Whether or not you have heard the term Afrofuturism before, you have almost definitely encountered the work of Afrofuturists, whether it was Parliament Funkadelic and their giant flying saucer, the kingdom of Wakanda, or the brash, expressive paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Chicago itself has been home to some of the genre’s famous creations as well, especially in the realm of visual art, and Afrofuturism as a whole has played an integral role in the last fifty years of art history in the United States and the world at large.
The history, context, and future of Afrofuturism are rich and complex, and we hope that you will finish this article with a desire to explore it further! Whether you are a teacher, artist, or art enthusiast, this genre holds fascinating works across media that are worth a deeper look. But first . . .
What Is Afrofuturism?
Afrofuturism is a set of aesthetics and philosophies which are frequently presented through literature, performance, and visual art. Works in this genre are defined by the intersection of African and diasporic traditions, magical realism, and science fiction. Afrofuturist art often places black characters in contexts that are traditionally whitewashed, notably space and sci-fi heroism. It also repurposes classic sci-fi tropes to produce a commentary on issues unique to the Black experience.
Valorie Thomas, a Black American scholar, puts it bluntly: “The apocalypse already happened. The aliens came.” In other words, the displacement, loss, and alienation of African histories of colonization and exploitation have led to different conceptions of when and how a dystopian future could come about (or whether, perhaps, it already has). It has also fed into the imagination of characters, worlds, and concepts that could never have come from the white minds that have long dominated sci-fi and tech fields.
Who Are the Afrofuturists?
Many art historians point to Sun Ra, a jazz musician who rose to prominence in the 1960’s, as the seminal Afrofuturist artist. Ra, who was born in Alabama in 1934, but famously claimed to be from Saturn, began playing professionally as a blues pianist in the 1950’s before coming to prominence as an early adopter of the avant-garde during the 1960’s. He eventually formed his band, the Intergalactic Solar Arkestra, and cemented his distinctive and influential aesthetic in the early 1970’s. The Arkestra wore glittering costumes that combined space-age motifs with ancient Egyptian attire, linking the history of African people to a utopic, interstellar future through art for the first time. With his 1974 album Space Is the Place, and a cult film of the same name, Sun Ra became the architect for much of what would follow in this emerging form of art and thought.
Other significant early works of Afrofuturism include Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, a time travel adventure modeled after the oral narrative traditions of enslaved people; Parliament’s funk concept album, Mothership Connection; and the visual works from a number of pioneering painters and 3D artists. The most famous of these was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who grew up in Brooklyn and brought the aesthetics of early hip-hop culture, black protagonists, and a cheeky parody of capitalism to his canvases. Basquiat, however, often obfuscated his grassroots influences and sought to align himself with ‘blue-chip’ masters like Picasso and Kandinsky, eventually forming a famous relationship with Pop Art’s ringleader, Andy Warhol.
Although his star did not rise as high, it may be more useful to examine the visual tradition of Afrofuturism through the work of Rammellzee, an associate and rival of Basquiat. Unlike Basquiat, Rammellzee was reluctant to enter the fine art world, and never quite found his social or ideological footing within it. Instead, Ramm worked for years, rising from apprentice to master to legend, in the underground tunnels and nighttime train yards that were home to New York City’s iconic Wild Style graffiti. A self-proclaimed ‘Gothic Futurist’, Ramm wrote, spoke, and rapped about the way that he used graffiti script to weaponize letters themselves, thereby destroying the meaning of language and, ultimately, the status quo. Ramm went on to work in sculpture, creating his famous, samurai-inspired mech suits, which were handcrafted using found objects and sometimes included makeshift rockets and flamethrowers. He went on performing and writing until his death in 2010.
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