David Huffman, “MLK” (all images courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem)

When you walk into the main gallery of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s current exhibition The Shadows Took Shape, which explores contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics, one of the first pieces to catch the eye is a glittering procession of black astronauts fanned across a faded landscape. They appear awed and estranged by their surroundings, carrying a wooden coffin along their wide-eyed way. Having cleared a ravine, above them stands a figure on a rock cliff, his hands outspread to the sky, like Moses parting the red sea for the chosen people. As you take in David Huffman’s aptly titled “MLK,” you dare to dream, have these marooned spacemen finally reached the promised land?

Hack this: What are we really talking about when we talk about Afrofuturism — a term of art that’s made the rounds since its introduction by author and cultural critic Mark Dery in his seminal essay “Black to the Future”? According to Dery, it is “speculative fiction that treats African American concerns in the context of twentieth-century techno-culture.” In fact, with the proliferation of authors and visual and musical artists embracing the aesthetics of the genre — which Dery illustrates with a deluge of references from Octavia Butler’s science fiction, to the “robotic synth-pop” of Afrika Bambaataa, it’s clear that that’s just the tip of the intergalactic iceberg.


Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (image via Wikipedia)

Today, we need look no further than talented musician and all around Electric Lady Janelle Monáe, who, on her concept album The ArchAndroid, assumes the identity of a fictional android named Cindi Mayweather circa 2719, and to television characterizations like the Walking Dead’s Michonne — the dreadlocked, katana-wielding survivor of a zombie apocalypse, played by Dania Guriri — to see that no longer is “the science fiction genre …dominated by white male writers and readers,” or characters for that matter, as Elisa Edwards observes in the introduction to Race, Aliens, and the U.S Government in African American Science Fiction.

In the Studio Museum’s timely show, inspired by jazz musician and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra, who held that he’d been abducted to the planet Saturn where he’d had a prophetic vision of the future, we can trace the genre’s evolution, influences and themes. And Huffman’s “MLK” offers the perfect entry point for this exploration as it establishes one of the key elements of the genre, insisting that we not only boldly imagine the future, but grapple, at every turn, with the ever-present past.

This reflection on the past as a function of the future can also be seen in the work of Sanford Biggers, whose beautiful, psychedelic quilt work in “Vex” is disrupted by the trace outline of the famous photo “The Scourged Back,” depicting the scarred back of a slave. Similarly, and in keeping with Afrofuturism’s cross disciplinary influence, sci-fi author Otavia Butler’s perhaps most well-known work of speculative fiction, Kindred, centers on the time-travel odyssey of Edana, a black woman living in 1970’s California who is transported, on her 26th birthday, back to the antebellum south.


Sanford Biggers, “Vex”

That one of the hallmarks of Afrofuturism is a reification of past trauma is consistent with the argument that Edwards puts forth, that, in many ways, the experience of African Diasporic communities is essentially one of alienation, where by black people have “already experienced a sort of science fiction story when they first came to America. Here, the slave trade is “interpreted in terms of an alien abduction.”

It would, however, be misrepresentative to assert that the scope Afrofuturism’s understanding of the past as essential to conceptualizing the future — an approach in tension with neoliberal visions of a post-racial society proffered by our Obama-era geopolitical landscape — is limited to the African American experience.

The same analysis can be clearly seen in the dreamy photographs of Christina De Middel, portraying African men outfitted in DIY space travel accessories that reference the more recent, if largely forgotten history of Zambia’s short lived space program. Started by Makuka Nkolso in 1968, the Zambian space program aimed to put the first African on the moon during a time when Zambia was seeking its independence, linking space exploration to the cultivation of a newly emergent national identity was, for De Middel, “a vehicle … [for Zambia] to position itself in the international spotlight.”

De Middel_Umfundi

Christina De Middel, “Umfundi”

The implied relationship between political self-determination and the ability to participate in the “enlightenment project” that sci-fi writer Kodwo Eshun reminds us “imperial racism has denied black subjects,” underscores another point of affinity between the historically marginalized experience of black people world-wide and the experience of alien otherness that anchors so many science fiction narratives.

However, at least in the African American and Afro-Caribbean contexts, the cultivation of an “authentic” national identity is inhibited by the severance from origins along the middle passage, raising the question, as Dery astutely considers, “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out … imagine possible futures?” Or, for that matter, an authentic self?

In this sense, Afrofuturism seems interested in imagining the future from beyond a strictly Afrocentric perspective. It is in communion with a long history in black culture of re-inventing the black self and the mythology of black identity by deconstructing Western paradigms in search of what black means for black people.

Sun Ra in TK (still via YouTube)

Sun Ra in “Space is the Place” (still via YouTube)

We can see this unbroken struggle for selfhood in Rastafarian cosmology, which sought to re-imagine black identity in the Afro-Caribbean context at a time of increasing resistance to colonial subjugation, and in Black Nationalism stateside, and the emergence of traditions like Kwanza that many argue seek to reconstruct Black America’s severed roots to the “motherland.”

The visionary musician Sun Ra’s statement from the film Space is the Place (1974) perhaps best captures the essence of this ongoing ideological process. In the film he appears to a group of black youth decked out in his space-age regalia, spouting his new age, cosmic philosophies. Skeptical, the youths question where he comes from and how they could possibly know he is real, to which he cryptically responds: “I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as the myth because that’s what black people are, myths.”

In addition to probing the interstice between past and future — all that dark matter, if you will, another strand of Afrofuturism feels distinctly aligned with aesthetic naturalism. In Pumzi, a Kenyan short film by writer and director Wanuri Kahiu, featured in Shadows Took Shape, we’re introduced to a post-apocalyptic landscape where water scarcity has driven civilization underground and all resources are self-generated. (And where, for instance, our liquid waste is purified for consumption!)


Weneri Kahiu, still from “Pumzi”

In the short film, one scientist who believes she’s discovered fertile soil escapes to the outside world in search of its source. Along her journey she traverses a dystopian desert landscape, where she comes to represent the last hope for supporting natural life (she carries with her a seedling she hopes to plant in the water-rich soil for which she is searching). One could easily see how this futuristic construction situates her, the black African woman, as the source of all life and as natural to the wind-swept future-scape as the elements that batter her.


Erykah Badu in “Didn’tcha Know” (still via YouTube)

This image of the black woman as water-bearer and life-giver surfaces in numerous Afrofuturistic representations, echoed, for instance, in Erykah Badu’s music video for her 2000 single, “Didn’tcha Know.” In the video, as she croons “Which way to go? I think I made a wrong turn back there somewhere,” Badu also migrates alone across a white desert, the sun beating down on her outfitted in a futuristic exoskeleton as she lurches toward an uncertain future.

Here, we seen Afrofuturist aesthetics and the Afrocentric philosophies popularized by Badu and attributed to neo-soul — the musical genre embodied by artists like Badu, Bilal, and Maxwell — converge, so that Badu, like the character in Pumzi, comes to represent to the viewer,  at once the original woman and the last woman on earth, the alpha and omega as it were. An even more interesting construction when read in dialogue with one of Butler’s short stories called, The Book of Martha which places a black woman at God’s side where she is gifted the power to transform humankind and make them less wasteful.

In visualizing these revolutionary images of black identity that in many ways characterize the genre, I’m put in mind of yet another, if perhaps less obvious, Afrofuturistic narrative by way of the X-Men character Storm.

The Marvel comics of the 1980s introduced a storyline in their Uncanny X-Men series entitled The Days of Future Past — the X-Men, in the spirit of all great sci-fi, offer a capacious allegory for the realpolitik, in this case the universal narrative of a marginalized and alienated community discriminated against for their inherent difference. This branch of the series contemplates a dystopian future where the mutant race is systematically persecuted and imprisoned in internment camps. They (the mutants) essentially have no place in the future. The X-Men, in order to change the course of history, must travel back in time to prevent a fatal moment that leads to the mutant holocaust. (Interestingly enough, this imagined future is in the year 2013.)

What seems crucial to note here, and perhaps chief amongst Afroturism’s interests, is a resistance to conceptualizing the future as divorced from the past. It is only by vigilantly recalling and revisiting the past — unable, in a world where history has repeated itself time and again, to take anything for granted — that we ensure that the future remains an imaginative province to which all have access.

The Shadows Took Shape continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th St, Harlem, Manhattan) through March 9, 2014.

Chase Quinn is a New York City-based arts and culture writer, and contributes regularly to NBC's theGrio. He has a soft spot for French films, English period dramas and early American Lit. Follow Chase...