In the Black Fantastic

Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen (1987)

Introducing the series of interviews with science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, the late critic Greg Tate, and sociologist and author Tricia Rose that were collected in his 1993 book Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Mark Dery wrote: “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afrofuturism.’” The coinage took hold.

The Afrofuturism program you’ll find on the Criterion Channel was curated by Ashley Clark, and it draws on the series Clark programmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015, Space Is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film. Writing for the Guardian that year, Clark noted that descriptions of Afrofuturism “vary from Afrofuturist author Ytasha Womack, who calls it ‘elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs,’ while others, such as Afrika Bambaataa, take a more gnomic approach: ‘Afrofuturism is dark matter moving at the speed of light.’”

One of the key works on Afrofuturist music is More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, the 1998 book on such artists as Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Parliament by theorist, filmmaker, and Otolith Group cofounder Kodwo Eshun. Ekow Eshun, Kodwo’s younger brother, is a former director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and the current editor of Tank Magazine. Talking to Chrystel Oloukoï at the British Film Institute, the younger Eshun suggests that Afrofuturism, “as a concept, maybe it has run its course.”

With In the Black Fantastic—a new book, an exhibition currently on view at Hayward Gallery through September 18, and a season of films screening at BFI Southbank throughout this month—Eshun aims “to gesture at a much broader territory, which isn’t about rehearsing western binaries such as backward versus future-oriented, but rather collective memories, cultural and spiritual practices that artists and cultural figures are drawing on in expansive and generative ways, reaching back in time, as well as into the future, reaching towards myth, spiritual belief.”

Afrofuturism is just one strain within Eshun’s broader concept of the Black fantastic, which is also “about gazing at pasts and presents which have often been rendered illegitimate beyond a kind of racialized imagination, for which Africa is a place of backwardness, lack, savagery, etc.,” he says. “Part of the embrace of the fantastic, then, is to look at vilified pasts as wonderful, beguiling, compelling, strange, because we’re so unused to seeing them as anything other than a prelude to western sophistication and development.” Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen (1987), for example, is a mythical fantasy set in medieval Mali that “shows a world on its own terms, a world that has its own sophistication [and] miraculous powers.”

If you find yourself in London, the exhibition is “a magnificent experience, spectacular from first to last,” writes Observer art critic Laura Cumming. “All of the art is wildly imaginative and ambitious, from American artist Rashaad Newsome’s mesmerizing video Build or Destroy, in which a trans CGI figure vogues as the city burns and collapses in the background, to Hew Locke’s post-apocalyptic horsemen riding ever onwards on their steeds, festooned with emblems, who might equally be wise men or tyrants of the future.”

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