Afrofuturist photo exhibit captures the visual history of an aesthetic that's gaining momentum

A Chicago photography exhibition chronicles Afrofuturism — from Frederick Douglass to Sun Ra.

'This conversation ... has been happening for much longer than I think most people are aware'

Aljana Moons III, 2015, by Alexis Peskine. Two young boys are pictured wearing space suits made of recycled materials. (Alexis Peskine/October Gallery)
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When Sun Ra, the prolific jazz composer — who claimed to take a trip to Saturn — took to stages, he offered the world a glimpse of Afrofuturism.

Dressed in Egyptian robes and futuristic headgear, his stories and music evoked the mysticism of the movement.

"I think for most people, he kind of is the founding father," says Sheridan Tucker Anderson, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.

That movement is now the focus of an exhibit called "In Their Own Form."

It examines the ways "blackness might hope to exist without the imposition of oppression, racism and stereotypes ever-present in Western cultures," according to the website.

Sheridan Tucker Anderson is a curatorial fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, Ill. (Jonathan Castillo)

The exhibition features photography and video by 13 black artists and explores themes including time-travel and escapism.

"I kind of wanted to highlight ... this idea, this conversation, that has been happening for much longer than I think most people are aware," Anderson told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Afrofuturist exhibit

First coined in the 1990s, the term Afrofuturism re-entered the mainstream with the release of Black Panther earlier this year.

Anderson describes it as a philosophical movement that combines music, fashion, literature and spoken word with science fiction elements.

But with Ra, and even famed anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass before him, the roots of Afrofuturism grew well before Black Panther.

Frederick Douglass, a famed anti-slavery campaigner, was the most photographed American of his time. (Frank W. Legg/U.S. National Archives)

Afrofuturism, Anderson says, "gives an opportunity for people within the diaspora, people of colour, to imagine themselves in the future."

It's a future that Frederick Douglass was looking toward while embracing technology during the 1800s, Anderson believes.

Douglass, an abolitionist, was one of the most photographed Americans of his time, she says. He was particular about the photographers he used: they had to accurately capture skin tone and hair texture in people of colour.

"For a former enslaved person to be the most photographed American of his time — that's huge, right," Anderson says. "He's [Douglass] kind of thinking about the power that representation has and the agency that he has once he's able to present himself."

The photos, she argues, provided Douglass an opportunity to change the status and understanding of black Americans at that time.

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      Exploring black experiences

      More contemporary works explore different aspects of black experiences. In Passages, a film by South African artist Mohau Modisakeng, the "reverberations of the transatlantic slave trade and apartheid" are considered, says Anderson.

      In three separate projections, viewers see black men and women lying in a white rowboat. The contrast is stark and the images progressively more troubling.

      "I think as an American — as a person from a place — you often preface your own experience," Anderson says. "[Modisakeng] mentions the fragmented African identity that kind of became once the transatlantic slave trade happened."

      "That was something that was super profound to me."

      A Terrible Beauty, 2013, by Mary Sibande. (Mary Sibande/Museum of Contemporary Photography)

      Mary Sibande, also from South Africa, presents A Terrible Beauty — a purple dress with tentacles that spread, seemingly, from within her.

      The piece is from her Purple Rain series that reflects on anti-apartheid protests where black protesters were sprayed with purple dye so police could easily recognize them.

      The tentacles, Anderson explains, are Sibande's "minions escaping and working on her behalf."

      The movement has its moment

      While Black Panther may have spurred the most recent interest in the movement, Afrofuturism goes well beyond.

      Interest in the movement is separate from the film, "and this might be the time in which it culminates," Anderson says.

      But as with Sun Ra, author Octavia Butler and artist Jean Michel Basquiat before the film, another artist might offer their take on it.

      Potentiality, 2017, by Alun Be. A young girl is pictured on the coast wearing virtual reality goggles. (Alun Be)

      "I do believe that the time, what we're all experiencing in the world collectively, has a lot to do with the art production that comes out of it," says Anderson.

      So, a moment, yes.

      "But, I'll expect for it to happen again."


      To hear our full interview with Sheridan Tucker Anderson, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.