African contemporary artists and SF

By Alexander Buckley and Hannah Galbraith

Nuotama Frances Bodomo, a still from Afronauts 

Africanfuturism, a term coined by writer Nnedi Okorafor, is used to describe science fiction created by Africans and those of the African diaspora. Afrofuturism, on the other hand, tends to define science fiction created by Black people predominantly in the U.S. – the key difference, Okorafor explains, is that ‘Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West’ (Okorafor, 2019). While the practices of Africanfuturist and Afrofuturist visual artists differ greatly in their techniques and subject matter, there are common themes which run deeply through many works: hybridity, cultural tradition and history, trauma, and the possibilities of outer space. This article will showcase multiple contemporary Afrofuturist and Africanfuturist artists through the lens of these themes, exploring the ways their works resonate and diverge.

Emos de Medeiros is a Beninese-French artist currently living and working between Benin and France. Medeiros practises a concept he calls ‘contexture’:
‘a fusion of the digital and the material, of the tangible and the intangible, exploring hybridizations, interconnections and circulations of forms, technologies, traditions, myths and merchandises’ (Kikk Festival, 2019). Hybridity is alive throughout Medeiros’s work and is one of his central philosophies. In 2014, Medeiros’s performative installation Kaleta/Kaleta synthesised installation with performance, incorporating music, videos processed and recombined in real-time, photography and a performative video installation that encouraged public participation. Kaleta/Kaleta was hybrid not only in its medium, but also its subject matter. The work depicted the Beninese cultural tradition ‘Kaleta,’ which is a combination of music, dance and performance, itself a ‘unique mix of Brazilian carnival, American Halloween, and Beninese mask tradition.’ By reimagining this tradition through the use of digital technology, Medeiros explains, he sought to form ‘a synthesis between memory and vision, past and future, conservation and creation.’ 

In Medeiros’s Vodunaut series (2017), science fiction and the imagery of space exploration is merged with Yoruban cultural tradition. Vodunaut #09 presents a space helmet decorated with cowry shells, referencing Fa; Medeiros describes this work as an embodiment of ‘a West African philosophy and geomancy system, widespread in Benin as well as Nigeria (and present in Brazil) that involves cowry shells, both as objects and symbols.’

The Vodun religion in Benin associates cowry shells with exploration, as well as protection, prosperity and fertility. In Vodunaut, the helmets are combined with video works presented on smartphones, merging the organic with the inorganic, the symbolic and spiritual with the digital and scientific. Through these objects, Medeiros points to an alternative future where Yoruba spirituality is situated in outer space, and in doing so his work ‘encompasses transcultural spaces and the questioning of traditional notions of origin, locus or identity and their mutations through non-linear narratives’ (Now Look Here, 2020). 

Vodunaut — Emo de Medeiros
Emos de Medeiros, Vodunaut #02

Explorations of hybridity and tradition can also be found in the work of Jacque Njeri. Jacque Njeri’s visual artwork focuses on feminism, culture and empowerment ‘through projected extra-terrestrial realities.’ In her project The Stamp Series, Njeri redesigns selected stamps, combining local culture with space exploration and science fictional elements. Her MaaSci series of digital artworks puts the Maasai tribe, inhabitants of Kenya and Tanzania, into visceral imaginative scenes in space. Njeri’s Maasai science fiction imagines a universe where the Maasai people explore the stars. In MaaSci, the culture of the Maasai is made inseparable from space exploration. The MaaSci series put Njeri in the global spotlight and her work has since been exhibited in Kenya and the 2018 Other Futures Festival in Amsterdam. 

Continue reading “African contemporary artists and SF”

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. Edited by Zelda Knight and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora by [Zelda Knight, Marian Denise Moore, Eugen Bacon, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Michael Boatman, Odida Nyabundi, Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald]

Reviewed by Fiona Moore

This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

It’s become almost a cliché of conversations in sf circles: someone says that they would love to read more works by authors from non-Western, non-White, and/or postcolonial origins, but, they add, “I don’t really know where to start.” While the recent rise to prominence of African and African-diaspora authors like NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor and Tade Thompson has been welcome, potential readers might still wonder where to look for writers in other sub-genres of sf, such as horror, Weird fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction. 

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora provides a suitable answer to this question, being a sampler of a diverse range of stories by established African and African Diaspora authors, covering a startling range of genres that provides something for everyone. At the same time, however, there is plenty for those with a good understanding of Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism to appreciate.

All the stories were, however, at the very least interesting and in most cases very enjoyable to read. Some fit comfortably within familiar sf categorisations. “Trickin’”, by Nicole Givens Kurtz, is a Hallowe’en-set horror piece which develops both the vampire and demonic-possession subgenres. “Sleep, Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies is also on the conventional horror spectrum, a Lagos-set story involving necromancy and revenant corpses to explore family relationships.  On the science fiction side, “Red_bati” by Dilman Dila, about a former robot pet now repurposed as a mining robot after the death of its human owner, fits into the growing genre of stories exploring the morality of creating AI for human use; this example does a good job of handling the balance between making the AI sympathetic and not obscuring his non-human mindset.

Other stories engage more directly with colonialism and postcolonialism. “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon is a fantasy about a mage who meddles with African colonial history, exploring questions about power, corruption and legitimate leadership. “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu is a mixed genre SF/fantasy, giving us a wizard from Earth tracking a magical object to an alien society and retrieving it with the aid of a half-human-half-alien woman. The idea of magic-as-science, a feature of much postcolonial sf including that from Africa and its diaspora, arises both as an embracing of the indigenous logics dismissed as superstition in a colonial context, and a challenge to the idea of “Western” science as hegemonic and objective. Here, it is counterpointed by the narrative of a mixed species character finding an escape from her oppressive birth society. 

“The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh is a genuinely terrifying horror fantasy about an Igbo woman in the 1950s in an abusive marriage; the best horror for me is always that which works as a metaphor for real-life issues, and the way in which the protagonist struggles against not just her husband and his family but the patriarchy of 1950s Nigeria in general is both reflected and amplified by the supernatural terrors she encounters (and sometimes brings into being herself). Mame Bougouma Diene’s “The Satellite Charmer” engages directly with Chinese neo-colonial activities in Africa, the background involves two Chinese mining companies using satellite technology for resource extraction in Senegal, our foreground is the life of one man, Ibrahima, affected by the satellites in unexpected ways and how he, and they, converge to an explosive meeting.

History, and more specifically the loss of (and recovery of) history, also emerges as a key theme. “A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore is a near-future hard-science story whose protagonist is an American project manager tasked with evaluating (and possibly cancelling) a project meant to enable the transfer of human memory for profit; at the same time, we have the counter-narrative of the protagonist’s father attempting to trace the family history, thwarted by the invisibility of Black, enslaved and working-class people. The end result explores the meaning of individual and social memory not just in the USA, but any postcolonial country. “Emily,” also by Marian Denise Moore, is the shortest piece in the book, a poem starting with a historical advertisement for the return of an escaped enslaved girl and imagining different parallel futures for her, picking up on the theme of lost history in Moore’s earlier piece for the volume. “Thresher of Men” by Michael Boatman is a deeply satisfying revenge narrative: as a goddess takes vengeance on the White residents of an American town for past atrocities, we see the hidden history of the seemingly idyllic community emerge, beginning with a recent police shooting of a young Black man but going deeper into the past as the story unfolds, revealing the murder as one horror in a long chain of atrocities extending back decades, if not centuries.

Finally, some stories in this collection cross genres or defy classification. “Convergence In Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo is a strange and surreal Weird fiction piece involving quests, boneships, human-arthropod fusions; the prose is beautiful and haunting and the imagery lingers. “Clanfall: Death of Kings” by Odida Nyabundi is a post-human post-apocalyptic adventure story, which reads like the setup to what could be a very interesting series, and one hopes the author develops this universe further. Finally, “Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by volume coeditor Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald tells the story of a society undone by its own essentialism; as the narrative twists and turns unexpectedly, so the story shifts genre, beginning as an epic heroic fantasy, before shifting into a postapocalyptic story with echoes of The Chrysalids, and shifting again into another divine revenge narrative.

Dominion is a worthy addition to volumes like Walking the Clouds and So Long Been Dreaming which serve as introductions to postcolonial and indigenous science fictions and fantasies. The interesting range of stories, genres and themes provides a clear guideline for people looking for new work by African and African Diaspora writers in their favourite subgenres. However, the exploration and development of themes of colonialism, history, and memory, as well as the re-interpretation of colonialist sf tropes such as vampires and AI through African and/or Afrofuturist lenses, means that the volume also contributes to the ongoing dialogue on decolonising science fiction. 

Emerging from vibrations: An interview with Juliana Huxtable

A sneak peek at Vector 292, the contemporary art issue. Juliana Huxtable’s groundbreaking postdisciplinary artistic practice encompasses cyberculture, portraiture, performance, poetry, transmedia storytelling, critical making, fashion, happenings, and myriad other modes and magics. In September 2020 Vector took the opportunity to chat with Juliana about her work, especially the role played by science fiction

What were your early encounters with science fiction like?

My father, in particular, was obsessed with science fiction, and so we had a lot of science fiction lying around the house, games, films, magazines. He was really into Heavy Metal magazine, which featured this sci-fi soft-core pornography. For my dad, who was not a religious person, it was as close to a religious practice as we came.

My mom on the other hand was highly religious. But both of my parents really saw technology almost as this necessary gateway to liberation, to cultural and social advancement. There was a strong racial aspect to that. So that was the context in which I grew up, and what’s funny is that when I went to university, I almost had this kind of adolescent “I need to define myself!” moment. I pulled away from science fiction, and would feign disinterest.

How long did that last, that feigned disinterest?

It really was when I moved to New York that I started to develop my own interest in science fiction. Possibilities related especially to gender are so interesting to me. So I found myself naturally drawn to subjects that heavily relied on science fiction, or that were actually a form of science fiction … even if they might not be formally classified as part of that cultural sphere.

For instance, there was my interest in the Nuwaubian Nation. The merger of Ufology and Egyptology, and the literature and contemporary almost pseudo-science which that produces, is essentially a form of science fiction. That reanimated my interest in science fiction more generally. I started engaging with it again almost as a form of art research.

“Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering …”

This morning I saw this tweet where somebody was like, “Describe your gender in five words or less or more, and you can’t use words like masc, fem, androgynous.” People were replying with song lyrics and so on. I guess my question is, Juliana, what is gender?

For me, the struggle for gender that I’m interested in, and the work for gender that I’m interested in, is about expanding beyond inherited gender structures. That means expanding the signifying space that floats right above the concrete materiality of sex. So if ‘sex’ is this literal form of inherited embodiment, whose essence supposedly can’t be modified, then ‘gender’ is the directly corresponding world of cultural, religious, linguistic, and social meanings. Meanings that are, it’s assumed, birthed from that materiality. 

The struggle for gender and the work for gender that I’m interested in is de-linking those two, and then expanding that field, ideally to a point where maybe it doesn’t have any meaning any more. Maybe the goal is that gender doesn’t have any meaning, because there’s less ascribed to that tethering, both of the two parts of a binary to each other, and to the idea of gender as it’s tethered to sex.

Continue reading “Emerging from vibrations: An interview with Juliana Huxtable”

Review: Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture

Edwina Attlee, Maria Smith, and Phineas Harper, eds.  Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture (London: The Architecture Foundation and Oslo Architecture Triennale, 2019)

Reviewed by Carl Abbott

Cover of Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow's Architecture. Stairs and columns against a backdrop of mountains, under a huge sun or moon, everything soaked in bloody light

To understand Gross Ideas, start with the Oslo Architecture Triennale to which this book is a companion. The Triennale is “a member organization that unites the major architecture and urban planning networks in Norway” for conversations and public programs about the role of architecture in society. Participants and supporters include national associations of design professionals, architecture schools, Norwegian government agencies, and international architecture firms with Norwegian roots. The 2019 Triennale in the fall of 2019, was the seventh iteration.

Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character …

The book itself is a miscellany of contributions that is more a curated exhibit in verbal form than a tightly edited collection, a characterization that I suspect the curator-editors would find quite acceptable. Some of the contributors identify as writers and some as architects, and a few work both sides. There are two poems, one graphic narrative, and fourteen prose narratives of widely differing character. Some of these latter are stories that could easily find homes in science fiction magazines. Others range from Will Self’s takeoff on Invisible Cities to Lesley Lokko’s essay on women and transnational remittances that includes a fictional vignette, a short factual summary, and scholarly endnotes (it is quite effective). 

Architects have long delighted to imagine grand buildings and building schemes—Arturo Soria y Mata’s Ciudad Lineal, the arcologies of Paolo Soleri, Walking City and other thought experiments of the Archigram group, a linear supercity from Michael Graves, the mile-high skyscraper of Frank Lloyd Wright (even Burj Khalifa gets only halfway there). Science fiction has appropriated the taste for the grandiose from Trantor and Coruscant to countless artists’ depictions of imagined urban futures full of soaring towers in shimmering color. 

What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent …

There is no such here. What naïve readers might expect from the “architecture” in the subtitle is often absent. Instead we get one story in which the largest building is a village house (Sophie Mackintosh, “Placation”), a second set in a caricature of a dusty, unchanging town of the old American Southwest (Joel Blackledge, “Fountainwood”), and another in derelict and abandoned Edinburgh (Camilla Grudova, “Deliberate Ruins’). The only story to center a single building uses an unfinished and abandoned Persian Gulf skyscraper (Deepak Unnikrishnan, “Cat”). The other entry in which architecture is the explicit focus is the graphic narrative “Exile’s Letter” by Mill + Jones, which chronicles efforts to build in a low-technology future (temple, town, giant fishing pier) that are laid low by fire and flood and end with the triumph of unbuilding in a sort of Nature-driven  version of the Tower of Babel. 

Some of the entries posit future engineering rather than architecture—a distinction that the curators and the Triennale folks would likely disregard anyway. For example, Robin Nicholson projects the green retrofitting of London in 2039. I had the most fun with “The Aqueduct,” which presents a scenario for replacing Britain’s rail and road transportation with a set of canals. It is a fascinating think-piece that painlessly introduces elementary physics to extrapolate from Britain’s current restored canals. If he hasn’t, author Steve Webb should look up Railroads and American Economic Growth by my old graduate professor Robert Fogel, which includes a long counterfactual to test whether the United States might have had the same robust economic growth had it invested in canals and river improvements rather than railroads in the nineteenth century.  

As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes …

The contributors took to heart the theme of the 2019 Triennale—“Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth.” Some stories imagine the built world in decay (Grudova, Unnikrishnan), others the natural world actively triumphant (Mackintosh).  Lev Bratishenko, “You Wanted This,” reports a future United Nations conference at which national representatives offer their own favored ways to drastically reduce the world population—the Russians want to use thermonuclear bombs, the Japanese want to weaponize the Internet of Things, the Americans want to drug everyone to euphoric death (cue up Serenity). One of the most powerful stories is Rachel Armstrong’s “Bittersweet Building.” A new architecture graduate in desperate need of a job catches on with a Norwegian firm that is trying to incorporate bacteria as part of a building’s metabolism (waste into clean water, heat, oxygen). As she starts work and experiments on her own small house, she finds herself slowly absorbed by the microbes into their own complex world and finally merging fully into the “metabolic community of the landscape.” It is both a chilling and a comforting variation on the natural process of bodily decay. For the theme of degrowth, score a big one for the Earth.

Having considered the “architecture” half of “tales of tomorrow’s architecture,” what about the “tales” part? To no surprise, the pieces run a wide span from interesting but undramatic speculation to engaging story. For an example from the didactic side, Edward Davey, “Oli Away,” uses the mechanism of a report on a gap year journey to explicate some favored energy and transportation options. The entries by Nicholson, Bratishenko, and Webb are additional examples of scenario-building rather than storytelling. They have a lot of information without much surrounding story, which is not to say that we should not think about the ideas they present. After all, nobody read Looking Backward for its compelling characters and plot, but it had enormous influence. 

Several of the contributions that are strong as stories are, not surprisingly, by people with lots of writing experience who know how to create engaging characters. For many Vector readers, the biggest name in the collection is Cory Dotorow, who contributes an interesting variation on his Disneyland obsession with “Materiality.”  He posits a theme park in which high school classes spend a week inhabiting reconstructed towns from different eras. Think Main Street USA meets the living displays of colonial “savages” found at early twentieth century world’s fairs (also see the living diorama in Colson Whitehead’s fantastic alternative view of American history in The Underground Railroad). The theme park contrasts with a present in which recycling and three-dimensional printed make the objects of everyday life ephemeral if not immaterial. Doctorow’s teenaged protagonist indirectly confronts the lasting imprint that seriously stupid Old Timey People left on the landscape by considering whether his favorite old tee shirt is still cool (it is). 

… architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems.

Maria Smith in “Lay Low” uses the familiar frame of singles gossiping in a bar to introduce a society of scarcity in which everyone has monetized allowances for necessities like water, food, and electricity.  Her variation on a familiar science fiction future is a new way to get ahead on your budget—perhaps—by going into hibernation for a few months to lower your consumption levels and build up points. The women in the bar, who are just learning about the new option, don’t think that monetizing unconsciousness is going to go well.

Jo Lindsay Walton contributed the longest, most complex, and perhaps most readable story (no, there was collusion with your book review editor).  “In Arms” is cleverly constructed with two parallel threads—a woman waiting for a date to show up and an ecoterrorist launching an operation—that slowly grow more complex and intertwine in unexpected ways. Radical changes in building styles are slipped in as background, including the cool idea that rising seas have forced the seat of British government to shift to a mobile seastead platform nicknamed Wetminster.  

Without the subtitle and the wraparound material describing the Triennale, someone who casually reads through Gross Ideas would think it is about economic transition and “degrowth” in general, with architecture one of many avenues of exploration. The overall message is that architecture as a practice of designing individual buildings should be and is being swallowed up by the all-consuming impacts of climate change and necessary transformations in global energy systems. Some contributors see a complete devolution to a nonindustrial future, others a society of scarcity, and still others an adapting world. Tomorrow’s architecture, the book suggests, will be valuable to the extent that it is subordinated not just to social needs—an architectural truism, if not always heeded—but rather to fundamental institutional and social transformation. 

Carl Abbott is author of The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West, The New Urban America: Growth and Politics in Sunbelt Cities, and Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis.

AGM 2020 Agenda Item: Diversity and Anti-Racism at the BSFA

The following text was written for the 2020 BSFA AGM, held online on 23 August on our Discord server.

Preamble

Jo Lindsay Walton

This is an agenda item about two closely connected matters, the recent and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, and issues of diversity in the BSFA and UK SFF publishing and fandom more widely. We would like to invite the membership to consider some of the practical steps the BSFA might take. The BSFA is, of course, committed to anti-racism, and in recent months we’ve tried to play our part, for example recently publishing statements of solidarity with BLM in Vector and in the BSFA newsletter. With such statements, we join innumerable other cultural, arts, and community organisations and institutions. Gestures like these do often get a mixed reception from people doing anti-racist work. On the one hand, such gestures are usually both well-intentioned and broadly welcomed. On the other, many anti-racism activists point out that it’s easy to make statements of support, but that these may often be at best hollow, and at worst hypocritical! — contradicted by the actual policies and practices of the institutions in question.

Science fiction has a special connection to the future and, we’d like to think, a special connection to hopeful transformation. We believe it behooves us to ensure that our words are not hollow, but backed up by action. But what actions should those be? One area of focus can be our own SFF communities, fan, academic, and professional. Clarke Award judge Stewart Hotston recently published an article online which pointed out that, of 121 publisher submissions to the award, the total number by British authors of non-white descent was only three. Even more recently, several of this year’s Hugo Award nominees published a letter raising, among other issues, a lack of diversity in the panelling at this year’s virtual WorldCon. More broadly, I’m sure it escapes nobody’s notice that SFF cons in the UK are often very white spaces.

BSFA officers have been thinking about these issues for at least as long as we’ve been editing Vector, and no doubt much much longer, and we’ll continue to do so. Editorially we’ll continue to monitor which authors and books get coverage, and also continue to think about the diversity of our contributors. We’ll continue to be vigilant against racist discourse in our more open public spaces such as the BSFA Facebook page, and try always to ensure that these are spaces where BAME fans can feel respected and safe. And we’ll also try to make sure that there’s regular information shared in such spaces about the work of diversifying and decolonising SFF. In the medium to long term, the BSFA Committee (soon to be Council and Directors, following adoption of the new Constitution) is seriously lacking in diversity, and that needs to be addressed too.

What we would like to do now is suggest a few other possible actions the BSFA might take, and then open things up for a brief initial discussion. Please also consider this an opportunity to canvas who’s interested in actually getting involved in making some of these things happen. We’ll then formally propose some motions one by one.

Diversity and antiracism motions

Jo Lindsay Walton,  Polina Levontin, Dev Agarwal, Sue Oke

The editors of Vector, Focus and The BSFA Review with the support of the Chair and the Treasurer are proposing five motions. These motions are flexibly worded, since many of the details would need to be sorted out post the AGM. However, here’s a little more detail, albeit provisional: 

(1) Offer support-in-kind to BAME fans of science fiction. This would likely include a waiver on BSFA membership fees within the UK for as long as this is sustainable and necessary. We would also seek to reach out to other organisations, e.g. the British Fantasy Society, to potentially put together a package. 

(2) Offer financial support to BAME convention goers. This could for example follow the precedent of Con or Bust, and be offered from a special pot, generated from dedicated fundraising activities. 

(3) Pursue consultation with BAME members of the wider SFF community. The consultation would likely be an online anonymised initiative, with questions around the experience and priorities of BAME fans of science fiction, writers, academics and publishers. 

(4) Create a role of a Diversity Officer to support these efforts. The role would involve championing diversity of all kinds within the BSFA, as well as helping to administer specific initiatives or events (including, if passed, the motions presented here). It would not involve any additional powers requiring constitutional amendments. 

(5) Finally, we suggest that the BSFA make a donation to Black Lives Matter UK. 

Motions (1)-(4) were passed by the membership. Motion (5) was amended to “We resolve to make a donation to one or more appropriate anti-racist organisation(s). Preference will be given to a UK-based anti-racist charity associated with SF, if one can be identified,” and was then passed by the membership. Dave Lally also made a personal starting pledge to raise funds for these activities.