Updated: Feb 3, 2019
By Luke Olutunmogun
Afrofuturism is a look at the future through the lens of black experiences – a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science and philosophy of history that explores the intersection of Africa/African diaspora culture with a technological utopia. It is a genre of speculative fiction which highlights what ‘regular’ science fiction can’t and won’t. The parallels between black life and sci-fi storylines are blatant. However, only 8% of the top 100 grossing sci-fi films feature a protagonist of colour (half of these times that protagonist was Will Smith). Musician and cultural critic Greg Tate famously said that black people live/have lived “the estrangement that science-fiction writers imagine”; a disturbing, yet poignant parallel. This theme is quite literally explored in the film The Brother from Another Planet (1984) following the life of a mute alien with the appearance of a black human who is being chased by outer-space bounty hunters through the streets of Harlem.
The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1994 by culture critic Mark Dery to expose and drive conversation towards the lack of black writers and stories in science fiction, but the kind of art that would typically fall under Afrofuturism existed long before the term was coined. Jazz musician Sun Ra is considered one of the most influential Afrofuturists. His 1973 album Space is the Place went on to inspire the eponymous film and features some of the most iconic album artwork we’ve seen, with Ra depicted as an Egyptian pharaoh in outer space. Sun Ra showed how empowering and expansive Afrofuturism can be. The key is that his future was Afrocentric – linking his futuristic self to ancient forbearers in Egypt.
When D. Denenge Duyst-Apkem (professor of afrofuturism/artist) said; “we need to represent blackness in every realm, we need to be able to see that that imagination is key and representation has to do with allowing ourselves to let our imaginations take flight, that creative impulse is essential”, I found myself in wholehearted agreement. I also think that this representation has to be on our terms: creating new realities doesn’t have to involve appealing to institutions that have profited off the exclusion of black people and/or the promotion of common reductive tropes of blackness. In Hollywood, black lead performances only seem to be rewarded when the protagonist is playing the oppressed. Striking examples of this are abundant; from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s role as a slave (12 Years a Slave) to Halle Berry as the wife of a prison inmate (Monster’s Ball).
Whilst performances of this kind do not lose out on critical acclaim, they hardly provide us with any optimism about the future could look like for black people.
Afrofuturistic influence is pervasive through many facets of black culture today, most notably the medium of hip-hop music. Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast released an album titled ATLiens which went double platinum and is indisputably a hip-hop classic. It is not only a comment on Afrofuturism in terms of the lyrical content, notably “They alienate us cause we different keep your hands to the sky / Like sounds of Blackness when I practice what I preach ain’t no lie”; but also due to the spacey production sound, advancing the genre whilst taking influences from dub and reggae music. Outkast have inspired a generation of Atlanta-based artists that are Afrofuturistic in their approach to their art; Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Future, Lil Yachty and Killer Mike are all renowned for their unconventionality – pushing both their sound, visuals and aesthetic in a new, futuristic direction.
For me, Afrofuturism and sci-fi in general are increasingly important. I see them both as a form of escapism and embrace of the current dystopian reality we are living in. China’s Black Mirror style citizen credit system, celebrity engagement in politics, ‘Trumpism’, meme culture and Cambridge Analytica: all realities that could be described as dystopian. I think it is more honest to embrace and confront this than to deny or ignore we are living in one.
The photos I took represent my visual take on Afrofuturism. Using people that I see and interact with every day as models, I try to highlight how accessible Afrofuturism can be if you have the vision. They form part of a visual project I’m heading up with my collective Saint-Shugi (currently made up of myself, Riarnna Edwards and Ben Fleming) titled Afrofuturism - so there are more photos like these to come! My inspiration in terms of the styling came from Dennis Rodman, Lancey Foux, jhuoza and Alton Mason - as well as Morpheus and Niobi (played by Laurence Fishburne and Jada Pinkett-Smith respectively) in The Matrix and of course Wesley Snipe’s Blade.
Concept: Luke Olutunmogun
Shot by: Luke Olutunmogun, Kelly Kiesewetter, Riarnna Edwards
Directed: Luke Olutunmogun & Kelly Kiesewetter
Models: Garikai Itai Manyanya, Misanju Arenyeka, Riarnna Edwards, Grace Massamba, Grace Massamba, Daniel Famiyeh