Mark Dery may have christened the movement in 1994, with his seminal essay Black to the Future, but Afrofuturism had already been around since at least the mid-50s, when jazz poet Sun Ra allegedly walked the streets of Chicago in his ancient Egyptian spacesuit and crown.
Purposefully literal and elusive at once, Afrofuturism as a school of thought seeks to liberate the present from the past, by crafting astral visions of alternate black futures. In these, slavery and the diaspora may be reimagined through the lens of extraterrestriality, as filmmaker and theorist Kodwo Eshun most notably puts it, “to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation, and the constitution of Black Atlantic subjectivities”, with the artists and authors often recasting themselves as the alien – outlandish and wise, abducted, yet regal. As an aesthetic, Afrofuturism embraces the visual codes of the cosmos, mysticism, tribalism and technoculture, and out of iconography, builds worlds. Such as Drexciya’s Black Atlantis: according to the legend in the sleeve notes of their album The Quest, a sunken realm populated by the progeny of pregnant African women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage, who learnt to breathe underwater from the inside of their mothers’ wombs.
“Afrofuturism embraces the visual codes of the cosmos, mysticism, tribalism and technoculture.”
On days when we’re no longer willing to turn a blind eye on racial inequality, and can be both vocal and influential with our outrage, the worldbuilding of Afrofuturism, half escapism and half accusation, resonates once more with young generations. Ours is the age of migrations – come 2045, less than 50% of Americans will be white. We’re uprooted and decentralised, drawn to dream up parallel universes: newfangled Afrofuturist disciples may once again be found from literature and academia to videogames and comics, across all creative fields. To begin with music, where its influence never really went away, and unfazed by the passing of time, trends or any claim of genre specificity, Afrofuturism lives on as a fil rouge to link the work of selected performers through the decades, from jazz to reggae, hip-hop and soul to the birth of techno, that Dery considers altogether “a quintessential example of Afrofuturism”. Grace Jones to Flying Lotus to now Janelle Monáe, whose alter-ego is a self-aware android who calls itself Cindi Mayweather, and fights against class divide and prejudice against cyborgs in the Metropolis of the future.
“from a long line of ancestors who operate time based on celestial happening still undiscovered by the western world”
In cinema, the current relevance of Afrofuturism is felt just as keenly, with recent releases like Adirley Queiros’ favela sci-fi White Out, Black In and the dystopic Crumbs, a surreal low-budget set in post-apocalyptic Ethiopia. More lighthearted and self-indulgent is Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, in which the navel-gazing main character attempts at some point to reason if his chronic inability to arrive on time might not be due to an Afrocentric perception of it, given that he comes “from a long line of ancestors who operate time based on celestial happening still undiscovered by the western world”. This new wave of attention, however, is not always of the positive kind: a 2014 experiment at Northwestern University showed that the fear to end up a minority might cause white Americans to become more socially conservative, and current news would seem to prove it right on a national scale.
Keeping to cinema, just think of the shameful controversy that sparked over the casting of black actor John Boyega for a leading role in the latest installment of the Star Wars space saga, with some so-called fans going as far as to boycott the movie that they view as a piece of “#antiwhite propaganda”, whatever that means. All considered, fashion has been surprisingly late to catch up, especially if we take into account the pivotal role that garments have had from the beginning in the performance of Afrofuturist narratives, and the conception, representation and celebration of the hybrid or mutant identities of their otherworldly protagonists. Perhaps not so surprisingly however, if we bear in mind that according to The New York Times, only 12 out of 470 members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America were African-Americans last year. Despite all criticisms, international runways as well remain as whitewashed as ever: record lows on the diversity scale were reached this season at Junya Watanabe, Comme des Garcons and Balenciaga, reports The Fashion Spot, whereas black models in the fall 2016 shows have still been only the 9.22% – and truth to be told, most of them were Yeezy’s.
“Fashion is a business known to benefit from media attention, and what Vanessa Friedman describes as a “retail-ization of cause””
Still, baby steps towards a more inclusive industry are admittedly taken season after season, and the percentage, though incongruously slowly, does tend to improve ever so slightly. Take the street-style sensation of Ashley B. Chew’s Black Models Matter bag, well-meaning if a bit simplistic, effective in its intent for people to talk about it. Though the praise was unanimous, it could come off as slightly over the top – there’s offensive casting and there’s tragedy, is all I’m saying. A more divisive, but by far more thoughtful approach is that of Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond, who opened his spring 2016 show with a self-produced video essay on systematic racism and police brutality, featuring a compilation of disturbingly familiar footage and newly filmed interviews.
The conflict there, is clear: there’s a reason why fashion so seldom touches on themes of such magnitude, and callousness can’t always be blamed. Fashion is a business known to benefit from media attention, and what Vanessa Friedman describes as a “retail-ization of cause” is bound to arise suspicion and criticism over the most selfless of designers’ endeavours. On the other hand, with the great reach of fashion should come great responsibility, and if Haitian-American Kerby Jean-Raymond doesn’t do what’s in his power to raise awareness, who will? Certainly not older white designers fond of cautious flowery prints.
In an article about Pyer Moss’ for The Washington Post, Robin Givhan writes about fashion as “an industry that, in its finest moments, provides people with the tools to define themselves so that others cannot”, the Afrofuturist deed par excellence, if you will. This narrative element is by no means exclusive, on the contrary, it’s such a prominent aspect of fashion as we intend it today that many young designers of different racial backgrounds have started to address their seasonal shows largely as vehicles to deliver a message, or tell a story, with the clothes themselves almost as an excuse.
Even on a purely aesthetic level, the futuristic undertones of many collections have become less streamlined, more grainy – with lamé, metallics and glittery or holographic finishes found as much on the high street as on the runway, hinting back to the old-school DIY ensembles of the original Afrofuturist crew.
By Silvia Bombardini / www.slvbmb.com