Oakland Museum of California’s upcoming Afrofuturism exhibit seeks new heights
In his 1994 collection of essays, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, cultural critic Mark Dery began “Black to the future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose” by inquiring, “Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other—the stranger in a strange land—would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of the African American novelists?”
Dery went on to define his quest through the interviews and a passage reading: “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.’”
Quite a bit has changed since 1994. In the 2013 book, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Ytasha L. Womack writes, “Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science-fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.”
Oakland Museum of California’s upcoming exhibit, Mothership: Voyages in Afrofuturism, seeks to expand and expound on Dery and Womack’s definitions of the term with its own unique spin, stating, “Visionary, spiritual, and generative, [Afrofuturism] is art, music, literature, and cinema that expresses a just future where Black people and Black ideas thrive. It is fantasy and science fiction that envisions the African Diaspora and Black culture as central in a technically advanced and culturally rich civilization. It is also the ordinary—now—in this very moment and the everyday pleasures that may often be seen as mundane. Afrofuturism is a strategy for Black community building.”
The museum begins by positing Oakland as an Afrofuturist space and place. From Oakland being the home of the Black Panther Party and the museum’s proximity to Alameda County Courthouse—site of many iconic photos of the era—to the garden renovation by Oakland landscape architect Walter Hood and furniture design by Oakland artist and designer Binta Ayofemi; OMCA plans to consciously function as the epicenter it has always historically been.
“Once we are able to reopen and present this exhibition,” said Asleigh Richelle, OMCA’s Communication Specialist, “we hope that this will offer a space of healing and community as it speaks to this moment.”
By asking themselves how Afrofuturism could be used as a framework for rebuilding community—post-pandemic—OMCA’s administrators understood they had to grapple with the national reckoning with American racism.
“As it relates to OMCA,” Richelle said, “we can speak to how our commitment to equity is baked into our DNA since its inception in 1969. What was going on in 1969? Huey Newton was on trial at the Alameda County Courthouse. At the same time, OMCA’s founding director was ousted two months before the museum opened because he wanted to include African-American community members on the community advisory committee.”
The exhibit also focuses on Black Feminism in Afrofuturism. As lead collaborator, Essence Harden—a Los Angeles artist and doctoral candidate in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley—focused on finding examples of Black Feminism and Black Feminist artists. Black women artists such as Sydney Cain, Salem Bekele and Chelle Barbour join male counterparts including David Huffman and Nyame Brown in re-imagining Afrofuturism in an Oakland context. Along with a curated mixtape by DJ Spooky and Khalil Joseph’s BLKNWS, community events are scheduled throughout the exhibition.
“Afrofuturism is Black radical imagining that can be applied to any realm of cultural production,” said Rhonda Pagnozzi, lead curator. “Afrofuturism is a strategy for living. Sometimes the radical is actually the ordinary.”