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. 

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.’

Fabrice Monteiro, from The Prophecy series 


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.

References

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.

Freeing art from the human artist: Hod Lipson speaks to Fiona Moore about AI and creativity

Interview with Hod Lipson

By Fiona Moore

Artist: Pix18, a robot ‘that conceives and creates art on its very own.’ Oil on Canvas. (Image source: http://www.pix18.com)

Hod Lipson is a professor of Engineering and Data Science at Columbia University in New York. With Melba Kurman he is co-author the award-winning Fabricated: The New World of 3D printing and Driverless: Intelligent cars and the road ahead. His often provocative work on self-aware and self-replicating robots has been influential across academia, industry, policy, and public discourse more generally (including this very popular TED talk), and his interests also encompass pioneering in the fields of open-source 3D printing, electronics 3D printing, bio-printing and food printing. Hod directs the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia, where they “build robots that do what you’d least expect robots to do.”

Fiona Moore is a writer and academic whose work, mostly involving self-driving cars and intelligent technology, has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Interzone and many other publications, with reprints in Forever Magazine and two consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. Her story “Jolene” was shortlisted for the 2019 BSFA Award for Shorter Fiction. Her publications include one novel, Driving Ambition, numerous articles and guidebooks on cult television, guidebooks to Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, three stage plays and four audio plays. When not writing, she is a Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London.

You are a celebrated figure in the world of artificial intelligence research. Can you tell me how you came to be interested in, and working in, this area?

Thanks. To me, issues like self-awareness, creativity, and sentience are the essence of being human, and understanding them is one of life’s big mysteries – on par with questions like the origin of life and of the universe. There are also many practical reasons to understand and replicate such abilities (like making autonomous machines more resilient to failure). I think that we roboticists are perhaps not unlike ancient alchemists, trying to breathe life into matter. That’s what brings me to this challenge.

My own interest in AI is, in part, as an anthropologist, looking at culture. To what extent will AI “learn” culture, at least initially, from humans, and to what extent do you see them as capable of developing culture on their own?

Yes, AIs learn culture (for better and worse) from humans and from a human-controlled world; but as AIs become more autonomous, they will gather their own data, and develop their own norms, perspectives, and biases.

Do you see this already happening? If so, what do AI cultures look like at present?

AIs today are still like children, and their cultures are heavily controlled by us humans– their “parents.” For example, AIs that generate music are influenced by existing human music genres; AI’s that generate human portraits are influenced by images of humans they find on the web – disproportionately favouring certain aesthetics, genders, and ethnicities, etc. AIs that generate text are influenced by prose that they are trained on, and so forth.

I have not seen AIs that have full autonomy on the data they consume, but this will eventually happen as artificial intelligence becomes more physically autonomous and can collect its own data. But again, we humans are also increasingly subjected to an information diet that is prescribed by the culture we live in, and we have to make a conscious effort to rise above our culture or go against it. 

Continue reading “Freeing art from the human artist: Hod Lipson speaks to Fiona Moore about AI and creativity”

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi): A meandering rumination about the weightlessness of human existence

Reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

Death can be understood as a scientific/biological phenomenon, but its gravity is experienced as a spiritual phenomenon. Both the scientific and the spiritual perspectives allow one to contemplate death. But when the makers of Cargo (2019) choose science as merely a veil for religious/spiritual ideas in order to comment on alienation and abandonment rampant in contemporary societies, they could have made sure that the film is passionate (or at least compassionate) enough to sustain its slow-paced narrative. Cargo (now available on Netflix) is the first feature length film of Arati Kadav, although she has written and directed several science fiction shorts in the last decade. Cargo highlights the theme of ‘loneliness’ in these times of pervasive social media that creates the impression that one is always connected and hence never alone. Hindu spiritual/religious ideas about karma and the cycle of life, death and rebirth are central to the narrative. The action mostly takes place on a spaceship orbiting Earth where human-like demons called rakshasas are essentially technicians enabling the transition from death to rebirth in a mundane, technocratic and institutionalised process — reminiscent of an airport security checkpoint, medical lab or a prison admissions office. The film terms this process as “post-death transition”, supervised by a department called Post-Death Transition Services (PDTS) that operates under the aegis of Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) that has been established by the rakshasas. Owing to the film’s stance of deriving its fictional futuristic technology from elements of Hindu spirituality and mythology, the film has a distinct retro-futuristic feel. Perhaps the datedness of the film’s visual effects is meant to reinforce the 80s inspired aesthetics. 

Continue reading “Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad”

Amazofuturism and Indigenous Futurism in Brazilian Science Fiction

This peer-reviewed article was first published in Vector 291.

By Vítor Castelões Gama and Marcelo Velloso Garcia

This essay will explore two contemporary movements associated with the literature and art of the Amazon region: Amazofuturism and Indigenous futurism. We hope that it will increase the visibility of these two interconnected movements, in order to enrich diversity within the art world, and contribute toward a broadening of cosmologies and worldviews beyond dominant Western imaginaries [1]. 

But to do so, let’s start by trying out some definitions. First, Amazofuturism is a subgenre of SF where the Amazon region is represented in a more positive light, often with an aesthetic akin to cyberpunk and solarpunk. Indigenous futurism, on the other hand, focuses on Indigenous worldviews in the context of the SF megatext, and, while doing so, challenges ingrained colonialist assumptions about Indigenous people. Ideally it is also created by Indigenous people. Finally, Brazilian SF, the broadest of these three terms, is simply science fiction from Brazil. It does not necessarily represent either the Amazon region nor Indigenous people at all, and when it does, may do so either positively or negatively [2]. Now, let’s expand a bit on these definitions. 

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Us: A film about ‘Them’?

By Dev Agarwal

Us (2019) - IMDb

Currently, the horror renaissance sweeps through mainstream cinema and television at a pace that’s hard to keep up with. Horror narratives have always been out there, lurking in popular culture, but until recently they felt like a niche interest, ghettoised with fantasy monsters played by actors in thick make-up and rubber suits, tucked alongside the bug-eyed aliens of science fiction.

However, like science fiction, by the mid-2010s, horror is everywhere, reaching huge cinema audiences and, through Netflix and terrestrial television, coming right into our homes. The horror genre, appropriately enough, has now infected a wider host body, and it is mutating, challenging viewer expectations as to what horror is and what it is capable of. I would suggest that horror as a genre has always carried the power to challenge our thinking, to make us consider what defines a monster, and to pull back the veneer of everyday life to expose what’s going on underneath. However, you once had to be a horror aficionado to appreciate that the genre was more than just jump scares and screams. What’s new is that, by busting out of its culturally marginal position, horror is now expanding its narrative, satirical, and critical powers in front of the very mainstream society that it challenges.  

Continue reading “Us: A film about ‘Them’?”

I Went Looking for AfroSF 

In this article, Eugen Bacon reflects on her journey of discovery into AfroSF. Meanwhile, Ivor W. Hartmann’s groundbreaking AfroSF anthologies are currently included in the African Speculative Fiction bundle from Story Bundle.

By Eugen Bacon

It was a love and hate relationship with M. The brusque and direct nature of this editorial colleague of mine every so often came across as pomposity, and I knee-jerked. So much that I nearly fell in wonder when M approached me asking for a favour. 

“How about a pitch?” he said. “I’ve seen this AfroSF thing on Amazon a couple of times, it would be great to write an article.” 

M was offering an olive branch. He wanted me to write for his nonfiction section of a popular magazine. And I had just the title for this piece: “What is AfroSF?” To put it in context, this was a few years ago. 

It was a journey of discovery that led me to a community. The African Australian in me was curious to unearth AfroSF, an inquisitive quest to decipher this literary movement, this subgenre of science fiction—what was it exactly? Yes, I anticipated that it had some derivation from hard or soft science fiction, cyberpunk, mutant fiction, dystopian or utopian fiction, pulp, space opera, and the like, and that it had something to do with Africa. What else would I discover?

An online search steered me to a 406-paged anthology published in December 2012 by StoryTime, a micro African press dedicated to publishing short fiction by emerging and established African writers. The StoryTime magazine was formed in 2007 in response to a deficit of African literary magazines.

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Some readers described it as a ‘ground-breaking anthology’ of diversity and hope, an ‘African Genesis’ that was intense and varied in its fresh viewpoints. Editor and publisher Ivor W. Hartmann spoke of his dream for an anthology of science fiction by African writers, and his realisation of this vision in a call for submissions that birthed original stories published as AfroSF. Illuminating his fascination with the collection, Hartmann said, ‘SciFi is the only genre that enables African writers to envision a future from our African perspective.’

Bravo, I thought of this Zimbabwean writer, editor, publisher, visual artist and author of Mr Goop (2010)—an award-winning post-apocalyptic short story of a boy who struggles with coming-of-age concerns like bullies and scholarly performance, in a science fiction society called the United States of Africa, guarded by robots and chaperoned by humanoid genoforms.

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Becoming Visible: The Rise of Black Speculative Fiction

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Eugen Bacon is an award-winning writer of speculative fiction and non-fiction. Her works include Claiming T-Mo (Meerkat Press 2019), Writing Speculative Fiction: Critical and Creative Approaches (Macmillan 2020), Inside the Dreaming (NewCon Press, 2020) and Hadithi and The State of Black Speculative Fiction, a forthcoming collaboration with Milton Davies (Luna Press, 2020). In this essay, she reflects on some of her favourite black speculative fiction.

 As an African Australian who’s grappled with matters of identity, writing black speculative fiction is like coming out of the closet. It’s a recognition that I’m Australian and African, and it’s okay—the two are not mutually exclusive. I am many, betwixt, a sum of cultures. I am the self and ‘other’, a story of inhabitation, a multiple embodiment and my multiplicities render themselves in cross-genre writing. As a reader, writer and an editor, I’m increasingly noticing black speculative fiction, and it’s on the rise.

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Deconstructing the King of the Katz

By David John Beesley

King of the Katz Title shot

Making art can follow many differing paths: allowing the subconscious to do its thing; waiting for inspiration to strike alongside the time to realise craft, developing pleasure in process and deeper understandings of the self. The Neo Liberal market’s force for establishing one’s own name as a brand is a powerful psychological vortex, and for some, it is also imperative to follow the academic establishment’s call for deep research and being precise in defining one’s conceptual intentions. For myself, a commitment to the process of assemblage seems appropriate in an age of polarised economical ideologies; I see this as a way of presenting stratified social critiques –  an ethical choice. 

My favourite indulgence in developing ideas is a long walk or deep soak in the tub – establishing time for reflection. I came up with a draft for my film in about two or three hours… I was twitchingly excited, as I’d conceived an idea to make a Cli Fi Western. 

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Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi

By Seana Gavin

Reviewed by Bethany Garry

Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, curated by Francesca Gavin, can be seen at Somerset House until the 26th of April. It is part of The Charles Russell Speechlys Terrace Room Series and is free to visit. 

Mushrooms and fungi have a specific place in the imagination as strange and otherworldly, often associated with the fantastical or magical, but Gavin’s exhibition on the “future” of fungi posits them as significantly more science-fictional than fantastical. They are a technology – for use in the future of fashion, biotechnology or ecological industries, or an alien – an unexpected invader via decay or rot, part of the aesthetic that makes a landscape feel truly not of this world. The exhibition achieves this through the mix of mediums, beginning with some of Beatrix Potter’s botanical illustrations of mushrooms and fungi, and progressing through dance (in video form), textile arts, sculpture, collage, fashion, and an extensive display of books. 

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The effect is an exhibition that feels unfinished, if visually engrossing. Amanda Cobbett’s sculptures of mushrooms, perfectly rendered in thread and paper, are an illusion good enough to trick you, and Seana Gavin’s collages are alien worlds where mushrooms form otherworldly buildings, or fungi have unsettling human features. The small setting of the exhibit gives little room for in-depth exploration, and its high goal is undermined a little by the content. A display of mushroom-focused non-fiction literature amounts mostly to a display of book covers, which maybe spark thoughts but ultimately feel superficial. However, for a mushroom lover or for those interested in how the natural world can be positioned in a futurist mindset, it’s a fun way to explore how many different artists have used many different mediums to explore the world of mushrooms and fungi. 

While the first two rooms of the exhibit largely explore mushrooms as an aesthetic or fascination, the final ‘Futures of Fungi’ room positions mushrooms as a future technology, one that humanity has not yet fully exploited, with potentials unexplored, with displays including experimental leather made from mushroom, and a typeface generated to ‘spore’ organically as mushrooms do. The strangeness of mushrooms, their in-betweenness between plant and animal, their interconnectedness, are all ways in which they challenge humanity to experiment with their potential. Not all science-fiction, after all, is an exploration of an alien world. Some are discoveries of the strange in our deep seas or our high peaks. Perhaps the next frontier is neither, but instead will be the forest floor.

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Mars By Design

Photo credit: Felix Speller

A review of the exhibition “Moving to Mars” held at The Design Museum, London from 18 October 2019 to 23 February 2020.

By Allen Ashley

The Design Museum used to be tucked away somewhere on the south bank of the Thames but since relocating to Kensington in 2016 has established itself as a premier cultural venue in the capital. Those of us a little longer in the tooth would recognise its newish home as having once held the Commonwealth Institute. Today the array of flags has gone but the building is still nestled next to parkland. It’s drizzling on the longish walk from the tube station. It’s the final week of “Moving to Mars” and it’s also half-term; which, as a sometime supply teacher, I should have taken into account. Let’s face it, what do kids love most? Dinosaurs. And second most? Space. (Witches are third, in case you’re wondering.)  Continue reading “Mars By Design”