into the time machine that a museum should be. His show, Classroom In Nevérÿon, cites Samuel Delany’s four-volume series of stories, Return to Nevérÿon, set in a land never-before recorded in history. Brown offers us vistas into classrooms of a distant future, rendered, quite ingeniously, with chalk and oil on blackboards.

Historically, racial Blackness and the color black have been valued for the extent to which they’ve contoured whiteness. But here, Brown’s delicate play between light and shadow creates a space for the imagination to operate — not unlike Delaney’s Afrofuturist fiction, or Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro — and Blackness becomes the space into which the imagination flies. This body of work is so alive it is not even born yet — except, there it is, testifying to you from the future.

Classroom In Nevérÿon is Afrofuturist without reverting to what ‘looks futuristic.’ Here, Brown’s mixed-media paintings come into conversation with classroom desks bedecked with artifacts, some real, like an album by Isaac Hayes, and some invented, like student work. Brown seeks to build a world that thinks outside of conventional spacetime. Pan-African and Black Panther Party flags drape down at the front of the room completing his alternate reality.

I caught up with Brown for a stimulating conversation on his hypothetical classroom, the production of spacetime, shades of Blackness, and the presence of God in his work.

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Nyame Brown, “Lesson 1: Too Make It to the Bottom is such a hard climb” (2016), oil on blackboard

Benjamin Jones: I’m curious how you came across Samuel Delany and his books set in Nevérÿon, and why you decided to make paintings based on this work.

Nyame Brown: I encountered his book probably five or six years ago. I was introduced to the book by a friend of mine at Occidental College, a professor by the name of James Ford. I was reading Octavia Butler’s work at the time, and so he passed it off to me.

I thought it was a really intriguing book because it wasn’t what I expected. One of the things that struck me was he had painted a picture of the future, and the character in one of the short stories was describing a savior — someone who saved this whole group, this whole community of people — but he was talking about it in the past. Someone who was living in a very futuristic kind of society where it was clear that gender roles had been shifted — that men were the softer kind of gender, the more sexualized, and women were more the warriors. And so the world and the setting was really kind of funky, and changing how we think about a ‘normal’ society.

Installation view of Nyame Brown’s Classroom In Nevérÿon at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD)

The voice of the main character was talking about a savior from the past and how he was going to liberate people in the future. And so I thought it was interesting; this kind of excavating a little bit of the past to figure a way to maneuver to the future, even though this book was set in the future.

That’s something that my own work is very interested in, trying to create new narratives. Having a core or root may be a very traditional thing, or very traditional idea or aesthetic, but I’m more interested in a newer intonation of that. You know the idea of stretching tradition, right?  Stretching it so that I’m getting something new, but still holding on to the core, and that was what I felt I was experiencing with some of Samuel Delany’s work.

Weaving all that together was very intriguing. And then Nevérÿon —thinking about yonder — breaking the word down and thinking about never and then yon, but thinking “yon” as in “yonder” from that old southern term “over yonder.” Which, if you’re not from the south, it doesn’t really describe anything, right? Where is yonder? Where? It’s like: yonder’s over there. It’s over yonder. It’s a very slippery kind of word. And then never — again, Nevérÿon — maybe it is this utopian place, like thinking of Peter Pan’s neverwhere. And then, yonder is not a real place either. They’re both non-locations so it seems like a perfect place to have a hypothetical classroom — a hypothetical place. It seems also in line with this idea of thinking about how people transform spaces to create new ones.

A set of “36 picture card biographies” of famous black public figures, in which Nyame O. Brown is part of history (2016) (detail)

BJ: You mentioned the savior in Delany’s books. Is a messiah or hero depicted in your paintings? 

NB: No, no. Not at all. The paintings are a kind of series that are all named as lessons, so they’re all lessons, but none of the lessons are necessarily speaking to a higher power that way. They’re not speaking about anything like that, and I think actually a lot of the series — except for maybe one — is more internal to the particular characters in each of the narratives. The one that I think is slightly close, I think, would be “Lesson 4: C.R.E.A.M. (cash rules everything around me)” with the floating head with the diamond. There’s a large diamond in the upper-lefthand corner and it’s the only thing that’s illuminating the scene. You know, painting is the light of god, that’s it. That’s what’s bringing the light in, not the stone. The light of god. So with that idea, I just shifted it, so you clearly saw it was illuminated in a way, this head covered in diamonds. So, it’s oxymoronic, in terms of its materialism, but also kind of giving you some observations in terms of young brothers putting so much stake in that materialism, and getting so caught up in it. 

BJ: Is there some duality there for you, as to whether bling is a good or bad god, or a false idol?

Nyame Brown, “Lesson 3: Breaking the Code Noir teasing out the sugar” (2016), oil on blackboard

NB: We like to look fly as hell. Part of it is, I think, related to the aesthetic of resisting on your knees. It’s all about the journey, it’s not about getting there. You want to get there and stop. You want to be cool. Be cool under duress, which is a very key aesthetic: coolness. So, that’s very important, and that’s a dichotomy in itself. So you’re under pressure, you’re about to break, you’ve got somebody slashing your back with a whip, fucking denying your humanity, but they’ve just allowed you to come in the house and play the violin for a bunch of white guests. You don’t want to do it, because you’re tired. Your back hurts, but if you do that, you know that you get a massive turkey wing. So, I’m totally gonna go in there. I’m gonna play this thing like there’s no tomorrow, and I’m going to get that turkey wing. And when I go home I’m going to talk a lot of shit about those people, because they wore me the fuck out, but when I was doing it I looked good. I looked fucking great. In fact, I added a little diddly on it — woop woop wah woop — something new, because this is what the aesthetic calls for.

BJ: Which painting in the series flowed the most easily from your mind or from your hands?

NB: Maybe the last piece, the very, very last one [“Lesson 5”]. The blue leopard, talking to the green knight. I think that one, where the two guys are discussing … They’re looking at the floating screens in the air.  Very simply, two brothers are talking, and through conversation they’re looking like: ‘I’m not connecting with what you’re saying, your Black is totally different than my Black.’

Nyame Brown, “Lesson 5: What is your Black? The Blue Leopard 13 choppin’ it up with the Green Knight” (2016), oil on blackboard

And that’s not a bad thing, this is actually making a much broader idea of what the diaspora is. It’s not narrowing the focus, it’s actually making it much broader. But, the funny thing is, we’re Black, we’re totally related to one another, but what’s also crazy to think is that each person’s Black is different. One person is blue-black another guy is red-boned-camouflaged. It’s crazy. And then letting that be monikers of the true difference of Black people. Yeah, we’re the same, with the same root obviously, but we’re totally different. That’s the one that flowed.

Nyame Brown’s Classroom In Nevérÿon continues at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) (685 Mission Street,
San Francisco) through January 16.

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