Skip to content
Abstract illustration by Xia Gordon. A silver sphere on a multi colored background.

Issue 005 Winter 2023 Interviews

But How Do We Get There? A Roundtable on Afrofuturism

Three writers probe what lies beneath the spectacle.

By Aurella Yussuf, with Ifeanyi Awachie and Kareem Reid
Original illustrations by Xia Gordon

Nearly ten years ago, The Shadows Took Shape (2013–2014) opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem, with the exhibition taking its title from a poem by the experimental jazz musician Sun Ra. The show explored contemporary art practice through the lens of Afrofuturism, a somewhat nebulous concept that has existed since the early 1990s but gained considerable traction in the post-millennial era.

Conjuring images as disparate as aliens in outer space and hybrid aquatic lifeforms, Afrofuturism is concerned with alternate possibilities for Black life and has been applied to forms of expression across art, music, film, and literature.

Recently, art museums on both sides of the Atlantic have put another spotlight onto the concept, such as the recent exhibition In the Black Fantastic (2022) at the Hayward Gallery in London and Before Yesterday We Could Fly: an Afrofuturist Period Room (2021–), installed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This past June, the Barbican Centre in London also held a film program called Journeys across Afro-Futurism. I had questions as to why these major, predominantly white institutions—all of which have a problematic track record when it comes to engaging with matters of race—have taken an interest in the subject in this moment, and what it is about Afrofuturism that captures people’s imagination, beyond fantasy and escapism but purportedly as a tool for liberation, as well as whether their approaches hold up to scrutiny or deliver on that promise.

Over the last decade, my initial curiosity and openness about Afrofuturism as a theory has made way for uncertainty. Although the term itself can be traced back to Mark Dery, in 2002 Alondra Nelson produced a special edition of the journal Social Text on the subject, critically examining the discourse on Black cultural production and its relation to technology, in part as a counterpoint to the dominant narrative at the time about the digital divide as it relates to race. By the time I became aware of Afrofuturism, and in the years since, this kind of academic analysis had been all but stripped away, and the term has been seamlessly incorporated into pop culture as well as the realm of contemporary art. Nelson noted that “Blackness gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress,” so it is notable that Afrofuturism is so associated with aesthetic practices but is absent from discussions around scientific and technological innovation. There is much to be gained from scholarly texts on the subject, but for a concept that is so widely used in the public sphere, what does it mean that a level of depth about Black people’s futures is not accessible and/or has been diluted to the point that it is no longer useful beyond the surface?

The late cultural theorist bell hooks wrote that “to be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” Instead, what is ubiquitous is a sort of utopian ideal that is very detached from our current existence. The gap seems more vast than ever; in a time when multiple global crises—economic, public health, and climate—have converged, it is difficult to conceptualize the future when there may not be one or when we may not live to see it. Afrofuturism considers what the future could look like but not how we might get there.

I sat down with curator Ifeanyi Awachie and writer Kareem Reid to probe into what lies beneath the spectacle of Afrofuturism and what limitations and possibilities it might hold for Black creativity and Black futures. Kareem’s writing on the use of music and sound in contemporary art has informed numerous conversations that we have had over the past decade about Black people’s use of technology and the creation of spaces for multiple lived experiences, alternate realities in a sense. Ifeanyi’s writing on the Metropolitan’s Afrofuturist period room interrogates the concept of Afrofuturism when adopted by an institution, with valuable insight from her own curatorial practice. Collectively, we drew on the multiplicity of our experiences of Blackness, rooted in our mutual interest in exchanges across time and space—between the African continent and the diaspora—to examine not only Afrofuturism and its expressions, but also the risks of its co-optation by institutions.

One third of a triptych illustration by Xia Gordon of a dark figure touching a surface facing the viewer with an abstract white line wrapping around them. In the background is abstraction of a much larger figure lying down - it appears like landscape.
Artwork by Xia Gordon
Second third of a triptych illustration by Xia Gordon of a dark figure touching a surface facing the viewer with an abstract white line wrapping around them. In the background is abstraction of a much larger figure lying down - it appears like landscape.


Aurella Yussuf: For a long time, I’ve been unsure about Afrofuturism as a concept, mainly because I find it quite vague. The originator of the term itself is a white cultural critic called Mark Dery, but I find Ytasha Womack’s definition to be more useful: “Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens. Black cultural lens means the people of the African continent in addition to the Diaspora, the Americas, Europe, etc. It is an artistic aesthetic but also a kind of method of self-liberation or self-healing.” And it goes on in more detail. This idea of it being an aesthetic seems quite central, the idea that artistic and visual imaginings can be liberating and can lead the way for Black reality.

Kareem Reid: I’m interested in the concepts and the people that predated the academic coinage as well, because it feels pre-institutional. I’m conflicted. Sometimes I think it’s useful, but it’s so broad and all-encompassing. It contradicts itself a lot in trying to define this sense of wholeness and totality. That actually makes it limiting, because it’s basically describing Black people doing things with technology, which is just how we live now.

Ifeanyi Awachie: Years ago I found a definition of Afrofuturism from the Museum of Contemporary Photography that describes it as “an intellectual and artistic strategy to reimagine and repurpose the fraught past, present, and future of the transnational Black experience.” I’ve seen other definitions that are similar as well, to your point about contradiction, that actually talk about Afrofuturism as really concerned with the past. To go back to the definition you provided, Aurella, it can be part of critical race theory; it intersects the imagination, technology, Black culture, liberation, mysticism, I mean, self-healing. That is so much work for one concept to do, and I wonder about the capacity of this concept to do all that work when it’s so grounded in the aesthetic and the visual.

AY: Why does futurity in general have a specific aesthetic? If we exist in the present moment in such multitudes of expression and visual presentation, why would that not be the case in the future?

IA: I suppose that the answer to this question has a lot to do with the fact that it is Afrofuturity. Blackness is so closely linked with style, notions of cool. Black influences on high fashion, street fashion, mainstream fashion are countless. We could talk about what the Black body signifies and how it’s commodified in these industries and others, and how that could lead to Afrofuturity being so closely linked with style and with a certain way of dress.

The question becomes: what innovative things are Black people going to be wearing in the future? Although this is also one of the questions that Afrofuturism poses but maybe not as prominently: how are Black people going to be liberated in the future? What new social arrangements will Black people have in the future? How will Black people resist the dominant paradigms in the future? Those do seem to be secondary questions when we talk about Afrofuturism, as opposed to the questions of style and aesthetic.

Aurella Yussuf: Don’t Black people get to be regular in the future as well?

IA: I’m not sure. There’s a way in which futurity seems to preclude mundanity.

AY: The examples of sci-fi and speculative fiction that I have found to be the most unnerving and perhaps the most accurate play into the banal, the everyday.

IA: Octavia Butler comes to mind. If I’m remembering her novels correctly, Kindred centers on an interracial couple, where the Black woman ends up going back in time. I think that the narrative about her everyday life, and specifically how that changes when she goes back to the slavery era, is part of what made the book so compelling. I’m pretty sure it’s considered an Afrofuturist novel, but it hinges on going back in time and to this historical period. I guess what gets characterized as futurist is the ability to go back in time.

AY: There also seems to be a lot of repetition of the same references. We talked about Sun Ra and Lee “Scratch” Perry. George Clinton is another one, then Drexciya. Janelle Monáe is one that comes up all the time, and Shabazz Palaces. These all are musical artists who also have a really distinct visual component. What is it about sound and music that is so aligned with the idea of the future? And why is it these artists—is it because they also fit into some kind of particular aesthetic?

KR: A large part of it is based on their appearance and clothing and the fact that they adhere to those definitions of using the past to create a futuristic look. I saw a description somewhere of Sun Ra as a modern Egyptian alien and Janelle Monáe as a Fritz Lang android from the film Metropolis (1972).

AY: Janelle Monáe was mentioned in Martine Syms’s “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto,” which relates to what we were saying about the everyday and whether this exists in this Afrofuturist concept.

IA: I think for people like me who don’t necessarily identify with Afrofuturism or connect to it but maybe admire the aesthetic from afar, this critique of it, arguing for value to be given to other references as well, and to ask different questions—not just questions of style and going to space, but as Syms says, “no forgetting about political, racial, social, economic, and geographic struggles.”

KR: I was grateful for this turning towards the mundane, because putting those two words together brings us literally back down to Earth. I think the reason why Afrofuturism is such a fertile place for capitalism and for the way that it’s been integrated quite seamlessly into pop culture is because it is about the surface and a lot of it is about glamor.

AY: Is Afrofuturism about escapism?

IA: On a level, it seems so easy to say yes, right? It’s about escaping this plane, the earthly realm, and seeking better fortunes and space, which is why it’s so grounding for Martine Syms to assert that that’s all we have. I’m thinking about Janelle Monáe’s work and even writers like Nnedi Okorafor. It feels much more conscious than a lot of escapist media, but I do think it is about escape.

AY: What is escapism useful for? Because obviously there’s value in joy, in enjoyment and in pleasure. But is that its sole purpose?

IA: One of the first things that came to mind was temporary relief from intersecting public health crises and inflation and climate crisis and all these different things that we especially are dealing with. I suppose a better question that it raises is: does this enjoyment merit all these exhibitions? Does it merit endless discourse if one of the main purposes we could say is enjoyment?

KR: I think it’s disproportionate for sure, but I think it reflects the level of capitalism that we’re at.

IA: Right. The size of the need or the breadth, the depth of the need to escape from capitalism.

KR: I think the original premise of Afrofuturism is quite bleak in itself. The need for this particular kind of glamour that is combined with a promise of liberation. If you can take a step back from it, it’s not that surprising that it’s been so successfully co-opted. The more advanced that we get in terms of where we’re at in late-stage capitalism, then that need for this particular brand of Black glamour is going to keep growing.

IA: I suppose the question is how to enjoy Afrofuturism but also think critically about it.

Last third of a triptych illustration by Xia Gordon of a dark figure touching a surface facing the viewer with an abstract white line wrapping around them. In the background is abstraction of a much larger figure lying down - it appears like landscape.
Artwork by Xia Gordon

AY: I was searching for critiques of Afrofuturism, and they are very few and far between. In this blog post from Active Voice, there is a reference to a comment from Greg Tate: “What isn’t futurist about being Black in America?” One of the critiques about Afrofuturism is that conversation needs to be expanded beyond being Black in America. I remember Nnedi Okorafor writing about African futurism and why it was necessary, because Afrofuturism does not encompass the continent or perhaps even other parts of the Diaspora outside of the US.

IA: I was hoping we would talk about: where is the Africa in Afrofuturism? I thought this quote from the Active Voice blog was really spot on where the person says, “It would be even more interesting for people to emerge from within the culture(s), that is, African cultures, be it in the West or on the continent, who have the mindset to invent Google Glass.”

Of course, we’re all in the arts, and we know deeply the value of the arts, but why is there not also this level of scientific rigor associated with it? Sometimes these frameworks feel like, Why don’t we bring together this rich teeming visual Afrofuturism and celebrate it?—whatever that means, as opposed to seeing Afrofuturism as a really intellectually serious endeavor.

KR: The part I’m interested in is, so Tate’s twist in the tale promises to open up a meaningful philosophical platform for defining and understanding the idea of an Afrofuturism, one that isn’t about “I’m interested in using gadgets and looking weird, so I’m an Afrofuturist,” but broaches the comprehensive philosphere of a culture that survives on dreams. I thought that was really impactful, because it goes back to this idea of a collective longing or yearning for another reality that is different from the one that we’re in.

IA: To the point about what isn’t futurist about being Black in America, if we really wanted to grapple with that question, we might have to come to terms with how slavery was a technology that produced Blackness as a certain type of alien. And it’s easier to sell us these images that are loosely based on Black past but focus more on telling stories set in the future that don’t confront the ugly parts of that past, the parts produced by slavery, colonialism, capitalism, etc.

AY: Is that why there is institutional interest in it? Ifeanyi, you wrote about the Afrofuturist period room at the Met. Do you think it was attempting to do some of that heavier intellectual work?

IA: It’s an example of a project that’s looking back at the past, and I think it’s productive to look at a very specific historical event, the erasure of Seneca Village in New York. The period room asks: what if things had been different? What if this erasure had not taken place? What if these inhabitants did have a future? In other words, what if they existed in our present? But I struggle with these big institutional Afrofuturist shows and the question of how much intellectual work is being done through the curating of the show.

AY: The recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery In the Black Fantastic (2022) has a very carefully worded curatorial concept—not specifically an Afrofuturistic one, but it certainly draws on it. In that sense, it avoided some of the critiques that we’ve been discussing today. I enjoyed the show, and it was very beautiful, but I don’t think that it was trying to do this intellectual work that the Met was attempting, even if clumsily so. It felt quite superficial.

I’m really interested in the possibilities and the artists who are doing interesting things working with the idea of the Black future. One of my favorites artists from In the Black Fantastic was Rashaad Newsome. His work draws so much on existing Black queer culture and ballroom culture. I felt that it actually did the job of answering the question: how do you radically reimagine Black life within our current reality, rather than being somewhere outside of it? Are there any artists that you think are doing this successfully?

KR: Sondra Perry. She’s one who has, I think, managed to dodge the Afrofuturist label quite successfully. Even though her work centers technology and Black identity and how it helped to relate to each other, it’s the reality of it that I think probably keeps her out of that box, because it’s not glamorous. A lot of the work is quite violent and visceral, even though it deals with these abstract notions of digital space. . . .

In her show Typhoon Coming On at the Serpentine Gallery in 2018, she transformed the walls into a 3D rendering of an ocean, but it was this absurd purple color. It plays with this idea of taking from the past in a way, which is J. M. W. Turner’s paint depictions of slaves being thrown overboard a ship, but being very much in the present and projecting to a future by using technology in a way that hadn’t seen before at that time.

IA: Someone who came up was Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, who’s a sound artist, which is interesting because we were talking about how so many of the artists considered Afrofuturist are musicians. Their work has a lot to do with the low-frequency hum that you can produce with bass, and talking about the sociality of that hum and music that builds on that frequency. It relates to what we’ve been talking about, about that hum being the sound of the everyday, and fills this lack of mundanity that we’ve been talking about for futurism.

AY: I’m interested in why these institutions, the Hayward and the Met, have put on these shows at this current moment, almost ten years after The Shadows Took Shape. I feel like the conversation hasn’t progressed very far in those ten years or so since. I wonder if Afrofuturism is just a bit dated.

KR: You have to start putting some demarcation somewhere. What constitutes the future? 2020 was the extraterrestrial future in science fiction novels from the ’70s. We’re there now, so that projection starts to feel dated, especially if we’re thinking about these very defined figureheads such as Sun Ra. If it’s not dated now, if not on the absolute verge of total oversaturation, when will it become dated? Are we perpetually in the future?

IA: It does feel dated. I think that might be part of why I have never really felt like it was for me. I was surprised to see the Met period room framed as an Afrofuturist project, because I thought, oh, I thought that we kind of had our modern day Afrofuturist moment, and that’s kind of done now. So what is the impetus to discuss Afrofuturism again or frame this exhibition installation as Afrofuturist now?

AY: I don’t know about the Met, but I can’t think of the last time Hayward had an exhibition of Black artists. But post-2020, it seems like a lot of institutions decided to put on a show, and I think Afrofuturism is a safe bet. It has this facade of, to use a phrase that Kareem said earlier, the promise of liberation without actually taking any risks that might actually lead to liberation. Not that I expect a museum or gallery to lead to liberation, but maybe to point us in the direction somewhat. This wasn’t it, though.

IA: That makes me wonder if the Met, for example, had really sought out to put out a show that could lead us to liberation, who would those artists be? It’s interesting to think that in a post–George Floyd moment, this is the show that the museum decided to put on. Was there any thought to respond to these urgent and very present issues and platform artists who may have been grappling with these very urgent questions of liberation?

AY: I also have questions about the celebratory aspect. I feel like celebrate is a word that is frequently used in association with Blackness in the public eye. We want to celebrate Black culture and Black history and Black people’s achievements. We’re looking for a celebratory moment. Like Kareem said, the glamour is respite from the bleakness, and maybe the celebration is also, but actually it’s not enough.

KR: It isn’t. I agree. It is the language of capitalism at this point—celebration, especially in relation to Blackness.

IA: Part of the discomfort with that word is what does that celebration obscure? What does that celebration happen in place of? I feel like it’s always celebrating the enslaved people’s imagination, but very rarely is it, Let’s turn the spotlight on who was enacting violence.
There’s so much that’s unexplored there. The Met period room had one program called “a Daylong Celebration of the Afrofuturist Period Room.” It was a celebration instead of an exploration for people who may have wanted to really investigate and theorize the practices.

AY: Is there anything that either of you would like to see as far as Black futurism?

KR: As it stands, Afrofuturism is too broad to be useful right now. It’s made me quite cynical and tired of this constant striving for futurity, and this idea of the future being this utopian place. There are still parts of it I still find quite interesting, like the secrecy of our futurism. This idea of it being a secret Black technology is still quite alluring to me.

IA: I would like to see less of a focus on the body, to try to think beyond the figurative. It would be really interesting if Afrofuturist artists or projects could think about how else can we signify Blackness in the future outside of the body or representations of the body. Also, I would like to see more of a queer politic in Afrofuturism. I would love for these binary categories of gender and heterosexual and nuclear social arrangements to be expanded, and more mundanity, like we’ve been saying. I would love an Afrofuturist text that positioned Black people in the future but just had us being regular, as you were saying before, Aurella.

KR: What about you, what would you like to see?

AY: I’m waiting to be surprised, and I think that’s the thing about Afrofuturism. It has this promise that it doesn’t fulfill, and I’m waiting for something that is going to actually take me by surprise.