Afrofuturism: A Beginner’s Guide

Afrofuturism: A Beginner’s Guide

Written by:
Kat Roberts
Sep 20, 2021

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.

Renee Cox dressed as a superhero sits on the Statue Of Liberty's head.

Chillen With Liberty By Renee Cox

 

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.

Sun Ra dressed as a space age pharaoh.

Iconic Afrofuturist Sun Ra.

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. 

Artist Ramellzee in one of his suits.

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.

 

Chicago and Afrofuturism

Chicago has been a hub of Black art movements since the Jazz Age, and Afrofuturism is no exception. From the early days of AfriCOBRA in the 1960’s, the artists of our city have always looked to the future and devised creative visions for Black progress. Many AfriCOBRA artists traveled to the African continent to study indigenous art forms, and came back with a strong sense of Afrocentrism and the importance of tradition to the diaspora. The combination of these ideas with contemporary artwork laid the foundations on which artists like Basquiat would build soon after. 

Today, two of the most prominent contemporary visual artists working in Afrofuturism are Chicagoans. Rashid Johnson was born and raised in Chicago and Evanston, and has shot to global prominence over the last decade with his ‘post-black’ photography. Los Angeles- based Hebru Brantley, also born in Chicago, has become a staple of this city’s landscape with murals of his loveable, futuristic characters Flyboy and Lil Mama. 

Hebru Brantley's mural features his colorful Flyboy and Lil Mama characters.

One of Hebru Brantley’s murals in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.

 

Brantley’s approach to his art is particularly interesting in that he has made his hometown his canvas. Not only do his murals dot the city, but the painter and conceptual artist also created an iconic installation in Chicago’s South Side with Nevermore Park. Nevermore, a 6,000-square-foot space dedicated to developing the narrative of Flyboy and Lil Mama, drew sold-out crowds until its closing due to COVID in 2020. The massive exhibit included walls of murals, sculptures of characters and spaceships, and Chicago ephemera collected from Brantley’s relatives, explicitly tying his ancestral history with a fantastical, spacebound future. 

What’s Next for Afrofuturism?

After the 2018 release of the Marvel and Disney blockbuster Black Panther, Afrofuturism has been enjoying an explosion in public awareness. The pervasive whiteness of the comic book world, along with the opportunities for creative characterization inherent to superheroes, have made graphic novels a fertile ground for Afrofuturist artists for decades. Graphic novels are still a great place to seek out contemporary Afrofuturist voices; just last year, a graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower received extremely positive reviews, and new editions of Black Panther comics have consistently featured influential and emerging Black artists and writers. 

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A page from the graphic adaptation of Parable Of the Sower.

Musicians and transmedia artists – artists who use multiple modes such as film, music, and interactive games to tell a single narrative – are also on the cutting edge of Afrodiasporic arts. Janelle Monáe has spent more than ten years pushing Afrofuturism to the foreground of pop culture as her android alterego, Cindi Mayweather, through short films, musical releases, and visual albums. Along with a new generation of futurists like FKA Twigs and Yves Tumor, Monáe has carved out a space within the Afrofuturist tradition that utilizes the genre’s reality-bending atmosphere, utopian aspirations, and eschewing of Western ideology to play with ideas of gender and sexuality. It is exciting to watch the growth of an art movement whose very basis is a questioning and subversion of the traditional art world, and its interest in intersectional identities promises a strong and fascinating future.


Like the Afrofuturists, IPaintMyMind believes strongly in art’s ability to directly impact the world around us. The way that we share, experience, and learn about art shapes our communities and lives. That’s why we have always maintained that art is a human right and strive to bring fine arts and art education to every community in Chicago. If your company feels the same way, learn how you can sponsor a Chicago school in partnership with us.

You can find more educational resources about movements across art history on our blog, where we provide art and art history content for teachers, students, and art enthusiasts. 

9 chicago artists you need to follow on instagram

Written by:
Kat Roberts
Sep 20, 2021

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