Living in Harlem has offered the great chance to connect with black culture. This involved reading up on the district’s vibrant twentieth-century history as well as visiting the local Studio Museum on 125th Street a few times. Here, a recent exhibition on Afrofuturism was a highlight.


In 1994, cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term in his essay “Black to the Future”. In the introduction, he wonders why so few African American writers have taken on science-fiction writing, as their shared experience appears to lend itself to the genre:

African Americans, in a very real sense, are the descendants of alien abductees; they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (…)

That’s what the emergent field of Afrofuturism can loosely be described as, addressing themes and concern of the African diaspora through a science-fiction lens.

There is plenty of work that may be familiar to those unfamiliar with the field, i.e. Sun Ra and King Britt in the music world, Wangechi Mutu and Rammellzee in visual arts as well as District 9 and Brother from Another Planet in cinematography.

We watched the latter film last week, having had it on our list for a while now. Despite its lengths and oddities it was a remarkable experience, although the trailer does not necessarily convey that…

There are so many layers that have to do with “alien-ness”, alienation and fugitivity in here: A black alien chased by two white bounty hunters crashes on Ellis Island from where he makes his way up to the Harlem of the eighties. Unable to speak, he is assimilated as a ‘brother’ in the African American community.

Back to the Studio Museum exhibition, there was a dizzying array of works from such a variety of artists that make a summary of the show quite hard. However, my favourites included Cristina de Middel’s “Afronauts” (photos commemorating the 1964 Zambian space program) and Cyrus Kabiru’s masks.

With both artists, the Studio Museum also breached its own ethnic boundaries, highlighting afrofuturism as a global phenomenon.

The exhibition organisers also ran a Tumblr.

One thought on “Afrofuturism

  1. Really interesting piece on picketty, Ben! You have really captured the excitement of the event, although looking around the Columbia auditorium, I noticed a number of rather glum-looking male faces who looked as though they wished that they were Thomas Picketty! Didn’t realize that Robert Reich criticized Picketty for being apolitical. Interesting.

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