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What is Afro-futurism and why is it gaining traction in the contemporary art scene?


David Hammons, Orange is the New Black, 2014. © David Hammons. Courtesy de l'artiste et Pinault Collection. Photo Aurélien Mole

There has been a notable resurgence of 'afrofuturism' within the last couple of years - from exhibitions at London's Southbank Center to blockbuster films such as Black Panther. Though the genre is widely discussed and increasingly present in the mainstream, for a lot of people the question still remains, what actually is afrofuturism?


To put it simply, Afrofuturism is a cultural and artistic movement that blends elements of science fiction, fantasy, and Afrocentricity to explore the experiences of black people in the world. It's a movement that has been gaining traction in the contemporary art world, and it's not hard to see why. At its core, Afrofuturism is about using the lens of science fiction and fantasy to explore the past, present, and future of black culture. It's a way to imagine new possibilities for black people, to challenge the status quo, and to create a sense of empowerment. In the art world, this has manifested in a variety of ways, from paintings and sculptures to performances and installations.


One of the most striking things about Afrofuturism is the way it incorporates technology and science fiction. This is evident in the work of artists like Wangechi Mutu, who creates collages and sculptures that blend elements of sci-fi with traditional African imagery. Similarly, the work of artist Sondra Perry explores the relationship between technology and black bodies, using digital media to create powerful and thought-provoking pieces. For those who visited last year's In the Black Fantastic exhibition curated by Ekow Eshun for the Southbank Centre, fantasy and futurism was presented as a "zone of creative and cultural liberation and a means of addressing racism and social injustice by conjuring new ways of being in the world." In Eshun’s own words, Afrofuturism and fantasism is “a way of acknowledging, a way of looking at the racialised everyday beyond the constraints that the Western imaginary has put around Black beings, Black personhood and Black experiences.” He continues: “In a world where we are constantly, as Black people, subject to the fantasies and myths of others, one of the ways through for us is to embrace the fantastic.



Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2014© Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Mandrake Hotel Collection

Though don't be mistaken, it's not a new movement. As cultural and artistic movement, the genre has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s. The term "Afrofuturism" was first coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future" in which he explores the intersection of science fiction, fantasy, and the African diaspora. He describes Afrofuturism as a "speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture—and, more generally, African diaspora culture".


The movement gained momentum in the 1990s and 2000s with the work of artists like Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Sun Ra, who explored themes of science fiction, fantasy, and technology in their work. Sun Ra, a jazz musician and bandleader, self-identified as an alien from outer space and his music and persona were a major influence on the development of Afrofuturism.


Afrofuturism also explores the idea of time travel, using it as a metaphor for the way black people have been erased from history. This is evident in the work of artist David Hammons, who creates sculptures and installations that reference the African diaspora, and the way it has been shaped by the passage of time.


With a strong political dimension, Afrofuturism is a way of reclaiming the narrative and the power of representation, and it is a way of creating a vision of a future in which black people are truly free. The rise of Afrofuturism in contemporary art reflects a growing interest in the experiences and perspectives of black people. It's a movement that is not only changing the way we think about art but also the way we think about the world. As the art world continues to evolve and change, we can expect to see even more artists exploring the themes of Afrofuturism and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.


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