Interview: The Studio Museum Harlem

Robert Pruitt, "Untitled 3"

Robert Pruitt, “Untitled 3”

The artistic cultural production and cultural theory that is Afrofuturism has long used the fantastical and Science Fiction elements of robotics and aliens, to solve the inequality of colonialism by transcending the social limitations of Black Diasporic life in Western society. Although appearing cosmically perfect,  it cannot be denied that Afrofuturism’s history is far from utopic: the trauma of the African transatlantic slave trade, W.E.B Du Bois’ emphatic theory of double-consciousness, Zora Neale Hurston’s iconic folklore depicting humor amidst trauma, Sun Ra’s militant blaxploitation music and imagery, Octavia Butler’s equivocal writings on outsider aesthetics, and lets not forget the southernplayalisticcadillacfunkymusic of OutKast. Resilient, AfroFuturists have owned, analyzed, deconstructed, and re-coded their joy and pain, and those of their ancestors, to re-imagine the African Diasporian future—free  from Western social stigmas.

For decades, Afrofuturism was publicly linked to literature and music; and yet recently, a courtship has begun with fine art. On November 14th The Studio Museum in Harlem took the helm and debuted its Afrofuturist exhibition, “The Shadows Took Shape. We at Saint Heron are no strangers to Afrofuturism as emerging and Saint Heron featured artists, Kelela, BCKingdom, Sampha, have strains of Afrofuturist aesthetics coded within their work, so it was a pleasure to speak with the curators, Naima J. Smith and Zoe Whitley, on Afrofuturist activism, the theme of flight throughout African American history, and accidental Afrofuturists. Set amidst the backdrop of a sensitive and rich history, like a griot “The Shadows Took Shape exhibition and the Saint Heron interview navigates through rough terrain to tell an ever-evolving  story of a new Black frontier.


Tanekeya Word [TW]: What is Afrofuturism, and when were you introduced to the term? Why is now the most opportune time to introduce the concept to the public?

Naima Keith [NJK]: First coined by Mark Dery in 1993, Afrofuturism addresses themes and concerns of the African Diaspora through a technoculture and science fiction lens. In the “Shadows Took Shape”, we are arguing for an expansive definition of Afrofuturism and its discourse around black cultural production, technology and speculation on the future, recognizing that the movement is profoundly connected to geography, location and time period—across spatial and temporal boundaries—and most clearly develops out of the historical and social conditions that shaped black life in America from the nineteenth century onward. Since 1993, when the term was coined, Afrofuturism has been stretched, molded and extended to involve a wide range of disciplines, artists, writers, musicians and scholars.

Zoe Whitley [ZW]: The funny thing is, Naima and I have been asking that very question of terminology and first encounters to so many people recently – scholars, artists, writers – that I’ve really had to cast my mind back to when I first came across the term. I think it may have been as a teenager, in relation to the Martha Washington comics toward the end of the 1990s. I know it wasn’t directly through cultural criticism, which I came to later but I loved what I was seeing. It felt so resonant and I wanted to learn more.

Working with contemporary visual culture these last few years, I kept coming across work in a number of different contexts and media that I felt spoke directly to Afrofuturist concerns. They often owed a debt – whether conscious or unconscious – to the Afrofuturist strategies that have come before. Or were so indelibly part of the history but not as well known in America (I’m thinking specifically about Black British artists such as John Akomfrah). The time seemed right to explore the breadth of the subject and to instigate a few cross-cultural conversations and juxtapositions that might not otherwise be taking place. I spoke at a conference in Mexico City in 2012 about Afrofuturism and collaborative performance, looking specifically at  Mendi + Obadike’s “4 Electric Ghosts“, Laylah Ali’s collaboration with choreographer Dean Moss and Jacolby Satterwhite’s fascinating collaborations with his mother. I was engaged in a series of conversations about Afrofuturist viewpoints with Prof. John Jennings (SUNY Buffalo) and he was instrumental in helping me convert practice into theory. Naima, meanwhile, was delving into the depth of the subject through research into the Studio Museum’s permanent collection and a number of studio visits nationwide, building on her previous exhibitions and artists’ projects. Our combined depth and breadth helped us develop what became the Shadows Took Shape.

Mehreen Murtaza, "Triptych"

Mehreen Murtaza, “Triptych”

TW: The Studio Museum in Harlem has passionately documented the artistic cultural production of the Black American identity shift, via their curatorial practice, and invited the public to engage with the works. What led to The Studio Museum’s shift from Post Black Art to Afrofuturism in its most recent exhibition, The Shadows Took Shape, which opened on November 14th?

ZW: I agree that SMH has been a key definer of cultural movements, moments and public engagement. To me, presenting an expansive view of Afrofuturism is part of the Studio Museum’s continuum rather than representing any shift in perspective. The museum’s mission is to be the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally and internationally and for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture. As a site for the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society, it’s been an honor to be invited to co-curate this exhibition and I feel all of the artists we’ve included in this group show do justice to the mission and further our understanding of Afrofuturism and its reach.

NK: Zoe said it perfectly!

TW: Do you believe that in order for the African Diaspora to make it into the future, the community has to look like Androids, or Aliens, or have the ability to fly?

ZW: If I can flip your question a little, I am fascinated by the recurring theme of flight and space travel throughout our African-American tradition, particularly in music. Uplifting spiritual hymns such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” get reinterpreted as the Mothership in lyrics like Parliament’s Mothership Connection” (“swing down sweet chariot stop and let me ride”) and more recently still, we hear it reverberate in songs like Kanye West’s “Spaceship.” I’d say that the ability to fly – as in transcend our everyday realities in order to survive – is already what’s enabled African Diaspora culture to thrive in the face of often incredible hardship and adversity.

That’s what’s helped us make it into the future up until now, and I imagine it will sustain us longer still.

NK: Not at all. In Wanuri Kahiu’s film “Pumzi“, the director depicts the story of a community forced into subterranean sequester by a “water war.” Asha, the central (human) character in director Kahiu’s short film, is a museum archivist/curator who risks the security of her world in order to nurture a plant that manages to flourish in the postapocalyptic landscape. The film touches on a number of once unimaginable flash points, such as the politicization of water and its access, posited here and elsewhere in geopolitical discourse as a potential global cataclysm.

In David Huffman’s paintings, he uses figuration and abstraction to explore themes of race, politics and power. The works in his “Traumanauts” series (1997–2009) feature black astronauts exploring the terrain of outer space/inner space created from the abstract materiality of paint. Washes, splatters and strokes conjure mysterious atmospheres and ambiguous landscapes populated by Trauma Smiles and Trauma Eves—characters Huffman has excavated from stereotyped images of the transatlantic slave trade. Over the years, these figures have removed their protective suits, taking on the appearance of basketball players. They have re-materialized to join in key historical events. Each iteration continues the artist’s exploration of the social and psychological possibilities of transcendence. In “MLK” (2008), featured in “The Shadows Took Shape”, Moses parts the mossy green terrain allowing an assembly of traumanauts to lead Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession. The painting collapses two momentous historical narratives into one, the secular and the biblical. The traumanauts are nomadic characters. The exact location of their existence is mutable and mysterious, manifesting itself through various narratives as ruminations on the multidimensionality of African-American life.

David Huffman, "MLK"

David Huffman, “MLK”

TW:  Like the Afrofuturist, archeologist, and writer Zora Neale Hurston, Ellen Gallagher’s body of work has etchings of humor within trauma. Utilizing layered rhetoric, Gallagher excavates the layered paper in her collages to dig deeper into Black Identity, African American vernacular, Western thought, Science, and Science Fiction. What Afrofuturists of the past, within literature, theory, music, culture, and or activism, further parallel the works in The Shadows Took Shape?

ZW: The enduring fascination with Afrofuturism is the myriad ways it can engage the past, present and future simultaneously.

Certainly Sun Ra (1914-1993) comes to mind first and foremost – and what he was doing in music, poetry, costume and stage design and experimental film pre-dates the term Afrofuturism.

Within literature, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler are two speculative fiction writers whose names are often invoked but there are many other talented writers including Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson and Colson Whitehead to name but three. Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist” is a favorite read of mine. As Naima’s essay in the accompanying exhibition catalogue reveals, one can find evidence of Afrofuturist themes in late 19th and early 20th century fiction such as George Schuyler’s “Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free A.D. 1933–1940” from 1931.

You mention activism: Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) is an intriguing leader to think of in an Afrofuturist context.

Laylah Ali, "Untitled"

Laylah Ali, “Untitled”

TW: Would you agree that oppressed people, who are not of the African Diaspora can be Afrofuturists, or would you suggest that oppressed people explore escapism culture and research how their ethnicity relates to the concept versus latching on to Afrofuturism, as ultimately cultural nuances exist, so their experiences would not be the same as the Black American or African Diasporian experiences?

ZW: I don’t think the two positions you articulate are mutually exclusive, so in a sense I agree with both positions! Certainly cultural nuances and specificities exist: cultures aren’t interchangeable and our different experiences matter in the way they shape and define us. But cultures are frequently more interrelatable than we allow; common ground exists. I’ve spoken with a number of artists in the exhibition over the past year including Ellen Gallagher, Edgar Clejine, Harold Offeh, Lili Reynaud Dewar, Larissa Sansour and Mehreen Murtaza about the notion of “accidental Afrofuturists.” I think it’s possible to be inspired by Afrofuturism and also to share certain aesthetic, socio-cultural and political concerns without necessarily having the Afro- background. In fact, some of the artists of African descent in the show have joked with me that they might also be accidental Afrofuturists because it’s part of who they are, an aspect of their practice but isn’t all they are.

Going back to your earlier question, this is one of the reasons the Studio Museum feels like such an apt site for the exhibition and the discourses it raises. I think it’s possible to claim Afrofuturism as an expansive source of agency and empowerment, to chart where else similar themes are being taken up and how. It’s affirming to present Afrofuturism as the rich source of creative inspiration that it is.

TW: Complete the statement:  In the future Black is…

ZW: …universal.

NK:… only a shade of color.

 

 

 

 

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