Articles

Space (or Iowa City) Is the Place: Inside the New Center for Afrofuturist Studies

Alexandria Eregbu – _Black Object _ White Smoke_
Alexandria Eregbu, “Black Object, White Smoke” (2015) (all images courtesy the Center for Afrofuturist Studies)

Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature and home of the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has a thriving art scene. But, much like the rest of Iowa, this art scene is overwhelmingly, blindingly white.

The Center for Afrofuturist Studies (CAS), a new artist residency program in Iowa City, seeks to diversify this arts community while pushing the sprawling genre of Afrofuturism into infinity and beyond. Recently funded on Kickstarter, CAS will offer funding and work spaces for eight artists of color in 2016. Each will host a youth workshop at Iowa City’s Dream Center, as well as a public event of their own design. The CAS will also host visiting artists, lectures, workshops, public forums, and exhibitions exploring the intersections of race, technology, and the African diaspora.

Afrofuturism — a term coined by critic Mark Dery in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future” — has evolved mightily since the days of Sun Ra, credited as the genre’s originator. “It’s hard to say where Afrofuturism is now because it doesn’t really exist as a united genre,” said artist Anaïs Duplan, who’s directing CAS in collaboration with nonprofit arts organization Public Space One, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “Still, the word ‘Afrofuturism’ seems to strike up a certain image for many people: Stars, capes, gold paint. Those things are all well and good,” Duplan said, but this Sun Ra and George Clinton-derived style of Afrofuturism has, in a way, become retro-Afrofuturism. (We’re now living in the future these artists tried to imagine.) “Now, the Internet is totally reshaping everything about culturally-shared images of ‘futurity,’” Duplan said. “That has real impact on how Black lives are represented on the Internet, and relatedly, in art.”

To that end, all of this year’s eight artists-in-residence are breaking with the genre’s conventions — “especially with those visual conventions offered by a strictly Sun Ra-derived Afrofuturism,” Duplan said. These artists are exploring what Afrofuturism means in the digital age, in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the coming age of human travel to Mars (space might really be the place, after all).

2016’s first artist-in-residence is Jamaica-born, New York-based new media artist Yulan Grant. Using found footage, sound, and literature, she makes high octane, politically charged music videos that “either illuminate or obscure a certain experience of Blackness,” Duplan said. Grant’s video for Rizzla’s “Iron Cages” — named after a classic study of American racism by George Takaki — mashes up clips of outer space, mass riots, and armed police response. Other projects include “Database,” a continuously updated network that aims to document people of color killed by extrajudicial forces beginning in the year 2012.

Other 2016 artists-in-residence include Louis Chude-Sokei, a scholar and author of The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics;  filmmaker, musician, and performance artist Terrence Nance, whose socially pointed pieces include “Blackout: John Burris Speaks“; and Krista Franklin, who explores “mythmaking, black portraiture, and the collective consciousness” through collage, poetry, installation, and performance.

The CAS isn’t limiting its programming to residencies. “Any time we can partner with people or groups to increase accessibility, resources, and platforms to under served or otherwise marginalized populations (as POC are in Iowa City), we see that as part of our mission and mandate,” Public Space One Director John Engelbrecht told Hyperallergic. “The CAS is a great opportunity to expand a dialogue and increase the awareness of divergent voices in Eastern Iowa.”

Krista Franklin – Library of Love
Artist Krista Franklin printing at a letterpress for the ‘Library of Love’ exhibit at University of Chicago in 2014
Kameelah J. Rasheed – _Future Perfect_ (2)
Kameelah Janan Rasheed, “Future Perfect / indices & marginalia”
Father's Heart - Alexandria Eregbu
Alexandria Eregbu, “Father’s Heart,” still from performance
Kameelah J. Rasheed – _Future Perfect_
Kameelah J. Rasheed, “Future Perfect/indices & marginalia”
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