One part a literary subgenre of sci-fi, pioneered by the likes of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, and one part cross-cultural, interdisciplinary aesthetic movement, Afrofuturism — a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future“— can be tricky to describe.
The Studio Museum in Harlem’s current exhibition, The Shadows Took Shape includes a diverse range of 29 artists, featuring painting, sculpture, photography and video, all comfortably drawn under Afrofuturism’s spacious umbrella. Drawing on Afrocentric imagery, cultural references, experiences and concerns, Afrofuturism as articulated in The Shadows Took Shape seems as much a cross-cultural political statement on historiography as it is about conceptualizing the future.
When you first approach Derrick Adam’s wood and aluminum sculpture “WE><HERE,” created for The Shadows Took Shape, you might very well wonder if you are encountering art or artifact. The sizable sculpture puts in mind the colossal stone heads of the ancient Olmec civilizations that, dating back as far as 900 BC, prove, some have argued, with their broad noses and thick features, that Africans were in fact the first settlers of the new world. Unsurprisingly, this theory, which challenges hegemonic Western historiography, is highly criticized within the academy. Thus, Adam’s sculpture situates itself comfortably as a prime example of Afrofuturism’s thematic focus on what we might call “re-creation narratives” whereby Western institutions, historiography, and values are deconstructed, refracted, and retrofit to form an alternative history, and imagine futures that aren’t limited to the dictates of the dominant culture.
Adam’s sculpture is, in fact, a replica of the giant figurehead Richard Pryor’s all-powerful wizard in the musical and film production The Wiz uses to mediate his communication with the people of Oz. Produced in 1974, The Wiz recasts the story of The Wizard of Oz (the classic novel written by L. Baum and musical popularized by Judy Garland) as an urbanized fantasy and “black metropolis” where Dorothy is a 24 year old black school teacher from Harlem, played by Diana Ross. The set design, story line, and musical score are all influenced by a distinctly African American cultural perspective, offering the perfect metonym for Afrofuturism’s resistance to institutionalized story models.
Similarly, Wayne Hodge’s haunting collage series Android/Negroid #11 “seeks … dual meanings that arise when disparate historical materials are fragmented and recombined.” In this example, the materials or references being refracted are drawn from old science fiction magazines and minstrel show advertisements, reconstructing the black self in the image of a cybernetic android. Paired in the title with the term Negroid, Hodge insists we meditate on what it means to be human at all — a discourse that requires remembering America’s legacy of slavery that categorized black people as subhuman and denied them legal and social personhood for over 300 years.
It could also be argued, as Tricia Rose points out in an essay that has resonance here — exploring the futuristic aesthetics appropriated by Afrofuturist musicians like Afrika Bambaataa — that the adoption of robotic features “reflect[s] a response to an existing condition: namely, that [black people] were labor for capitalism [and had] very little value as people in…society.” This interpretation would satisfy the implicit comparison being made between the designations Android and Negroid, both of which suggest something less than human, something liminal.
If we take Rose’s analysis a bit further, Hodge’s collages might also represent a subversion of the very historical inequalities being referenced, whereby assuming robotic body armor “identifies [the subject] as an alien” and where, Rose says the subject “[can] master the wearing of this guise in order to use it against [their] interpolation.”
We find another challenging but deeply moving piece in the video installation by Edgar Clejine and Ellen Gallagher. Entitled “Nothing is,” this 16-millimeter film also draws on the genre’s insistence on the connection between the fragments of the past, present and future, but adds yet another layer of complexity by suggesting that these states can shift at any moment in time, so that the past can become the future and the future can dissolve into the past, like the changing states of the elements.
This is accomplished through a morphing image that changes shape with the shift of light accompanied by text that describes the various states of water — solid, liquid, gas. As a foreboding percussion builds, added to these is the potential, under the right conditions, for steam to ignite into flames, conversant, perhaps, with James Baldwin’s brooding essay “The Fire Next Time,” and reminding us that all things — social movements, political identities, elements — are essentially on the brink of transition, or destruction. This piece draws its title from a 1970’s album of the same title by Sun Ra, the jazz, cyber funk musician, and visionary who is the source of inspiration for the exhibition.
With a lighter touch, Rammellzee’s tableaux of marker on board depict brightly colored robotic figures and complex futuristic byways of space travel. Beyond their obvious techno-cultural affinities, the drawings bear out the strong relationship between Afrofuturism and its representations in and connection to music and specifically Hip-Hop culture. Rammellzee’s “B-boy bricolage,” as Mark Dery puts it in Black to the Future, and his background as a New York graffiti artist, aligns Afrofuturism’s vision of the future with the avant-garde and futuristic stylings we see employed by artists like Missy Elliot and Janelle Monae, as well as the popularization of the vocoder to distort and synthesize black voices in Hip Hop and R&B music.
If the Studio Museum in Harlem’s ambitious show is missing anything, it is music. Not only inspired by the jazz musician Sun Ra but also referencing the strong musical representations of the genre throughout the exhibition’s literature, live performance or track recordings (even music videos) would have added an extra layer of density, another point of access for understanding this complex aesthetic sensibility to which music seems utterly essential. Nonetheless, with its focus on the retelling of history, the challenging of institutional narratives through Afrocentric visions of the future, the images that make up The Shadows Took Shape ensure that the revolution will be digitized.
The Shadows Took Shape continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 W 125th St, Harlem, Manhattan) through March 9, 2014.