“Space is the Place” | Afro-Futurism: an approach to spatial development
Writing and visual by Khensani de Klerk
Afro-futurism is not what we commonly (mis)perceive as the notion of “futuristic” black science fiction. It an ever-present projection of an imagination of possible futures beyond the realms of the existing world we occupy today. Afro-futurism is far from a representation of purely fictional adventures. It is a way of thinking and an imagination that speaks beyond the “naturalised western” objective universal rules of law, and in this way is an outer worldly approach in thinking about occupation (both physical and spiritual). Afro-futurism has been described by cultural critics as a way of looking, navigating and imagining future conditions of life through a black lens. In fact, the “futurism” in the term afro-futurism contextualises the lack of African rooted thinking in the present by constantly (currently) taking on a future projection of life. At the same time, the movement is growing and reaching many more Africans in the diaspora and continent than before, and so one can hope that the distance between that projection and the present becomes more reachable.
By taking on a science fiction attire, Afro-futurism is seen as an “Other” way of thinking in a world where “objective” laws have been established. Afro-futurism was never acknowledged as a scientific and tangible approach of thinking about development. Colonialism managed to impose its rules of law and foundational ways of being in African sites (bodies and landscapes) and in that moment disrupted a natural development of other ways of being. Colonialism marked the advent of disillusions in indigenous knowledge(s) that remains the biggest obstacle for people of colour (POC) in a post-colonial world today. Measures of erasure, reclamation, adaptation and progress in relation to African lost selves challenge spatial development. From such an unweavable historical retrospective point of view, it is impossible to pin point what could have been. This is why Afro-futurism looks to the future with a lens that pays close attention to ways of being and how that can culminate into space.
The colonized condition dictated and defined laws of space, form and time that it perceived as ideal, hindering the development of afro-futuristic concepts developing into realizable physical space. Essentially as POC, the canvas on which we write our narratives – the dimension in which we occupy – is foundationally a Western conception. Perhaps fragments of pre-colonial spatial development concepts exist? The mere questioning and relentless search for them is a reflection of the scarcity. Culturally, oppressed societies were able to retain significant cultural dogmas, practices and knowledge(s) stored in and transferred through other mediums such as bodily expression and story telling. The collectivity of community ensured the sustaining of culture. However, with the dominating occupation of colonisation came the unfreedom of many opportunities for POC. The common understanding of this unfreedom is often described in relation to opportunities in the free “developed” world – a developed state that had no African considerations, planning and input. This mindset exists today in how we we see occupational positions and successes woven in the canvas of the Western Cannon dimension of functioning. For example, identifying unfreedom in South Africa as the Apartheid regime restricting POC from being pioneering engineers, lawyers and professionals through a Bantu education. The perception of being a pioneering engineer is a success indeed, in a dimension in which it fits to be so. We still view many patches of the canvas on which we write our narratives as objective dwelling grounds.
The question of what life would have been like had there been no colonisation in Africa is an impossible one to answer simply. However, that is not to do away with dissecting the alternate (non)realities that sit in mindmaps unrealized. It is essential that we begin to dissect and explore rates of African “modernity” and what opportunities are embedded in thought processes that were discontinued and others that exist but are overlooked. Take for example the concepts of experimental jazz artist Sun Ra, who negated his very occupation on the Earth and lyrically spoke of future human conditions from a reference point of Saturn. During the 1930s when Sun Ra dropped out of college and transcended occupying life in a normalised fashion, he recorded a bright light telling him that “… the world was going into complete chaos… I would speak [through music], and the world would listen”. Regardless of how “irrational” his encounters sound to many, his call for emancipation described a reality we face today- a premonition of what then would be in the future which is now.
The collectivity of community allowed POC to retain culture. The African diaspora, being heterogenous and ripe with diversity is also challenged with retaining ancestral knowledge. At the same time, this explains and fuels the growing prevalence of Afro-futurism in today’s world where people of African descent are constantly moving around the world, by choice. Afro-futurism in this right is a way of linking people in different locations and furthermore sustaining collectivity beyond physical need. The spiritual connections between POC are inherent to Africaness; and Afro-futurism hones into the spirit of blackness to connect us to the phenomenology of our original ways of being. “Afrofuturism goes beyond spaceships, androids and aliens. It encompasses African mythology and cosmology with an aim to connect those from across the Black Diaspora to their forgotten African ancestry.” (Taylor-Stone 2014). The music of many Afro-Futurists uses the intangible as a language for connection and reflection of the self-spirit of origin. Sun Ra and his Arkestra and South African electronic artist Spoek Mathambo are one of many who hone into this. Sun Ra speaks through otherworldly visual performance and spoken word, and Spoek speaks through layering sounds and beats of ancestral and cultural music. Afro-futurism is not a new hip aesthetic culture, it is a way of thinking about and experiencing blackness.
“If science fiction is a means of discussing present day anxieties and issues via the future, then it only follows that the architecture and design of our fantasies can make a massive impact on how we see our present day.” (Acquaye 2017) The science fiction medium that critical mass views the existence of Afro-futurism in morphs the idea of it as a solely imaginary and fictional world. This confines it to the pop culture spaces of the genre. Afro-futurism as way of thinking requires space, not validation. However, universal systems deprived space and imposed accreditation on black spaces. Even though Afro-futurism is not concerned with being validated by universal western epistemology, it is a sad reality that universal systems need to actively relinquish space for Afro-Futuristic ideas to flourish and move closer to the surface of an occupiable reality (and perhaps the next post will be on the complexities of white allies).
The hypotheses of Afro-Futuristic ideas transforming into physical space, are considered unimaginable by majority of society who conform to the normality of tested, physical and seen space. Because these tested and seen spaces where conceived in a time where colonialism dominated the African site, and today we see a world experiencing holistic “freedom” for the first time, it is difficult for POC to enter the market of proposing and creating truly African innovations. The current state of the world has emerging “African” technology that speaks to African related issues (such as refugee camp shelter design), but such situations act in response to a condition that has culminated from a series of oppressive historical events.
Admittedly, these events cannot be unwoven. Colonialism cannot be undone. This brings us back to understanding Afro-Futurism as a progressive approach to development. Despite its failed attempt at implementing intangible tropes into physical reality, it successfully continued to maintain the integrity of other ways of thinking. The relevance of Sun Ra’s Space is The Place as a contextual understanding of the future from a reference point of today, yet conceived in the mid 90s, is evidence of this maintenance.
Afro-futurism reclaims black identity by allowing POC to position our narratives in a dimension created by us. The afro-futurist canvas displays the potentials and projections of our desires and knowledge in a way that “transcends the systemic obstacles set in place by white supremacy.” In doing so, we are able to reinterpret and progressively think of a future of ourselves, and how we intersect with the existing. This brings to the a confrontation that neither white supremacy nor the conception of afro-futurism considered, the intersection of dimensions. This poses a current challenge that we will inevitably be faced with in a world of growing afro-futuristic ideas different to the misconceived normality of white supremacist objectivity. This is where we see a contextual difference in Afro-futurism from what it was to what it is now.
The problematizing of such the universal canvas is not to simply negate the ideas that have emerged from the Western Cannon. It is to reveal the other materials on the table that can house other different ways of being. When the existing objects that occupy our world exploitatively take up space that could house potential other ways of thinking, opportunity is lost. Furthermore, opportunity is lost through suppression in occupation. This brings us to the risk factor of how we actually develop, which cultural critic Mark Dery poses by asking:
Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces in history, imagine possible futures? (Acquaye 2017)
Similar to the feesmustfall movement currently happening in South African tertiary institutions, there is a clear dissection and debunking of problematic western values emblematic of institutional oppression. The process of decolonisation has opened up spaces of identifying and discussing these problems, however, it has not yet reimagined a dimension of learning that can exist without the reliance of the institution. It is not solely the content of the institution that makes it an oppressive tool but the make up of the institution that is inherently oppressive. The mere collapse of these systems shows the inability for them to accommodate other ways of thinking. However, both the oppressor (institution as an entity) and the oppressed are reluctant to risk facing the unknown because yes, reimagination sometimes requires conceptualising on a blank sheet, whilst being cognisant of the files, notes and other papers on the table. Institutions that we function in are contingent on Western ways of knowing and through the normalisation of institutionalism, these bodies think they are invested in the progress of learning. However, the universal establishment of these bodies act in conflict to the other systems of functioning in that there is no space for other systems to emerge. This is how Afro-futurism speaks to the extreme micro lens of zooming into reclaiming the characteristics in the atoms of our environments. Decolonisation is not destruction. We look to the Nigerian proverb that says, “the earth moves at different speeds depending on who you are.”
Afro-futurism cannot be isolated into a pre-colonised world, but it can be given space in this world to weave a canvas on which it can allow POC to naturally and gradually write narratives in scripts, symbols and gestures previously unpractised and undrawn. The act of this writing, becomes a ritual and a new standpoint of development.
- Anderson, Reynaldo. Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness. London: Lexington Books, 2016.
- Rockeymoore, Mark A. What is Afrofuturism? February 2000. http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewArticle.asp?id=4308 (accessed December 3, 2017).
- Bland, Jessica. Afrofuturism to everyday futurists: new kinds of artists, power & tech. 11 March 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/political-science/2015/mar/11/afrofuturism-to-everyday-futurists-new-kinds-of-artists-power-tech (accessed December 3, 2017).
- Spula, Ian. The History Behind ‘African Modernism: The Architecture of Independence’. 28 March 2016. http://www.architectmagazine.com/design/exhibits-books-etc/the-history-behind-the-architecture-of-independence-african-modernism_o (accessed December 4, 2017).
- Acquaye, Alisha. Black to the Future: OkayAfrica’s Introduction to Afrofuturism. 10 July 2017. http://www.okayafrica.com/african-future-okayafrica-introduction-afrofuturism/ (accessed December 3, 2017).
- Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Edinburgh: Cannanogate Books, 2000.
- Corbett, John. Brothers From Another Planet. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
- Taylor-Stone, Chardine. Afrofuturism: where space, pyramids and politics collide. 7 January 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2014/jan/07/afrofuturism-where-space-pyramids-and-politics-collide (accessed December 3, 2017).