The term ‘Afrofuturism*’ was coined by an American writer, Mark Dery, in 1994, and many of the key artists and theorists associated with the movement — Sun Ra, George Clinton, Janelle Monae, Flying Lotus, Greg Tate, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Alondra Nelson, the list goes on — are/were American. But is it solely an American deal?
In curating the film program ‘Space is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film’ at Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek, I wanted to highlight that the movement also has a distinct international, pan-African reach.**
I included Wanuri Kahiu’s superb “Pumzi”, which is Kenya’s first science fiction film. “Afronauts” by Frances Bodomo — who grew up in Ghana (and Norway, California, and Hong Kong) — is a mesmerising, monochrome take on the Zambian space academy’s attempts to tangle with America in the space race. I’m also thrilled that we’re screening “Nguva (New Siren)”, an hypnotic short by the brilliant Kenyan-born visual artist Wangechi Mutu.
“Nguva (New Siren)” accompanies a rare showing of “Sankofa” (April 12) by Haile Gerima, the Ethiopian-born director who came to prominence in the 1970s with the L.A. Rebellion. “Sankofa” tells the story of a model on a photo-shoot in Ghana who is spiritually transported back in time to a plantation in the antebellum South. Isn’t that Afroretroism, you might ask? For me, Gerima is using a futuristic trope — time travel — to use the past to critique the present, and the way we might be headed… which is the future! Gerima takes a pan-African, semi-sci-fi approach to draw parallel between the real plantations of the past and his idea of a plantation mentality among some present-day black folks.
Being a Brit, I thought I’d also take this opportunity to highlight some of the great Afrofuturism-inspired work being done by my countryfolk.
For me, the key Afrofuturist film is “The Last Angel of History” (April 14), which was made in 1996, only two years after the term was coined. Crafted by the influential British outfit Black Audio Film Collective, it’s a fascinating mix of sci-fi parable and essay film. It interweaves interviews with musicians (including Lee “Scratch” Perry, George Clinton and Derrick May), writers and cultural critics with archival video and photography, and the fictional story of the “data thief”, who must travel through time and space in search of the code that holds the key to his future. It’s a powerful invocation for the international black diaspora to discover its own histories, so long suppressed from official records.
(If you don’t mind some [more] self-promotion, The Last Angel of History screening on Tuesday 14 April at 7.30pm will be followed by a panel discussion featuring director Terence Nance; the New Inquiry writer and editor Derica Shields; associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Naima J Keith, and it will be moderated by myself.)
Black Audio Film Collective have made other great Afrofuturist films, like “Memory Room 451”, while their associates The Otolith Group have been productive in similar fields, often with experimental visual work in gallery spaces. Otolith member Kodwo Eshun appears in “The Last Angel of History”, and is one of the most influential scholars on the subject of Afrofuturism. His book “More Brilliant Than The Sun” is recommended reading.
I’m particularly excited to be screening a 35-mm print of Ngozi Onwurah’s “Welcome II The Terrordome” (April 11), which is the first ever feature film directed by a black British woman. It opens with a prologue set in North Carolina, 1652, where an Ibo family drown themselves rather than succumbing to slavery. It then leaps forward to immerse us into a dystopian inner-city slum of the near-future where drugs, racism and crime are as rife as the brutality visited upon the majority black inhabitants by the police (the worst offender is a black cop, suggesting — in a way reminiscent of “Sankofa” — that a plantation mentality has taken hold). This harrowing, extremely disturbing film draws surprising links between near-mythical pasts and imagined futures to provoke tough questions on contemporary race relations and the reality of “progress.”
There are other great young British artists and filmmakers making compelling speculative work. One is Kibwe Tavares, whose “Robots of Brixton” is a computer-generated nightmare which both referenced the Brixton riots of the 80s and prefigured the 2011 unrests across England. (It screens with “Terrordome”.) Another is Shola Amoo, whose “Touch” blends a “Twilight Zone”-esque concept with shimmering Malickian visuals. I also seriously considered including Joe Cornish’s brilliant London council estate thriller/monster movie mash-up “Attack The Block”, which made a star of John Boyega, who plays the hero, Moses.
I wanted to mention a few other international Afrofuturist works that have caught my eye, but I didn’t get to see in time — or didn’t have the room — to include in my program at BAMcinématek. I’m a fan of Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s “Les Saignantes”, an erotic sci-fi thriller from Cameroon. Adirley Queirós’ “White Out, Black In” is an astounding, Brazil-set documentary/sci-fi about three men dealing in an imaginative way with a horrible past tragedy. Miguel Llansó’s Ethiopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi “Crumbs” is also very likely to go on to do great things. I’ve also been recently made aware of Janluk Stanislas’ Guadeloupe-shot “Trafik d’Info”, which I’m told is the first sci-fi film to be shot in the Caribbean.
I’m always looking for great Afrofuturist works from around the world, so if you know any that I’ve missed, or you’ve made one yourself, please leave a note in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter @_Ash_Clark.
* Descriptions of the term vary, but here are a couple of interpretations. Author Ytasha Womack describes it as comprising “elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.” Afrika Bambaataa, speaking at an event in London in 2014, said simply: “Afrofuturism is dark matter moving at the speed of light.” Conceptual artist Martine Syms, in her wry Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, feels that the idea should be grounded in a tangible reality (“No interstellar travel – travel is limited to within the solar system and is difficult, time consuming, and expensive”).
** Away from film, read this great article for an example of how Afrofuturism is having a civic impact in Africa.