Monday, March 22, 2010

What is Afro-Futurism?: An Interview with artist/educator D. Denenge Akpem

D. Denenge Akpem is a performance artist, designer and educator. In addition to Black Arts Movement, she is teaching a new course entitled "Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation" at Columbia College Chicago. (Photo: D. Denenge Akpem "Super Space Riff: An Ode to Mae Jemison and Octavia Butler in VIII Stanzas" Still from performance/installation)

YLW: I think it's really interesting that you're teaching Afro-Futurism. The first time I was introduced to the concept I was in college. It wasn't called Afro-Futurism, but you had people linking liberation and art with with outer space/inner space and analyzing pop culture references in WuTang or Erykah Badu songs with Egyptology and Ayn Rand novels and Star Wars after class and in workshops. It was very intense. To know that someone is teaching it formally as an art form or way of thinking is amazing to me. What is Afro-Futurism?

DA: There are many different definitions out there, and we consider as many definitions as possible in this class. The full title of the course is "Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation." Afro-Futurism as a topic has to do primarily with blacks in the Diaspora but also the whole of African consciousness. Afro-Futurism considers what "Blackness" and "liberation" could look like in the future, real or imagined. It is rooted in history and African cosmologies, using pieces of the past, both technological and analog, to build the future. The basic premise of this course is that the creative ability to manifest action and transformation has been essential to the survival of Blacks in the Diaspora. There are many different ways people approach the topic.

YLW: Like what?

DA: Some are very technological about the approach. Others are a lot more holistic. Mark Rockeymoore, for example, talks about the afro itself as a metaphor for Afro-Futurism, as if its very form is futuristic, reaching for new dimensions and uncontained. Alondra Nelson is one of the key theorists on the subject, and we've been looking at DJ Spooky and his Rebirth of a Nation remix, Sun Ra's music and philosophy, Octavia Butler's science fiction. We've been focused on the last century and beyond.

The approach I take is to ask: how is the envisioning of the future an act of artistic revolutionary action? We’re looking at artists who consider blackness as it might exist in the future, but also looking at artists themselves--beyond the art works--and how the actual creation of the work, the methodology is an act of or path to liberation for the artist, by the artist on behalf of the artist, communities, black people, the universe.

YLW: Can you give examples of artists who reference Afro-Futurism?

DA: We are looking at a wide range of writers and artists in music, film, visual and performing arts as well as theorists. Everyone from Labelle to Fatimah Tuggar...Pamela Z...Kodwo Eshun, so many writers and practitioners. I try to make note of the distinctions in terms of whether artists are working in ways or creating works that might be considered "Afro-Futurist" and whether the artists themselves would classify their work or themes as "Afro-Futurist." We had a similar conversation in our discussion of what is an alien, what is a human. We considered internal and external perceptions of the self and the other.

Lil Wayne talks about being an E.T. You have Outkast, ATLiens, the godfathers Afrika Bambaataa and Lee "Scratch" Perry. Sun Ra is the foundation. Parliament/Funkadelic and looking at George Clinton and the Detroit techno sound... Hattie Gossett's The Immigrant Suite: Hey, Xenophobe: Who You Callin' a Foreigner? beautifully addresses concepts of foreigner, immigrant, and contemporary xenophobia. The artistic creation of the cyborg and creating identity through these forms is an act of resistance to limitation. Afro-Futurists are saying we’re going to believe in the power of a positive future for blackness. So blackness is not limited by stereotypes of blackness. I saw a lot of parallels with the intentions of your book Post Black.

YLW: How is Futurism different from Afro-Futurism?

DA: Futurism when it developed in the early 1900s was about disavowing anything of the past. I feel that it’s a bit of a contradiction in terms to talk about "Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation" if you're into Futurism and are defining "blackness" by the past. But that's what makes it an excellent topic for Black World Studies--that's the departmental division that this course falls under--because Afro-Futurism is absolutely rooted in the past, in race, in the use of Futurist thought and process to transcend and manipulate the facts of race in a "trickster" way, the art of dissembling and coding, and that has been part of the African Diaspora since the first abduction. It references the past in futuristic ways.

YLW: Can you give me an example?

DA: For example, key theorists and artists have discussed the concept that black people are aliens in the African Diaspora, literally. Abducted from their land, plucked up, tortured. How do you deal with that? So it’s an investigation of the alien, of hybridity. We look at the Three-Fifths Compromise, and we consider what has defined and does define "human" and what has defined human as far as black people are concerned.

The film District 9 came out last year. It’s science fiction but it’s a direct reflection of South African apartheid and draws from that history for the film's narrative, the visuals, and the concepts that are being addressed even as it provides little concrete information in the actual film or the website for the viewing public on the actual history that it references such as District 6. Perhaps the filmmaker's goal is to get people to research it further after having seen the film but the absence of some crucial links in the actual film itself might pose a problem that might take it from being progressive to another case of appropriation. I'm still thinking a lot about that film.

The question is: how do you make work that speaks to a new future? I’ve been researching Rev. A.W Nix who was a preacher who recorded gospel sermons in the 1900s. The titles themselves were interesting. "Death Might Be Your Christmas Gift.” He’s trying to push the believer to wake up. There is this "wake up people, snap out of it" conversation.

YLW: This “wake up” concept is one that we see in a lot of science fiction movies. The Matrix or Avatar come to mind, but so does Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, too.

DA: Rev. Nix has one sermon where he references Jesus or believers meeting Jesus on a spaceship. There’s this history. It’s a fine line to straddle and people have been ostracized. Ray Charles straddled it and was ostracized until society caught up with him. Sister Rosetta Tharpe went through similar experiences with the Blues and around gender. You always run the risk of being called a cult--or occult--if you talk about aliens or other ways of understanding. The view that I take on it is that the black experience especially in the Diaspora contains within it many spiritual and scientific belief systems. It references indigenous African cosmologies that have a lot to do with other worlds and ways of knowing.

YLW: It seems as if a lot of Afro-Futurism's logic is based around the science or mythology of ancient Egypt.

DA: Sure. Sun Ra, Earth Wind and Fire, many artists were looking to Egypt. Sun Ra believed he was from Saturn, not from Earth, and that he had been picked by these other worldly beings to speak to the black folks and to minister. He was reluctant about it. He didn’t want to be the messenger even as he loved to teach and had studied to become a teacher in addition to his work as a musician in college.

Gil Scott Heron's song "Whitey on the Moon" asks why, if we can go to the moon, we can't take care of the problems and poor living conditions we have down here on Earth. "A rat done bit my sister Nell but whitey's on the moon." So I consider the subject not only from a sci-fi point of view but also look at cultural, political and social references. But there's also this concept of using technology as a basis for creative process. Wendy Walters writes about how even Motown used the auto industry as a model for their music production system.

In the end, it all provides a way to look beyond the here and now. I really credit the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department at Columbia College for working with me on this and for seeing the connections and supporting this area of study.

YLW: How have people responded?

DA: The response has been very positive from current students in the course, from faculty with whom I get into wonderful debates about the course topics, to students who have just heard about the genre itself and are curious. "What's Afro-Futurism?" My question is: what is the history and who are the new media makers? It’s my job to guide the critical thinking process. It’s like what Amiri Baraka said, we don’t need any more of the status quo.

We've got five senses but that's just the beginning. It’s a practice that can change your life. But then again, I grew up reading Dr. Seuss. His work is not about the afro, but this books stretch the imagination into new worlds, new possibilities, very anti-xenophobia. How can the practice of creating liberate? I believe it was Maya Angelou who said if you can envision a new world, you can create it. I'm sure that's been said in other ways before, but my hope is that Afro-Futurism will help people envision a future with the goal of creative transformation for self and planet.

YLW: One issue that continues to pop up in my discussions is this notion of what exactly is blackness and does it exist. Because the notion of blackness as its usually discussed comes from a very American black liberation theory view point.

DA: I’m really interested in the idea of race, in notions of beauty and expression in culture. Obviously, the subtitle of the course is "Pathways to Black Liberation" so I am addressing Afro-Futurist works and practitioners specifically under that lens but it is not only about Black liberation. It's about liberation for all no matter what race, and liberation as it relates first and foremost to the work of the artist. No matter what the artist's intention may be, the act of being an artist, of answering that call--I take it very, very seriously. So my question is how to assist in the development of artists who are not afraid to answer that call, who are looking beyond the "norm" and who are able to enter that creative realm and come out changed but intact on the other side.

The creators have to begin to conceptualize things ahead of the society. What is race? What is post race? I feel like there’s a use for race. I feel very positively about race. I don’t hear that view a lot and this is the first time I've ever actually said that or felt that. As someone who was born and raised in Nigeria, my mother's family were Dutch immigrants to Chile and then California. She moved to Nigeria at age 25 as a nurse. My dad is a Tiv pastor whose work is rooted in service. I grew up internationally with this different perspective on race. It's not that there weren't issues but they were different in some crucial ways from the conceptions of race in this country.

Race in the U.S is immediately negative, but I feel positively about it. I don't see my duality as a struggle; it is other people that seem to have the struggle with it. But the same can be said for being black. One may love being black but when one is confronted with racism, someone else's problem become yours in the sense that it's in your sphere now and you must address it even if it's to ignore it. But the study of race is a big topic and one that I am still chewing on, still discovering... I feel that part of my study of Afro-Futurism is a way of taking back my power to define myself in a futuristic trajectory. But how is this translating into the general populace? The last story I read about race or bi-race was so negative and offensive but it was fairly recent. I think also that in terms of race we are talking about perspectives by different generations in this country. I’m interested to see how the Afro-Futurist discourse relates to all of that.

YLW: How did you get into Afro-Futurism in art?

DA: Well, first, I was raised on the books of Dr. Seuss. And I specifically mention the books rather than film or animation--which I don't watch, by the way--because they shaped the foundation of my philosophy about life and art. Andrea Harrison was my professor at Smith College. She was writing plays about Einstein, producing innovative plays, climbing mountains, literally. She was my role model. She shaped my views on being a black woman and how one operates as an artist. You have to locate your thoughts and ideas within your physical body and be responsible for them. A collector I know in Chicago once said something that stays with me, that he tends to go toward the art that disturbs him or that he can't get out of his mind, that he wrestles with. In a sense, he’s saying he’s going towards the fear. That affected me profoundly, and I always find a way to share that with my students. And that’s one of the things I’m thinking about with this course. We know it’s new territory. There’s a lot of experimentation which is a big part of Afro-Futurism.

YLW: What do you say to those who argue that Afro-Futurism is just some far-out ideas by a group of oddball artists and thinkers?

DA: We need to respect the oddballs and those who are operating outside of what we call the norm. Baraka said that in his "Revolutionary Theatre" manifesto. Not that everyone has to be this freak or think George Clinton is God. It’s just about learning a methodology to go beyond the norm. I used to teach ritual performance, and the fact is that the path of the artist is one in which you’re signing up to go through a transformation. You want to teach people how to go through that process and get to the other side. Folks can get lost in that process. That's how you lose someone like a Jimi Hendrix. They’re going through that alchemic process on behalf themselves but also on behalf of us. Being an artist is a continual going through that cauldron and coming through the other side. You have to learn that process. If you don’t, you can get trapped, and you may not make it literally. I’m interested in the health of my students. I want them to thrive and tap into their greatest potential. We’re on a voyage.

YLW: You mentioned that you taught ritual performance art. Does shamanism have links to Afro-Futurism?

DA: We read text from Malidoma Patrice Somé who is Dagara from Burkina Faso. He's a shaman initiated in the ways of Dagara and also has multiple degrees from Western universities. His book Of Water and the Spirit details his initiation experience initiation. Later, he wanted to do an experiment, so he brought a videotape of Star Trek to the Dagara elders. They understood the story immediately but saw Star Trek as an example of the day to day lives of people somewhere else in the world. They saw Spock as kontomblé, one of the mystical beings part of Dagara cosmological landscape, except that he was too tall. Light speed and teleportation were completely familiar to them but they wondered why are these people wasting so much energy? We can do these things much more discretely. His point is that the West sees Africa as being so backwards but the "archaic" ways that are part of the elders' present are what the West sees as futuristic.

YLW: Afro-Futurism is a foray to explore identity as well.

DA: I want to define myself. I like categories but only as far as I can shape-shift between them. It always comes back to analog. At the end of the day you still have to connect that wire to that wire. You can get as hi-tech as you want, but it’s about the basic things. In 2002 all of my personal relationships were web based. All of my family was scattered across the planet. I was thinking about these rituals we have and how can you connect through a ritual that cares for the community, like cleansing etc. when the community is not there. This was pre-facebook. If you leave human babies alone they die or do not develop.

Biologically, we still need touch, stimulation, breathing. We haven’t evolved biologically. We’re not cyborgs yet. I worked on an interactive media piece called "Virtual Exorcism" which asked the question: in the absence of community, is there a way to sustain those rituals online? Granted you can’t do a Sunday dinner online, but perhaps the web will catch up in terms of the taste and smell options that are being developed, we’ll get close. Though even if you could have Sunday dinner online and even eat it like how food appears on the Jetsons, would it be "Sunday dinner" in the truest sense of the meaning of that ritual? Could it be? There are still some things that define us on a very intrinsic and cellular level. Will we evolve to the point where we’re not human and what exactly does it mean to be human? Will we ever be post human?

I want to live in Marina City--which looks just like something out of the Jetsons--and have a flying car. I thought we would have been there by now. Marina City is the perfect Jetsons-esque setting for flying cars. I want to travel outer space and not just be in a suit, go to Mars, go to the moon. That's one of my goals. This is 2010; we’re supposed to be much further along. The information age is great, but I want the trappings of futurism. I am interested in artists who are working in fashion with new technologies to produce garments that are futuristic in their interaction with the wearer.

YLW: We're all raised with the Jetsons and Star Wars. I'm sure there's something futuristic that we've seen in films only that we all want to do. Then again, that's the basis for innovation. What about green living and futurism?

DA: My view of Afro-Futurism also includes this idea of holistic living and how we are responsible. You can’t eat fast food if you’re trying to go through the process of being initiated in Dagara. You have to be rooted in the earth, and that kind of holistic approach is part of many indigenous cultures. I believe that futurism should be rooted in an awareness of our planet and a sense of care for it, a sense of recreating ourselves as a community on the planet. There has to be something responsible and honorable and not just about commodity. There’s nothing wrong with getting paid, but if you’re talking about blackness and liberation that’s when you have to get into something a little broader than the quest for the benjamins.

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  1. This is just wonderful. Thank you!

    Tewodross Melchishua
    Artist/Animator/Educator & Afro-futurist

  2. I love your website photos and information is excellent

  3. All my years growing up with sci-fi in the movies and on TV I've always wondered why Blacks were only few. My own history stopped at the slave ship until college took me beyond. When I looked back, I could see forward. Great interview, topics and pics, thanks!

  4. I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree

  5. I think that we look far to much for surface indications of Afrofuturists ideas in works. It's ok for people to have to dig to research things, that just makes those research abilities keener.

    We need to, as artists and black people, think about the genesis of art and how we can really pull who we are out onto the canvas instead of running from certain genre work and taking the easy, more commercial route all the time.

  6. I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree

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