Afrofuturist Exhibit Traverses Time & Space

Oakland Museum of California opens its first major show in a year with ‘Mothership.’

When cultural critic Mark Dery invented the term “Afrofuturism” in 1994, he intended to apply it first and foremost to science fiction writing — but he could only identify four African American writers in that genre, which unsettled him.“Why,” he asked, “do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other — the stranger in a strange land — would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?”

Almost two decades later, many more Black authors are writing science fiction, and scores of Black artists in other disciplines — including jazz, funk, IDM, hip-hop, film, painting, graffiti art, and comic books — have mused upon fantastical and speculative themes in their work.

Of course, as a major new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California argues, Afrofuturism existed long before 1994. “Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism”  observes that creatives such as Sun Ra and George Clinton were Afrofuturists before the term existed. The show also begs a bigger question: Who qualifies for the label “Afrofuturist”? 

Because technology is a cornerstone of Afrofuturist thinking, as is rethinking the collective Black future, “Mothership” contends Southern Blacks who migrated to Oakland in the 1910s and subsequent decades were essentially Afrofuturists. Why? Because these migrants were drawn by the possibility of technology jobs and by their own “radical imagination . . .  to put their faith in the hope of a better life at their journey’s end.” Also Afrofuturists, the exhibit says: African American women in Georgia who attended college in the late 1800s, challenging the Jim Crow establishment. 

“The biggest part of Afrofuturism that we wanted to ignite is that time isn’t something that’s linear,” says Essence Harden, a consulting curator to the exhibit. She spoke at a media preview of the exhibit last week. “Afrofuturism is about collapsing time and space. So that what happened in 1919 is just as relevant as what happened in 2019.” 

But Afrofuturism is also about everyday actions like posting on Twitter, Harden says, so the Afrofuturist movement incorporates “mundane” doings that may not reach the heights of such celebrated Afrofuturist achievements as Black Panther, the 2018 Marvel Studios film that became a global phenomenon and brought renewed attention to Marvel Comics’ 1960s comic book of the same name. Yes, “Mothership” features a Dora Milaje costume from the 2018 film, but that character’s gender is significant.

“As we conceived of it for this exhibition, it’s about the Black feminist epistemology — a way of producing knowledge for Black people about Black people,” Harden says. “We acknowledge that it is this big cosmology, and that we can’t do everything. . . .  For us, that Black feminist epistemology looks like really taking seriously the mundane. Taking on everyday acts of Black folks who are not only producing for themselves but also enjoying time reimagining what time is for, how to have pleasure and joy, but also have a level of criticality.”  

“Mothership” is powerful because it incorporates so much history that is also powerful, moving, and still culturally relevant. An exhibit centerpiece is a replica of The Mothership stage set that Parliament-Funkadelic used in its concerts. Like the original and the duplicate that’s on view in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the exhibit’s Mothership is a lights-blaring spaceship-looking contraption that looms over passersby. 

But the Oakland exhibit’s Mothership is also an interactive music portal that lets visitors listen to a long list of indelible songs, curated by DJ Spooky — including James Brown’s “The Future Shock of the World,” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Fela Kuti’s “Colonial Mentality,” and Sun Ra’s “Calling Planet Earth.” The Mothership replica version at the Oakland Museum of California also has a looping video that shows Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic performing in 1976, and has an encased issue of the group’s 1973 album “Cosmic Slop,” whose out-there art (by Pedro Bell) matched the group’s out-there music. 

Thankfully, Sun Ra gets his own section in the exhibit, complete with album covers, publications (including part of a 1986 conversation with two Sun Ra researchers), and a 1970s film, Space is the Place, where Sun Ra acts out his ideas of creating a new planet for Black people.

“We work on the other side of time,” Sun Ra says in the film, which shows Sun Ra dressed in his quasi-Egyptian/cosmological wear as he walks through a forested area with objects floating overhead and his one-of-a-kind music playing in the background. “We bring them here either through isotope teleportation, trans-molecularization, or better still, teleport the whole planet here through music.”

Sun Ra, who died in 1993, was as “far out” as a musician could be, but his thoughts on Black culture, origins, and the future of Black people dovetailed with other creatives from his time, including science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, who also gets her own section in “Mothership.” 

Butler’s celebrated books include 1993’s Parable of the Sower and 1998’s Parable of the Talents, which is centered on a Black woman who creates a new religion called Earthseed that advocates for living on other planets. The novels, which begin in 2024, imagine an Earth in which civil and economic chaos is closing in and a fundamentalist United States president trots out a familiar slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

Butler, who in 1995 became the first science-fiction writer to be named a MacArthur fellow, has inspired generations of other writers — both Black and non-Black. And Parable of the Sower was turned last year into a graphic novel, where Nalo Hopkinson wrote an insightful introduction about how Butler (and Samuel R. Delany) had given Hopkinson a literary path to follow. Butler also gave Hopkinson something more: She role-modeled how to manage strong emotions about society’s ills.

“Butler . . . famously described herself as ‘a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive,’” writes Hopkinson. “Octavia didn’t just reject pessimism once and become a sunny Pollyanna thereafter. It was an impulse she had to quell over and over. It was a dynamic and continuous act, a hard-nosed practice of staring down the worst of humanity’s evils and refusing to live in denial, all the while choosing to remember that humanity is also capable of great good. It’s part of what made her fiction so life-changing for her readers.”

This deliberate way of managing hopes, reality, and dreams — of acknowledging pain but refusing to give into it — is also at the heart of Afrofuturism and the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit. Many of the works don’t engage in an unblemished utopia, as with Olalekan Jeyifous’ eye-catching photos Shanty Mega-structures: Makoko Canal and Shanty Mega-structures: Makoko Waterfront, which imagine the future skyline of Lagos in Jeyifous’ native Nigeria, where rich Nigerians live in elevated structures amid waterways that the less fortunate still traverse. 

Then there’s David Huffman’s profoundly moving MLK, Traumanaut series, a painting that imagines a group of African American astronauts who are trying to leave behind their people’s hard past. In MLK, one traumanaut holds a poster with a peace sign as other traumanauts walk with what could be a coffin or an arc. On the right: A messiah figure who seems to be guiding the traumanauts by appealing to divine intervention. 

“Mothership,” which opened Aug. 7, is the Oakland Museum of California’s first major exhibit since the museum itself reopened this summer after a year-long pandemic-induced closure. Originally scheduled to open last year, “Mothership” is the kind of exhibit that could be even bigger than it is — with even more sections, even more art, and even more consideration to the bigger questions that arise from seeing such a thought-provoking exhibit. 

For example: Dery, who coined the term Afrofuturism, is white. And the work from which that word originates, Black to the Future, which features interviews with African Americans Samuel Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose, has been criticized by Marika Rose, who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Theology, Religion and Philosophy at England’s University of Winchester — and is also white. 

Rose took issue with Dery in 2014 for asking questions she says contained uniformed assumptions. And in Dery’s 1994 work, Delany and Tate also criticize Dery for imposing points they say are unfounded, as when Dery asks, “Why hasn’t the African American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?” Responded Tate: “I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.”

It’s definitely not true in the year 2021. The first artwork that visitors see in “Mothership” is Sydney Cain’s Radio Imagination, a searing, otherworldly mural of dye, chalk, graphite, and powdered metals that has spirits emerging from what Cain calls a celestial pool. The spirits, one of whom is modeled on the main character in Butler’s Parable series, are set against the dark edges of space but are illuminated with light that looks celestial. The light gives them an aura of transcendence — that these spirits have been there all along, even if people on Earth didn’t know it. Cain calls Radio Imagination “a healing tool for the people of the African diaspora, seeking to resurface lost and stolen African myths of the ancients and futurists.” 

Radio Imagination, then, is the essence of “Mothership.” It’s a look at the future, but it’s anchored squarely in the past. There’s no escape from the past, “Mothership,” implies. And besides: Escape isn’t what’s necessary or desired. Embracing the past, and reclaiming it, is what’s required, the exhibit suggests.That’s what Afrofuturism does. Whether people in the past would embrace this now-ubiquitous term is speculative. But they’d almost certainly agree with those like Butler who tried their best to move ahead and absolutely look to the future. 

“Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism”

Through Feb. 27 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. $12-$21, 510-318-8400, museumca.org.

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