Black Panther. Sun Ra. Octavia Butler. Mention Afrofuturism and these are some of the terms that come to mind. But curators Brian Chidester, Suave Rhoomes, and Stacey Robinson are digging deeper into the meaning of Afrofuturism with One Day You'll See: A History of Afrofuturism, an exhibition debuting at this year’s Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair (BABF).
Bringing together literature, music, and visual culture, the show explores Afrofuturism through 220 books, comics, album covers, paintings and sculpture, with some pieces dating from the 1920s. W.E.B. Du Bois’ Dark Matter and the comic book work of Charles Williams (1942-1990) also figures prominently in the exhibition.
And yet, for the curators, Afrofuturism is a misnomer; the term was coined in 1993 by culture critic Mark Dery and it’s stuck ever since. Chidester explains that the authors wouldn’t have identified themselves as Afrofuturists and the term is more of “a critical convenience” than a cohesive movement. Afrofuturism gets its name from Italian Futurism, Chidester points out, which was a defined movement originating in the early 20th century, while Afrofuturism is a “nebulous” term rather than a strict artistic movement.
Robinson instead proposes to keep Afrofuturism undefined and believes that “Afrofuturism should propose solutions, hope, and agency to all black concerns from the most speculatively fantastic of ideas to the most practical of community-based activism and political policies that lead to the liberation of all peoples.” The curators hope that the show will foster new dialogue concerning what Afrofuturism can mean.
The exhibition is divided into four sections, starting with those dubbed “the pioneers:” writers, artists, musicians active during Jim Crow during the 1920s through the 1960s. Imaginary landscapes are up next--think Jimi Hendrix and Yusef Lateef, followed by an examination of “how the past defines the future” via African mythologies, black Pharaohs, and voodoo. The fourth section highlights contemporary works including Black Panther and singer Janelle Monáe. Chidester says the exhibition is “an amalgamation of radical voices and voices from the world of mass produced subculture...It tells a different story than other exhibitions” on Afrofuturism.
One Day You’ll See comes at a particularly critical moment, especially with the popularity of Black Panther (2018) and the political climate today. “Imagine President Trump’s comments about... Africa and Haiti… and then imagine Marvel Studios Black Panther movie debuting shortly after,” Robinson explains, “Afrofuturism inspires the most marginalized peoples in the world to see themselves in ways that contradict the narratives of criminal immigrants, violent offenders, and the rare athlete who was fortunate to make it.” Rhoomes adds, “Afrofuturism is very important because it is the symbolic umbrella that incorporates our history as a people. [It encompasses] an artist’s personal story, spirit, and energy, at the highest point the creative imagination could possibly be expressed and received in a tangible art form.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, a two-day Afrofuturist film festival at Stuart Cinema (79 West St, Brooklyn) opens to the public after the BABF closes for the night. Two films will play both Saturday and Sunday nights. The curators have also put together a playlist of music to accompany the show.
Check out this fascinating exhibition at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair on September 7th and 8th.
Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Deadspin, Syfy, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.