The New Afrofuturism
A cosmically inspired optimism has reappeared in the work of African diasporic artists.
Arthur Jafa, APEX, 2013. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome
In 2018, we’re witness to daily political protests, social justice is very much on the agenda, and there’s a new Parliament record out. One could be forgiven for thinking it was still 1974. Culturally, the world seems to be taking a giant step backward in order—hopefully—to achieve renewed progress. But while our collective imaginings too often fall far short of a convincing alternative future, Afrofuturism has been proposing ways forward for decades.
The self-consciously extreme, even mocking, speculative thesis of the original Afrofuturist movement, as it developed during the 1960s and '70s in the music of Sun Ra and the dense sci-fi novels of Samuel Delaney, among others, was that in order to achieve a better life, people of African descent should abandon the earth as a lost cause and relocate to another planet. Named by American cultural critic Mark Dery in his influential 1994 essay on black technoculture “Black to The Future,” Afrofuturism has since accrued new significance with the global resurgence of right-wing and nationalist extremism.
Afrofuturism, further soundtracked by the likes of Lee "Scratch" Perry, Derrick May, and their numerous creative descendants, combines aspects of cultural history with futurologies both fanciful and technologically grounded. And while it draws on its own past, today’s incarnation of the Afrofuturist tendency still poses a progressive question: What would a positive future for Africa's citizenry and disapora actually look like?
Artist Nick Cave, best known for his otherworldly Soundsuits, which meld influences from African tribal ritual with aspects of contemporary Western dance, remembers the strong impact of the first wave of Afrofuturist aesthetic philosophy: “It was such an extraordinary moment in time, and it was everything to me,” he told GARAGE. “It was a melting pot of creative, eccentric energies that arose in a particular political climate, It was a dynamic that brought everyone together.”
In his upcoming installation at New York’s Armory Show in June, Cave will install a hundred-foot-long, four-meter tall Mylar curtain, around which he is programming performances and other events designed to give visitors an outlet for their political grievances. It’s a call to catharsis, which Cave argued is needed if we’re to hang on to a positive vision of America: “What should an Afrocentric futurism look like today? Based on our present circumstances, I think the idea provides a great resource of information to look back on, but we have to understand what the pivotal activities were that propelled the original movement to transform itself. Because you know what? Back then, the struggle was so different in terms of rights—voting rights, civil rights—alone. Today we live in melting pot, and we need to ask how we both diversify and come together with a more globally unified vision.”
Arthur Jafa is an artist who works with assemblage in film and collage, tapping into the tradition of jazz improvisation. His extraordinary film Love is the Message, The Message is Death (2016) uses found footage to take the viewer on an emotional journey meditating on the black American experience. Pitching from sadness to horror to elation, it conveys in a scant few minutes the spirit of a decades-long quest for meaning. Jafa has spoken about the influence of African history on Western aesthetics, and what this complex dynamic means for black people in America today. He ponders, for instance, the ways in which this narrative has produced a particular otherness that’s echoed in science-fiction film and literature—think, for example, of the genre’s common linkage of alien abduction to the kidnapping involved in slavery.
The Afrofuturist aesthetic reverberates now through the practices of young artists working in diverse media, including sculptor and photographer Frank Benson, new-media artist Larry Achiampong, and painter Lina Iris Viktor, the spread of the contemporary art market and the rise of the internet having made the emergent Afrofuturist sensibility far more globally evident than previous iterations. Young Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey has been gaining traction in this context since the launch of Accra’s Gallery 1957 in 2016. Currently exhibiting at Jane Lombard in New York, Clottey sees Afrofuturism as a chance for Africans to reclaim their history and, in doing so, to regain ownership of a positive future.
Struck by the Eurocentricism of his art history program at university in Ghana, Clottley began to question his intellectual milieu. “I began to look into the African history of migration, because it’s strange to see people making use of your history of culture in a way that’s counter to your understanding of it,” he explained. Working in sculpture and performance, Clottey filters various rituals and artifacts adopted by Ghanaian tribes over time through modern objects made with modern materials, such as plastic water containers and fishing nets. “Afrofuturism for me is Africans investigating their own energies to counter Africa’s representation in the West,” he said. “It is a form of advocacy for a modern African perspective, for breaking away from the [accepted] history of Africa and for unifying African ideologies. It helps us look ahead.”
Arthur Jafa, A Series of Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, is on view at JSC Berlin from February 11 to November 25. Serge Attukwei Clottey: Differences Between is on view at Jane Lombard Gallery, New York, from February 15 through March 24. Nick Cave opens at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, on May 17.