What’s the future of Afrofuturism—and museums?

Among the accomplishments of Black Panther—first all-black superhero movie, 10th highest-grossing film of all time—is something that African-American artists have awaited for a long time: the mainstream emergence of Afrofuturism. A movement borne in the cultural margins of the 1970s, now on the big screen in multiplexes around the world.

Blending African history with technology and science fiction, Afrofuturism projects blackness into the future, where people of color have not only survived oppression but are thriving in a new technocratic age. It may not be the first thing you associate with Black Panther, but it’s there all right in the story of T’Challa, leader of Wakanda, a prosperous and technologically sophisticated African nation untouched by colonization. The blockbuster has given Afrofuturism new momentum, which, as a recent panel discussion at Mia made clear, has opened new channels of discussion for the future of Afrofuturism.

The scene in "Black Panther" in which the character Erik Killmonger inspects African art at the Museum of Great Britain.

The scene in “Black Panther” in which the character Erik Killmonger inspects African art at the fictitious Museum of Great Britain.

The evening began with clip from the movie, the scene in which Erik Killmonger, who aspires to the Wakandan throne, is approached by a white curator while admiring African objects in the fictitious Museum of Great Britain. “These objects aren’t for sale,” the curator snidely admonishes him, prompting this line from Killmonger: “You think your ancestors paid a fair price for these?”

The scene points to a problem within many museums in the United States and Europe, long present but only recently addressed: they are rooted in white colonial narratives. As the poet and artist Sun Yung Shin pointed out on the panel, almost all the objects in Mia’s East Asian collection are grave goods; when considered in this context, the space begins to look like a mausoleum.

“It’s the responsibility of the museum to tell the story of an object’s ancestry,” said Beverly Cottman, a performance artist. Erin Sharkey, a writer and educator, added, “Museums have to acknowledge that they’re telling a particular story and these stories have power.”

Their comments were met with snaps around the room, though poet and graphic designer Chaun Webster went a step further: “I don’t think it’s enough to do the rhetorical gesture of saying that these things got here by way of extraction and ‘Oops our bad.’ I think that’s a really easy gesture, and it doesn’t necessarily reckon with the material consequences.”

Reimagining the future

The term Afrofuturism was first posited in 1994 by cultural theorist Mark Dery, who defined it as “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.” But the aesthetic was conceived much earlier, by science fiction writer Octavia Butler and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and, perhaps most colorfully, by the strange and revelatory work of jazz musician Sun Ra.

Sun Ra in "Space in the Place."

Sun Ra in “Space in the Place.”

In the 1974 film Space is the Place, Sun Ra strolls through a forest of alien flora, dressed in Egyptian-style garb with a golden orb atop his head. “Planet Earth sounds of guns, anger and frustration,” he says. “There was no one to talk to on Planet Earth. We set up a colony for black people here. See what they can do with a planet all their own without any white people there.”

At Mia, some kind of decolonized future—not merely speculative, but real—would require radical changes, the panel agreed. “What would it be if the top three positions in this institution were queer people of color?” asked Sharkey. Cottman added, “There’s room for expansion, added there’s room for a wider vision.”

Webster questioned whether leadership change was enough. “What if an alternative future requires that certain institutions die?” he suggested. “I don’t know that institutions that are so closely tied to colonialism can be repurposed.”

“I think we need to be building not institutions, but the way we make and celebrate art,” said Sharkey. “It’s often a weird dynamic in museums because art spurs new ideas, but institutions are so traditional.”

The panelists all spoke to the importance of imagination and speculation in their own practices, reimagining a future through art. “It’s impossible not to think about the future you’re creating with every object, with every thought you express or produce,” said Senah Yeboah-Sampong. Creating art is an expression of humanity, he said. It opens a dialogue and encourages others to do the same. “I try to use my work desperately to affirm and express my humanity and hopefully influence a better tomorrow for other people.”

This is the power of art and imagination, though as Sharkey qualified, imagination requires effort and flexibility. “It’s not something that’s inherent to us, it’s a muscle we have to work,” she said. “I want to continue to do this work, I want to continue to invite other people to see imagination as this really dynamic thing we gotta invest in.”

Top image: Panelists for Mia’s Afrofuturism and the Urgency of (Re)Imagination discussion, clockwise from left: Erin Sharkey, Senah Yeboah-Sampong, Beverly Cottman, and Chaun Webster.