Your Brief And Far-Out Guide To Afrofuturism

In anticipation of her "Black Magic" exhibition, curator Niama Safia Sandy shares some of her favorite writers, artists and musicians contributing to the Afrofuturist vision.

"Time is this really fluid thing. Now is now, but the past is now and the future too."

This is how curator and anthropologist Niama Safia Sandy describes the core idea of Afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic combining elements of science fiction, magical realism and African history.

The artistic, musical and literary movement is often traced back to jazz composer and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra, who, in college in the 1930s, had a hallucinatory experience in which he was abducted, brought to planet Saturn and shown a prophetic future.

"My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up ... I wasn't in human form ... I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn ... they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me."

But the actual term Afrofuturism was first used by critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay "Black to the Future," which examined why there were so few black science fiction writers at the time, given the genre's inextricable links to the other and life on the margins.

"Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?" Dery asks in the text. "Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers -- white to a man -- who have engineered our collective fantasies?"


Afrofuturism is often regarded as a cultural genre or style, a re-imagining of African tradition that projects techno-futuristic possibilities. But for Sandy, the movement is more than a literary genre -- it's real life. "It’s not just an ideological thing, it’s how people live," Sandy explained to The Huffington Post. "Magical realism is used to talk about literature of the other, literature from pretty much everywhere except the West. But I feel like it isn’t just a literary genre, it’s how we understand the earth -- an ambulatory cosmology, how we move through the world."

Sandy describes how -- through the lens of Afrofuturism -- certain myths, signs, colors and feelings have become like literary symbols to be decoded. How history and nature have become texts to be interpreted. "Growing up, if we walked outside and it was sunny and all of the sudden it started raining, to my mother, that would mean something," she says. "It’s this meaning imbued in everything that you do. That is something that has been passed down to us through generations through our ancestors."

For the past two years, Sandy has been curating an exhibition called "Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures," featuring multidisciplinary visual artists from the African Diaspora. Photographers like A. Delphine Fawundu deconstruct ideas such as black femininity, exploring its relationship to memory and history in her photographs, many of which were photographed on the plantation where Nat Turner's Rebellion occurred. "There's a lot of looking back and looking forward happening in this work," Sandy said. "Celebrating those journeys whether they are intentional or forced journeys."

Beyond Fawundu, artist like Roger Bonair-Agard contributed video installations and poems, like "How the World Was Made -- a Super Crown." Bonair-Agard's poem revolves around the traditional West African character Anansi -- a spider, a god, and a figure used in children's fables told all around the diaspora. "In the poem, he is Anansi, learning how to go from being a spider to being a person," Sandy said. "It connects these ideas from the folklore and stories we've grown up with."

Delphine Fawundu, Mende Woman on the Nat Turner Plantation, South Hampton, VA #8, 2014. From the photographer's Deconstructing SHE series / ODDKINCREATE, THINK AHEAD, 2013 MIXED MEDIA

In an exhibition statement, Sandy summarizes the essence of the exhibition, a magical conjuring of past and present forces: "Intersections of the past, present and future grounded in the magic that was already in the soil, in the air, passed on by our ancestors through breath, bonds, blood, ritual well after we came across the Atlantic all of these many times. We carry it with us wheresoever we go -- this abundant color, rhythm, swagger ... Because of this, we see and hear magic in everything across water, space and time."

In anticipation of her "Black Magic" exhibition, Sandy shared some of her favorite writers, artists and musicians contributing to the Afrofuturist vision. Read on for a far-out introduction to the ruling makers of black magic.

Octavia Butler, author

"Who am I? I am a forty-seven-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. I am also comfortably asocial -- a hermit ... 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."

Books to read: Kindred, Parable of the Sower, Fledgling

American sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006).
American sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006).
Malcolm Ali via Getty Images

Ytasha Womack, author

"Mainstream feminism could benefit from the sense of balance that Afrofuturism has around expression. Afrofuturism is very nonconformist and sometimes I feel as if mainstream feminism wants women to express their liberation in very specific ways to specifically counter damaging narratives created by men. Afrofuturism doesn’t create in opposition to anything. As a result, women Afrofuturists are free to do what they want and how that shows up is uniquely individual ... Self-expression in Afrofuturism isn’t about making a statement, it’s about being."

Book to read: Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture


Steven Barnes, author

"His mate Lamiya lay sunning on the hardwood deck with their daughters, Aliyah and Azinza. Lamiya herself was descended from the Afar people on the shore of Lake Abbe in Old Djibouti. A single aged servant, Yohela, had accompanied her on this trip, yet her hair, braided and beaded into the intricate patterns typical of the Afar, never bore the same configuration two days in a row. Four years Kai's senior, Lamiya was in both face and form the most elegantly sensual woman Kai had ever known, and he had adored her since childhood." -from Zulu Heart

Books to read: Lion's Blood, Zulu Heart


Nnedi Okorafor, author

"I’ve always had a hard time writing about space. I am very much an earthling. I don’t see myself ever leaving this planet while I am alive (I may be more adventurous after I die, heh). There is so much yet to discover (and fix) on earth, why look elsewhere? And my spiritual beliefs and the systems of magic I’m attracted to are earth-based, born and rooted deep in the soil. They are not in the 'heavens.' Also, when I write about something, I have to get and feel close to the subject. I never feel close to “space”, no matter how much research I do."

Book to read: Who Fears Death


Maryse Condé, author

"Heaven is not for me, I dream of an afterlife where we can express all the emotions and desires we have had to stifle during our lifetime: an afterlife where we would be free at last to be ourselves. Ever since I was little, I’ve wondered if the Christian religion is not a white-folks religion made for white-folks, whether it’s right for us who have African blood in our veins." -from Windward Heights

Books to read: Windward Heights, Segu


Ellen Gallagher, artist

"The one area in which it makes sense to talk about race in my work is my idea of the subjective. Some people can stand in front of my work not having any relationship to it, and others can read the signs, making cohesive readings based on either the formal or subjective qualities they see. When you make something, you allow yourself readings that are sometimes mistaken. As an artist I’m creating fiction on top of an existing readability. It’s what you talked about doing when you were a kid with Colorforms or what I did as a kid, stapling layers of paper costumes onto my dolls, that improvisational layering, implying call and response. It’s not about audience. There’s a friction between the material designed to be highjacked. It’s improvisational to create another readability through blindness, through a private act on hand with imagination."

See more of her work here.

Artist Ellen Gallagher at the Institute Of Contemporary Art.
Artist Ellen Gallagher at the Institute Of Contemporary Art.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Underdog, artist

"My work is just a way to recontextualize and stretch the human eye. I flirt with images and bring them into the 'now chapter' of reaffirming and envisioning ourselves. I just want to break peoples hearts and reassemble them in one image."


Cyrus Kabiru, artist

"Being an artist, for me, was that I was a rebel -- I was a bit rude to everyone. I don’t care. I don’t follow what people want -- I follow what I want. I don’t really like people. I want to go my own way. So I do everything the opposite to others, and they feel this guy is a bit of a rebel. When I was a little boy, grownups thought I was a bad example. They used to tell their kids, 'Work hard. If you won’t work hard, you’ll be like Cyrus.' I was very different. I was always in my house, doing art, painting and making sculptures, and no one understood what I was doing. I didn’t study, I wore shaggy clothes. To them it was a bit weird. I didn’t know Sunday, I didn’t know Monday, I didn’t know. In Africa, we live in a package."

See more of his work here.

Cyrus Kabiru
Cyrus Kabiru
Courtesy of the artist and SMAC Gallery

Lina Viktor, artist

"I’ve always been obsessed with gold. I think humanity as a whole has always been obsessed with gold. It’s been valued and revered and sacred. It’s a form of commerce now. I’m a little bit of an astrophysics nerd; I really love stuff about the universe and learning about the origin of metals. I know that gold, for example, is made from the death of a star -- a supernova. So basically, all the gold that has ever been mined on Earth today can only fit in three Olympic-sized swimming pools. It’s really a small amount -- it’s a very scarce resource, hence why, I’m sure, it has so much value. But I think there is something much more implicit in the value of gold -- when you see gold, real gold, it has a sort of emotional quotient to it that you can’t really get when you use fake gold. There’s an emotional reaction when people see real gold."

See more of her work here.

Lina Viktor
Lina Viktor
Ben Gabbe via Getty Images

Sun Ra, composer, poet, philosopher

“I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as a myth because that’s what black people are: myths. I come from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you from your ancestors.” -From Space is the Place

Books to read: This Planet Is Doomed

Janelle Monáe, musician

"I'm a cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind / (a product of the man, I'm a product of the man) / I'm a saviour without a race (without a face)." -from "Violet Stars Happy Hunting"

Albums: "The ArchAndroid," "The Electric Lady"

Ibeyi, musicians

"Carry away my dead leaves
Let me baptize my soul with the help of your waters
Sink my pains and complains
Let the river take them, river drown them
My ego and my blame
Let me baptize my soul with the help of your waters
Those old means, so ashamed
Let the river take them, river drown them"
-from "River"

Albums: "Ibeyi"

Blitz The Ambassador, musician

"I've always felt hip-hop as a culture hasn't really yet embraced its international roots. The more I traveled, the more I realized that there's a specific role that I need to be playing, and that role is about bridging gaps and expanding the culture that I've been so blessed enough to be a part of. That's why I went with the Ambassador."

Albums: "Soul Rebel," "Diasporadical"

"Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures," curated by Niama Safia Sandy, runs from April 24 until May 22, 2016 at Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.

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