What is AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism? The art historian in me finds it exciting to be in the middle of a rapidly advancing movement that is all at once undefined but unmistakable in presence, expanding and unfolding, and setting the tone for new waves in art, music, fashion and cultural production at all levels. The chapters of most art history textbooks I’ve come across have made it clear: our understanding of art and how it fits into a historical context is often shaped by historian-identified movements that are pinpointed late in the game or in hindsight. With these things in mind, I have borrowed the title of cultural critic Mark Dery’s essay to create the Black To The Future Series–a series of interviews that pose questions to several artists who have identified their work as AfroFuturist and/or AfroSurreal with the hopes of allowing the practitioners to be at the center of determining what it is.
Though the philosophies behind these movements have been around for quite some time and at the heart of some circles for nearly a century, AfroFuturism and the AfroSurreal have increasingly gained momentum in the last decade or so. They seem to have found new nourishment through artists who have stepped forward to add fresh stems and leaves to the roots established by legends such as Amiri Baraka, Sun Ra and countless other foremothers and forefathers. This has resulted in the conceptually abysmal and beautifully rendered work landing on radar of larger institutions, being the subject of exploration by some noted art theorists, and being woven into the fabric of major exhibitions.
But the truth of any artistic movement and what makes this moment one to be savored, in my opinion, is an age-old one. Movements don’t start on the walls of museums. They begin on the ground with electrifying dialogue in intimate spaces, on the walls of homes, studios and off-the-radar galleries, and during the of off-the-cusp performances by those pushing new limits, exploring new territories and attempting to capture the transcendental at the edge of comprehension. Chicago is rich in this right now if you know where to look. To kick off the series I spoke to Krista Franklin, one of the artists who through her enchantingly piercing words and alluring imagery has been a pivotal voice and reference for the AfroFuturist and AfroSurreal conversation from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay.
Tempestt Hazel: Do you consider yourself an AfroFuturist, an AfroSurrealist or both?
Krista Franklin: I consider myself an artist who creates work that is both AfroFuturist and AfroSurrealist.
TH: How do you define AfroFuturism? AfroSurrealism?
KF: I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I still struggle with clear definitions of them both. I actually like that struggle, that both of these terms are very much still being defined. I would prefer to hold up photographs of things or play music or show a book that defines each of these terms for me. What I will say is that I came to AfroFuturism through literature. The term was coined by a cultural critic named Mark Dery in an essay called Black to the Future in 1995, and he was discussing literature (particularly science fiction), and works in which African-American themes and concerns are filtered through “technoculture.” So, writers such as Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson are AfroFuturist writers to me, however, if they would describe themselves as such is questionable. Outkast is AfroFuturist to me, The Neptunes’ early music is AfroFuturist to me (video game sounds and all), Parliament-Funkadelic are AfroFuturists to me. Just recently have visual artists been described as AfroFuturist. A lot of people talk about Sun Ra as AfroFuturist, and that’s fine, but most of my entry points into AfroFuturism have been through literature and hip-hop. Being that hip-hop music is so firmly rooted in technology – I mean, the music is created with machines for the most part – it makes more sense that a lot of it could be described as AfroFuturist; people of color making music and sounds with machines. In my estimation, you can’t get any more AfroFuturist than that.
AfroSurrealism is a term coined by a west coast writer named D. Scot Miller. He wrote a manifesto that was published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2009 that can also be found online on his site. In a very broad stroke I would describe AfroSurrealism to be rooted in the imaginary, the dream world, the fantastic, or as poets Aimé and Suzanne Césaire called “The Marvelous.” It describes a kind of limitless reality, hybridization of all forms (gender, cultural, sexual, racial, psychological, etc), the blending of the visible world and the invisible world, the subconscious reality existing in the conscious reality. D. Scot Miller does an excellent job of articulating and illustrating the AfroSurreal, and I would point anyone interested in defining it toward his manifesto, and toward his tumblr, afrosurrealsanfrancisco.tumblr.com. He points to artists (visual and musical) like Yinka Shonibare, Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, MF Doom, Ghostface Killah, Prince, writers such as Frantz Fanon, Ishmael Reed, Victor LaValle, Ted Joans, and of course the Negritude poet Aimé Césaire would be included in that mix.
TH: How do these concepts influence and manifest themselves in your practice and the form that your work takes?
KF: I’m a science-fiction geek, and I love horror and the supernatural, so it makes a lot of sense for my work to be described as AfroFuturist and AfroSurrealist. The visual work I make is primarily mixed-medium collage, so hybridization is at the core of what I do. I believe I was making AfroFuturist and AfroSurrealist work before I even knew what those terms were, and once I did I was like, “Hey, that’s me! That’s what I do!” After that the conceptual concerns defined in the terms became somewhat of a series of structures that I began to focus on when creating new work. Some of my work directly and indirectly plays on or riffs on science fiction themes, imagery and literature. I like to pull the past and present into visual and literary spaces so they can live together.
I’ve been much more deliberate recently about the AfroSurreal when it comes to my work by really pushing myself toward surrealist spaces conceptually. I read Miller’s manifesto pretty obsessively, and think a lot about what it all means to me and the ways in which I live and think, and try to make work that truly speaks to or through my imagination in a much more unbridled way. It’s an exercise in artistic and subconscious freedom.
TH: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism?
KF: I really don’t have an answer to these questions, because I try not to concern myself with misconceptions too much. I focus on what I need to do, and try my best not to get too worked up about what other people think or don’t think about something that I find artistically or intellectually interesting. If you’re with it, cool, if not, that’s cool too.
TH: Do you remember when you first became aware of Sun Ra?
KF: I don’t remember when I first became aware of Sun Ra. I purchased John Szwed’s biography on him Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra several years ago after reading a review about it in a magazine, so that was probably my introduction to him and his legacy.
TH: What is it about his philosophy that resonates with you?
KF: Sun Ra probably resonates the most with me for his mythmaking, and the way that he invented his identity. I love people who make up identities for themselves in spectacular and fantastic ways. Once I heard that he was from Saturn I was sold. I also still dig the ways he challenges people from the African Diaspora to think about our lives and our realities in some extremely expansive ways.
TH: The career and influence of early 20th century artists and later Sun Ra prove that the principles of these movements were relevant decades ago. But what do you think it is about this moment that creates an environment which is conducive to a magnified resurgence of these philosophies as well as the receiving, uplifting and celebrating of these ideas on so many levels by artists, institutions and scholarship alike?
KF: What an incredible question. I really haven’t the slightest idea about this. I will say though that I believe that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The writers and artists and intellectuals and activists of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, were working to resist notions about who they were in their time, and to define themselves. Many of them were thinking of art as propaganda, and were fighting against relentless and rabid racism in this country. While it’s not exactly socially, politically and legally acceptable to hurl racial slurs at me and hang me from a tree, we would be extremely naïve to think that racism and discrimination of all kinds has curled up somewhere and died. And I think that the computers (the machines) make it even easier for folks to be racist and rabid and hide behind their keyboards, to be anonymously disgusting and ignorant. More than ever before in history we are tapped into technology, (or plugged into the matrix, as I like to call it), so it just makes sense for all of the concerns of AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism to surface/re-surface at this point in time. I don’t think they ever really went anywhere; we’re just paying more attention to the conceptual concerns and ideas right now, probably in order to save our humanity.
TH: What are the current questions and explorations in AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism adding to the dialogue that has already happened around these concepts and ideas?
KF: I think the current questions and explorations just further the dialogue, make it wider, begin to expand the definitions and chronicle the individuals who are making work and who are actively participating in that dialogue in the 21st Century.
TH: What is different about these movements today that perhaps doesn’t align with the historic concepts of the past that have served as an influence and foundation for it?
KF: I’m not able to answer questions like that when I’m in the moment of something. I think the answer to this question will be illuminated years from now, maybe even a decade or more from now. We need perspective to see the big picture and to examine the nuances and differences, and the evolution(s) of it all.
To see more of Krista’s work, visit her website at www.kristafranklin.com.
You can experience the work of Krista Franklin during “Gil Scott Heron: Passages Interludes Subtext and Understandin’: Performances and Discussion of the Legendary Poet/Musician/Activist” at Experimental Station (6100 S. Blackstone Ave.) on June 8, 2012, 7pm – 10pm or during On Blackness Re-imagined: A Performance and Conversation with Krista Franklin and Michael Warr at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum (800 S. Halsted) on June 8th from 6pm – 8pm. Discover more AfroFuturism and AfroSurreal work in Chicago–see Cauleen Smith’s A Star Is A Seed series of short films and installation along with Rashid Johnson’s Message To My Folks retrospective currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art.