New York

View of “The Shadows Took Shape,” 2014. Foreground, from left: Derrick Adams, WE><HERE, 2013; Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Interpretation, 2010; Trenton Doyle Hancock, A New Creature #1, 2013; Harold Offeh, Covers. After Betty Davis. They Say I’m Different, 1974, 2013; Harold Offeh, Covers. After Grace Jones. Island Life. 1985, 2008; Harold Offeh, Covers. After Funkadelic. Maggot Brain. 1971, 2013; William Villalongo, Sista Ancesta (E. Kelly/D. R. of Congo, Pende), 2012; Sanford Biggers, Vex, 2013. Photo: Adam Reich.

“The Shadows Took Shape”

The Studio Museum in Harlem

View of “The Shadows Took Shape,” 2014. Foreground, from left: Derrick Adams, WE><HERE, 2013; Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Interpretation, 2010; Trenton Doyle Hancock, A New Creature #1, 2013; Harold Offeh, Covers. After Betty Davis. They Say I’m Different, 1974, 2013; Harold Offeh, Covers. After Grace Jones. Island Life. 1985, 2008; Harold Offeh, Covers. After Funkadelic. Maggot Brain. 1971, 2013; William Villalongo, Sista Ancesta (E. Kelly/D. R. of Congo, Pende), 2012; Sanford Biggers, Vex, 2013. Photo: Adam Reich.

THE JAZZ COMPOSER AND VISIONARY The jazz composer and visionary Sun Ra, who claimed to have come from Saturn, authored the poem whose opening line served as the title of this thought-provoking show, which explored the complex network of aesthetics and practices known as Afrofuturism. The show’s curators, Naima J. Keith and Zoé Whitley, define their subject as a “discourse around black cultural production, technology, and speculation on the future” that clearly developed “out of the historical and social conditions that shaped black life in America.” They cite Ra as the model of Afrofuturism avant la lettre; indeed, his music has inspired more Afrofuturist paeans than any other, save perhaps Parliament-Funkadelic originator George Clinton, another touchstone for this exhibition.

Borrowing from musicologist Benjamin Piekut, who called experimentalism “a grouping, not a group,” we might want to ask how the artists brought together as Afrofuturists were “collected together in the first place, that they can now be the subject of a description.” Critic Mark Dery, who is not of African descent (at least not in recent genetic memory), coined the term Afrofuturism in 1994, in his introduction to interviews he conducted with popular music theorists Tricia Rose and Greg Tate, and Samuel R. Delany, now the canonical Afrofuturist science-fiction writer. These discussions, which included frequent references to the technologically imbued music of Ra, Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Herbie Hancock, and Lee “Scratch” Perry, were among the earliest stirrings of what sociologist Alondra Nelson, a key figure in Afrofuturist theory who edited the influential Summer 2002 “Afrofuturism” issue of the journal Social Text, called “a critical dialogue on the future of black cultural production.” The broad range of reference and ardent heterogeneity of this Studio Museum exhibition extended this dialogue much further.

Ra’s poetic and mystical writings from the 1950s and ’60s, recently rediscovered and published thanks to writer-artists John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis, were well represented in the exhibition. These texts stand in a tradition of American mysticism that includes Father Divine, Daddy Grace, the Moorish Science Temple, and W. D. Fard and his successors Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan. Fard’s 1930s teachings on Ezekiel’s wheel were transformed into the “Mother Plane,” a technologically advanced artificial planet whose capabilities are eventually deployed in an Armageddon that ensures the ultimate triumph of the black race over its enemies. Redemption is a major theme of Afrofuturism, and Edgar Arceneaux’s “Slave Ship Zong” series of drawings, 2013–, might take as its companion the Otolith Group’s 2010 science-fiction film Hydra Decapita, whose underwater imagery is accompanied by a plaintive sea chantey invoking a poignant myth invented by the techno group Drexciya, wherein countless slaves lost to famine and murder and thrown to the sea during the Middle Passage are reborn as the progenitors of an underwater civilization.

Despite Nelson’s observation in the exhibition catalogue that the project of Afrofuturist scholarship is to explore “the ways in which technological innovation is changing the face of Black art and culture,” the show itself largely engaged traditional rather than new media. Exceptions included Khaled Hafez’s pointedly political The A77A Project: On Presidents & Superheroes, 2009, and Saya Woolfalk’s sensuously colorful Life Products by ChimaTEK™ , 2013. In Hafez’s video, a 3-D-imaged Anubis takes a rhythmically jaunty stroll through the streets of Cairo to the accompaniment of a jazz/techno sound track punctuated by samples of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1967 resignation speech. Along the way, the god encounters a lone Egyptian woman defying a menacing phalanx of riot-gear-outfitted police and winds up entering a voting booth. Woolfalk’s video presents digital animation, live action, and a Bolly-woodish score by DJ Spooky. The piece’s interlocking circular motifs, with a palm reader in the center divining a possible Afrofuture, recalled both the foundational midcentury computer graphics of John Whitney and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Nothing Is, a 2013 sound and film installation by Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher titled after a Sun Ra album from 1970, features just such a magical denouement at the end of a film loop that delivers a Ra poem/koan/aphorism, interspersed with imagery evoking the Egyptian, and even includes an appearance by a bearded Delany, whose image converges with Ra’s at the end of the loop, as a live, amplified harp on top of the projector suddenly plays a magical microtonal chord; two guitar picks glued to the film strum the strings.

For the most part, in contrast to 2001’s “Race in Digital Space” exhibition (which traveled to the Studio Museum from the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts), “The Shadows Took Shape” had a decidedly analog feel; works exploring interactive computer technologies, for example, were absent. Expanding the frame of Afrofuturism’s histories to embrace contemporary black technologists, or “Afrogeeks,” a term coined by film scholar Anna Everett, one might reference, say, MIT computer scientist (and game designer) D. Fox Harrell’s audacious Afrofuturism-informed work on interactive storytelling and “cultural computing,”a move that would mesh with the curators’ Sankofa-like imaginings of deploying Afrofuturism to “prophesize the future, redefine the present and reconceptualize the past,” as they put it in a wall text. Such a position need not be uncritically celebratory. Wanuri Kahiu’s 2009 film Pumzi, for example, portrays a postapocalyptic technosurveillance society. When the lead character, a museum archivist/curator, discovers an inconvenient truth about the government’s representation of the outside world, she is fired from her position and becomes a drone of sorts until her escape and eventual self-sacrifice.

Other than placing Ra at its center, “The Shadows Take Shape” maintained a laudably agnostic stance on the type of work or artist who might best exemplify Afrofuturism. Thus, the frame of Afrofuturist sonic reference could extend to easily encompass the nonagenarian Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh, recognized as the “father of African electronic music,” or AACM composer and flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Xenogenesis Suite (2008), based on the work of Octavia Butler. Moreover, the curators were in step with Michael Veal’s 2007 book Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, which asks us to consider “whether Afro-futurism is fundamentally an African American trope.” The internationalist, multiethnic frame of “The Shadows Took Shape” responded to that query by reconnecting Afrofuturism with its African roots. Cyrus Kabiru’s Nairobian Baboon, 2012, is a metal technomask that prompts speculation on how Google Glass might look and work if an Afrofuturist had designed it. Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Icarus 13, 2008, a suite of eight large, high-saturation color photographs, “documents” not only an imaginary Angolan expedition to the sun but also an actual job-creating construction project that aimed at contributing to ecosystem awareness.

The show also offered works from the UK-based Afrodiaspora, such as John Akomfrah’s remarkable 1995 film The Last Angel of History. The scope of this documentary is vast, encompassing music, literature, visual art, and cultural studies, its look retro yet somehow lasting, as if the director had anticipated that the affect of ’90s-era computer graphics would change dramatically with the passage of time. Besides Ra and George Clinton, appearances are made by writers Delany and Butler, Nichelle Nichols, former US astronaut Bernard Harris (seen holding a Parliament album), Detroit techno leaders Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Carl Craig, and Otolith Group member (and catalogue contributor) Kodwo Eshun, author of More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (1998), which translates Afrofuturist musical ecstasy into charismatic prose and insightful cultural analysis.

Like Ra himself, many of the works in this show played with complex alternative identities. Laylah Ali’s series of untitled, intricately detailed ink-and-pencil drawings (“Typology,” 2005–2007) seem to depict cross-cultural encounters or even instances of first contact. Still other artists in the show, who have engaged Afrofuturist aesthetics in the past, played completely outside the changes here. Particularly striking in this regard were Harold Offeh’s “Covers” series, 2008–13, including his photographic performance of composer-performer Betty Davis, and Kira Lynn Harris’s Prism, Mirror, Lens II, 2013, a powerfully understated minimalist assemblage of Mylar, wood, and various construction materials. Closer to the center of the exhibition’s guiding themes was Wayne Hodge’s collage Android/Negroid #12, 2011, whose subject appears to be morphing from a Romare Bearden–inflected humanness to a vacuum-tube-based posthumanity reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s retro-apocalyptic film Brazil (1985). RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ’s unfurled scroll Evolution of World, 1979, reminds us that Afrofuturism’s reach extends toward the Japanese martial-tech aesthetics that today’s young people avidly consume.

Afrofuturism may best be understood using the metaphor of the assemblage, a sensibility embodied in Robert Pruitt’s fictive-archival Untitled Photographs, 2011, one of which, for example, depicts a cornrowed young black woman in a sumptuous chair, placidly tuning a radio, with an automatic pistol floating in a net above her head. This exhibition’s open-ended approach to its topic and themes encouraged visitors to construct their own assemblages from the diverse array of established and emerging artists in the show, perhaps in a fashion as improvised as many commentators declare Afrofuturist aesthetics to be. In this show, Afrofuturism became an ontological achievement of interaction with the world. So Cristina De Middel’s series “The Afronauts,” 2012, links African visual aesthetics with intimations of extraterrestrial origin, a possibility surely known to German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who in true Afrofuturist fashion traced not only his origins but his musical education to the Sirius star system, whose movements were said by anthropologist Marcel Griaule to have been tracked over centuries by the Dogon people of West Africa. This conception fits Cauleen Smith’s sculpture The Score, 2012, whose Fluxus-like, Ra-inspired musical instruction reads simply, “You are from outer space.” This is literally the case: As African American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson tells us, our earth, our sun, and our bodies are made up of atoms from the Big Bang. Smith’s piece also reminded me of a story about Stockhausen’s 1968 text score, “Aus den Sieben Tagen” (From the Seven Days), which contains the instruction, “Play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe.” Asked by a violinist how he would know when he was doing this, the composer, with a twinkle in his eye, replied, “I will tell you.”

Composer, musicologist, and experimental musician George Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University in New York.