By Melissa Smith
A lot of people came to learn about Afrofuturism without knowing it was Afrofuturism at all—they were just looking for a lifeline. They were trying to conceptualize Blackness for what they knew it was. And could be. They found themselves in “inhospitable places,” said artist and professor Sherwin Ovid, and wanted “to create a space to breathe.”
In a 1993 essay called “Black to the Future,” cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term “Afrofuturism” to cover a set of ideas that had been championed by three people he interviewed for the piece: cultural critic Greg Tate, science fiction author Samuel Delaney, and music scholar Tricia Rose. Those three were also instrumental in establishing a broader community for a sensibility that had otherwise mainly circulated in the music industry, associated with progenitors like Sun Ra and George Clinton.
As much as Afrofuturism can be defined, its principles coalesce around a shared commitment towards resistance to societal tropes associated with Blackness, using a type of “science fiction that is fact-based,” artist Cauleen Smith recently told me, to pull from “the past, or people in the past, to speculate and offer models for the present and future.”
That said, it’s important to stress that not all narratives relating to speculative futures equal Afrofuturism—and vice versa. In the present, as Ovid explained to me, we seem to be “living in the horizon of what many of those [progenitors and others] would have imagined”—so how does Afrofuturism find meaning with artists today?
In many ways, Afrofuturist art and thought is a reconsideration, a re-imagining of history—in both directions. For her book Charting the Afrofuturist Imaginary in African American Art, Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton decided to look to the past to establish “a lineage for [Afrofuturism] that wasn’t based in music,” she said. She cites artists like Harriet Powers (1837-1910), who “imagined other worlds outside of 19th-century Georgia, with celestial patterns within her quilts that are like star charts,” and painter Alma Thomas (1891-1978), who often gave her abstractions titles that referenced outer space like Starry Night and the Astronauts (1972).
The term “Afrofuturism” had yet to exist in these artist’s lifetimes, and it’s an open question as to whether or not they would have thought it even fit. For more recent examples, Hamilton sees resonances with Afrofuturist thought in contemporary work from a range of artists including Sanford Biggers, Robert Pruitt, and Renee Cox—many of whom explore Afrofuturism as a discipline “founded on Black feminist thought,” Smith told me.
In Dery’s essay, he asked: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of that history, imagine possible futures?” Artnet News spoke to three artists who have dedicated part of their practices to wrestling with this question, and so can be said to explore what a contemporary Afrofuturist project looks like. They’re artists who have helped to give form to a movement that, despite what Black Panther would have people believe, was, according to Smith, never actually meant to be one.
“I think my own reasons for maybe not using the word myself,” said painter Mequitta Ahuja, “is I see it as included in this history of science fiction and Black science fiction writers.”
And it certainly has been. But not always.
In “Black to the Future,” author and “grandmaster of Afrofuturism,” Samuel R. Delany, said this: “The historical reason that we’ve been so impoverished in terms of future images is because, until fairly recently, as a people, we were systematically forbidden images of our past.”
To describe her portrait work, Ahuja has often used the term “automythography” (which is a variation of biomythography, a term coined by Audre Lorde that, as the etymology suggests, describes the combination of myth, history, and biography.) She considers it a tool in becoming more aware of “who we are.” To her, imagination and self-invention are a critical part of undoing that denial of past images.
The history of Black people is unknown, but doesn’t have to be unknowable. So Ahuja is out to create, through avenues real and imagined, “a continuity of the past, present and future,” she said.
In Ahuja’s recent show, “Black-word,” she used letters and archival material that she’d uncovered from research into her ancestry to “picture the ancestors for whom I don’t have photographs.” She then created those faces from the faces she did know, in a part-fact, part-fiction exercise that seems straight from Afrofuturism’s playbook.
In Charting the Afrofuturist Imaginary in African American Art, Hamilton looked at Afrofuturism’s relationship to mythmaking, and how artists like Ahuja have also used “transformations of the hair,” she explained, as “a way of taking back the Black female body and making it superior.” So even though Ahuja knows “automythography is not Afrofuturism per se,” she said, she “thinks it fits within this framework of combining different elements to create the whole picture.”