Why Afrofuturism can be a tool for change for a new generation of Black Britons, writes Patrick Vernon.
AT THE recent BFI Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder event, I spent most of the weekend immersed in the Inside Afrofuturism part of the festival.
I watched Sankofa (1993) – a film I last saw about 20 years ago about a black model who is transported back in time to a slavery plantation – and John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History (1996).
Also screening was the classic film Space is the Place (1974) starring legendary jazz artist Sun Ra. I enjoyed the quirky John Sayles’ urban spin on the runaway slave narrative The Brother from Another Planet (1984). Another high point was Don Letts with Hip Hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa.
Inspired, after the festival I watched Destination: Planet Negro, a Sci-Fi comedy based in the 1930s where a spaceship funded by civil rights activists and powered by peanuts find another planet to solve the ‘Negro Problem’.
Film critic Ashley Clark, curator of Inside Afrofuturism, explained why the event was so of the moment.
He said: “The line between science-fiction and reality is a very blurred one, historically, for African Americans. It still is today.
“I read about the young black man in Brooklyn, a total innocent, who was killed by a rookie cop. Thanks to the incessant build-up of these outrages (Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford – the list is endless) and the totally inadequate institutional response to them, we, and African Americans every day, must ask: is this reality? Or is this some kind of dystopia unfolding?
“What Afrofuturism can do is provide a lens through which to creatively and constructively tackle real-life traumas, without needing to be tethered to hard reality; it gives breathing space for art, for the fantastical, to flourish.”
With the ongoing state police killing of black youth and men in the USA; Ebola and climate change in Africa; fragile economic economies of the Caribbean, and growing health, economic and political social inequality in the UK and mainland Europe, an Afrofuturist approach could help redefine who we are and what we want to achieve.
It allows us to imagine or create a future where we are not cast as victims.
Ytasha Womack in her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture argues that it is an important part of black cultural expression.
But first, what exactly is Afrofuturism?
“Afrofuturism is the intersection between black cultures, technology, the imagination and liberation with a healthy dose of mysticism,” says Womack.
“Afrofuturism looks at the future or alternate realities through a black cultural lens. It can be expressed through art, music, theory, or practice. Afrofuturism views race as a technology, a man-made creation with power imbalances and seeks to heal this idea of separation in humanity. There’s the acceptance that every technology isn’t progressive. It also asserts the contributions of people of African descent to shaping humanity around the world. It asserts the value of feminine consciousness.”
Although Afrofuturism – a term first coined in the early 1990s – originally focused on African American writers and musicians such as Octavia Butler, Sam Delany, Sun Ra and George Clinton, the concept applies equally to Africa and its diaspora.
Womack added: “Afrofuturism in the US and North America in general reasserts this idea of healing connections with the past that were lost in the transatlantic slave trade. There’s this idea that the transatlantic slave experience is akin to alien abduction. You take George Clinton’s Mothership and that’s a metaphor for this sense of peace that comes from going home, or feeling that this divide has been healed by transporting this sense of peace to the present, space and future.”
She added: “[There is also] a big focus on Afrofuturism on the contintent. If you look at the art by Kenyan-born artists Wangechi Mutu in which women are portrayed as part human, plant and machine or the short film Pumzi by Wanui Kahiu where the heroine is in an advanced post-Apocalyptic society and is on a quest to find plant life, the relationship between technology and nature is evident.”
From my own experience following decades working in health, heritage, and politics, I can see a clear development of our own UK perspectives including the impact of enslavement, immigration has on our identity and what it means to be British as well as the impact of immigration, criminal justice and mental health policy which we can build on and explore through an Afrofuturist lens.
There is also the science of how our DNA has altered over time as a result of enslavement, war, famine, poverty, environmental factors and social deprivation leading to changes and modification on our health and mental wellbeing.
These experiences subconsciously ingrained in our DNA, along with laws, mainstream ideology that overtly reminds us that we are still aliens in Britain even though there has been a Black presence for over a 1000 years.
We need to shape and develop new tools and approaches based on lessons of survivorship and resilience for the next century.
We have new and emerging talent like FKA Twigs and Ebony Bones alongside filmmaker Kibwe Tavares (Robots of Brixton, 2011) and Shola Amoo (Touch, 2013) who can work with established writers, community activists, academics and politicians to shape a future for Black Britain in the next century.
Patrick Vernon will appear at Tate Britain on February 14 to talk about his work around memory, DNA, family history and Afrofuturism as part of the Mission to the Land of Misplaced Memories.