By Alexander Buckley and Hannah Galbraith
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).
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.
Nuotama Frances Bodomo also envisions alternative realities and freedom through space exploration in her short film Afronauts (2014). The film is based upon true events: ‘it’s july 16, 1969: america is preparing to launch apollo 11. thousands of miles away, the zambia space academy hopes to beat america to the moon.’ In 1964, the Zambian schoolteacher Edward Mukuka Nkoloso founded the ‘Zambian Space Program’ with a dozen aspiring highschool students, aiming to reach the stars. His project never received sufficient funding, and his utopian vision was globally mocked. Through her short film, Bodomo empowers Nkoloso’s vision, imagining an alternative history where the Zambian space project really did send a young woman to space. Through striking, beautiful cinematography, Bodomo’s work acts as an “appeal […] to the future, in moments where any future was made difficult […] to imagine,” as Kodwo Eshun writes in describing Afrofuturism (Eshun, 2003). Recently, Bodomo has worked as a writer and director on HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and is currently working on a full-length feature film version of Afronauts.
We can see a similar centering of those historically marginalised in the work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode. From Lagos, Nigeria, the late Fani-Kayode’s photography explored culture, sexuality and race using intricate compositions and effects. The stories in Kayode’s art are told through subtle uses of symbolism, alluding to Nigerian culture, African history, Christianity and sexuality.
Fani-Kayode wrote: “On three counts I am an outsider: in matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for.” This feeling of ‘otherness’ resonates throughout his works, and is a source of both alienation and joy. By centering the black male body in his portraits, Fani-Kayode ‘imaginatively interpret[s] the boundaries between spiritual and erotic fantasy, cultural and sexual difference. Ancestral rituals and a provocative, multi-layered symbolism fuse with archetypal motifs from European and African cultures and subcultures – inspired by what Yoruba priests call ‘the technique of ecstasy.’’
While not explicitly science fictional in his imagery, Fani-Kayode’s works exude futurity, vitality and resistance within the marginalised identity of being both black and queer. It is worth mentioning here that ‘in Greg Tate’s formulation, Afrodiasporic subjects live the estrangement that science-fiction writers envision. Black existence and science fiction are one and the same’ (Eshun, 2003). In navigating the state of being ‘other’, or triply other, as Fani-Kayode felt he was, Afrodiasporic artists explore the extraterrestrial and alien: themes central to science fiction. Kodwo Eshun highlights that ‘the conventions of science fiction […] can function as allegories for the systemic experience of post-slavery black subjects in the twentieth century.’ Instead of viewing Afrofuturist and Africanfuturist artworks as appropriating the tropes of science fiction, or merging science with African cultural images and practices, Eshun asks that we consider the reverse, that ‘science fiction, as such, is recast in the light of Afrodiasporic history’ (Eshun, 2003).
Born in Sierra Leone nine years after the country gained independence, Abu Bakar Mansaray’s art is greatly influenced by his home country and its history. In 1991, Sierra Leone underwent a decade-long civil war that took many lives and displaced much of the populace. During and after the war, the country’s infrastructure collapsed. Mansaray escaped the war and lived in the Netherlands for several years. Currently, he resides in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Sierra Leone’s traumatic history influences much of Mansaray’s artwork.
Mansaray pulls inspiration from sci-fi, war and engineering to create large and imposing artworks detailed with fragments of information about each and every part of his fictional war machines. ‘Mansaray’s Afro-futurism seems like a projection of reality’s horrors onto another dimension of time and place. Reality is projected forwards, to a futuristic world. Not only is technology, the glory of the West’s ideas of progress and enlightenment, presented through its terrifying facet but it is also devoid of its rational and logical characteristic, on which it prides itself.’
Similar to Mansaray, Fabrice Monteiro bases his art on a different type of violence. Environmental destruction is the focus of Monteiro’s photographic artworks, bringing to light the effect of humanity’s negligence towards the earth’s wellbeing. Monteiro’s Prophecy, photographed in real life locations around Senegal affected by pollution, throws us into frightening arrangements where mystical figures walk among a ruined earth: ‘The ghostly figures are imbued with the theme of animism, accentuating each photo’s surreal composition of a jinn (an ancient supernatural genie) experiencing the ravages of modern man’s pollution.’
As Kodwo Eshun remarks, ‘Africa increasingly exists as the object of futurist projection’ and as a ‘zone for the absolute dystopia’. Instead of submitting to the doomsday predictions and depictions of pessimistic futures often favoured by Western NGOs, Monteiro uses local beliefs and ‘spirits to deliver a message’ that envisions a future where environmental destruction is no longer a single inescapable narrative.
Nnedi Okorafor. 2019. Afrofuturism defined. nnedi.blogspot.com/2019/10/africanfuturism-defined.html
Kikk Festival. 2019. Emo De Medeiros. Online festival program. www.kikk.be/2019/en/program/kikk-in-town-1/emo-de-medeiros
Now Look Here. 2020. Emo De Medeiros. Online exhibition catalogue. www.now-look-here.com/Participants/Emo-de-Medeiros
Kodwo Eshun. 2003. Further Considerations on Afrofuturism. The New Centennial Review, 3:2, 287-302.