Afrofuturism, wrote the British-Ghanaian theorist Kodwo Eshun in 2003, “studies the appeals that black artists, musicians, critics, and writers have made to the future, in moments where any future was made difficult for them to imagine.” He cites critic Paul Gilroy, activist Martin Luther King, writer Toni Morrison, and jazz musician Sun Ra among the myriad Black creators and scholars who have expanded, poeticized, and complicated the concept of futurity, examining its possibilities and limitations in the shadow of slavery and racial violence.
Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, which opened last Friday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, honors these foundational visions and their more recent bifurcations in a long-term installation that upends the very model it seeks to reproduce. In museum-speak, a “period room” is a recreation of a domestic space from a moment in time, roped off from visitors who are invited to admire its typically ornate interior like a voyeur from the future snooping on the past. But the Met’s new installation does away with all expectations of a single temporality, integrating artworks by contemporary Black artists and designers and objects from the museum’s collection dating as far back as the 17th century.
“Every period room is predicated on the fiction of authenticity,” said Sarah E. Lawrence, curator in charge of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Met, in a statement. “Using this fiction as our starting point, how could we imagine the domestic spaces of individuals previously omitted from our period rooms?” Lawrence, with Lead Curator Hannah Beachler, Consulting Curator Michelle Commander, and Modern and Contemporary Art Department Curator Ian Alteveer, helped bring the unconventional idea to life.
Occupying a dedicated gallery on the museum’s first floor between holdings of British and Venetian artworks, the wood-framed, 19th-century structure houses an open-layout kitchen and living room divided by a towering brick hearth. Each space plays a distinct temporal and symbolic role. The former looks primarily to the past, with historic pieces such as Elizabeth Catlett’s 1947 linocut of Sojourner Truth hanging on a wall opposite functional objects with personal stories — like a painted jar by Thomas W. Commeraw, a freed Black potter who operated a kiln in Manhattan in the early 19th century. Even so, these relics from another time are interspersed with glazed ceramic wares by Roberto Lugo crafted just this year, many of them adorned with graffiti motifs and portraits of Black popular culture icons.
Inside the hearth, one side of Lugo’s sculpture “Digable Underground” (2021) depicts abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who faces the kitchen. On the other side, contemporary musician Erykah Badu gazes into the living room, a place filled with references to the new and the utopian, anchored by a retro-style, multi-screen television playing Jenn Nkiru’s audiovisual piece “OUT / SIDE OF TIME” (2021). In a self-portrait by artist Tourmaline, “Morning Cloak” (2020), she embodies a trans person from the 19th century, inspired by the life of trans sex worker Mary Jones in the 1830s. Vibrant designs by Ini Archibong, including a translucent coffee table and a dazzling glass chandelier fabricated by Matteo Gonet, tie the diverse works together in a decidedly futuristic environment.
The exhibition takes as its point of departure the history of Seneca Village, a thriving 19th-century community of predominantly Black landowners and tenants who lived west of the Met in land that is now part of Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted, the American architect who designed the park in 1858, translated his vision of idealized natural landscape to the rocky 775-acre plot, displacing over 1,600 people in the process. Among them were the inhabitants of Seneca Village, for whom the settlement had served as a refuge from the overcrowding of Lower Manhattan and the racist attitudes that prevailed there. They were forced out and most likely under-compensated for the property they owned.
Their descendants are the “imagined residents” of the Afrofuturist Period Room, whose rich inheritance of knowledge and history, a wall text muses, “allowed them to gather works of art from across time and space.” Some of the objects on display evoke artifacts found during excavations led by Columbia University’s Seneca Village Project in 2011. Among them is a small hair comb molded from Malaysian gutta-percha resin that was unearthed during the dig. Both the comb and a vulcanite sculpture on view were the products of a colonial economy that exploited Indigenous labor; the comb’s decorative border in the shape of a link chain, the Met’s text explains, recalls the danger of capture and bondage faced by freed Black individuals following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. These difficult layers make one of the most striking contemporary pieces on display, designer Jomo Tariku’s walnut veneer “Mido Chair” (2021) in the shape of a comb, all the more resonant and significant.
There are two entrances to the installation, one of them adjacent to a traditional period room — a recreation of the principal bedroom of the Palazzo Sagredo. Walking by the aristocratic antechamber, its walls covered in silky brocatelle with ornaments in stucco and carved wood, and into the new Afrofuturist Period Room is a surreal counter-experience.
The selected exhibition model also has its limitations. Jonathan Square, a current fellow at the Met’s Costume Institute, wishes the curators had utilized the entire space of the room instead of creating a “structure within a structure.”
“I love the concept. I think it’s a great idea. I’m not entirely happy with the execution, to me it’s a bit cluttered, and feels a little ramshackled,” he told Hyperallergic. “I think there needs to be more space devoted to the installation.”
One former professor visiting the show, who described the installation as “a three-dimensional collage,” echoed the sentiment, adding that the story of Seneca Village “got a bit lost.” But she praised the wallpaper that envelops the gallery, commissioned by the Met from artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. The inkjet-printed vinyl, titled “Thriving and Potential, Displaced (Again and Again and…)” (2021), is a palimpsest of photographs, from daguerreotypes of 19th century Black New Yorkers to an 1865 map of Seneca Village, overlaid with repeating okra motifs. The plant, taken from Africa to America through the Middle Passage alongside enslaved people, is rendered in green and aqua tones that steep the room in an aura of meditative introspection.
In an exhibition text, the museum describes Afrofuturism as “a transdisciplinary creative mode that centers Black imagination, excellence, and self-determination.” Though the term was formally coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” Afrofuturism has flourished in the work of African American science fiction writers for decades. Among the most prominent are Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, who channeled the genre’s essential trope — the possibility of different realities — to envision alternative histories and narratives. In the 20th century and through the present, countless visual artists, authors, musicians, and filmmakers have found inspiration in Afrofuturism. Among them is children’s author Virginia Hamilton, whose story The People Could Fly (1985) — a retelling of the “Flying African” legend — inspired this must-see exhibition’s evocative title.