Using a title borrowed from an essay by cultural critic Mark Dery, the Black To The Future Series is a sequence of interviews with artists whose practice has started to define a new generation of work in the realm of AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism. This series has been created to spark conversation, to hear various points of view on something that is constantly changing and transforming, and with the hopes of allowing the practitioners to be at the center of determining what these movements are.
This week I spoke with Alexandria Eregbu, a BFA candidate in performance and fiber & material studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a relatively new voice of AfroSurrealism, Alexandria offers an interesting take on how her past performance, installation and sculptural works and love of music intertwine with the inquiries of these frameworks and how she came to realize that her practice is a part of this growing conversation.
Tempestt Hazel: Do you consider yourself an AfroFuturist, an AfroSurrealist or both?
Alexandria Eregbu: First and foremost, I consider myself an artist. I am an artist. My practice aligns with both aesthetics, AfroSurrealism and AfroFuturism combined, but if I were to choose, I’d say I definitely am leaning closer to the AfroSurrealist spectrum than the AfroFuturist. However, I will also say that AfroFuturist influence has heavily populated my musical collection these days. I’m a sucker for a great track with heavy synths, noisy feedback, and unsynchronized rhythms. Ras G, Digable Planets, Erykah Badu, Madlib, Nikki Ntu, and Sun Ra, of course… I could go on forever. It might sound like chaos, but I eat that stuff up. I love it.
TH: How do you define AfroFuturism and how do you define AfroSurrealism?
AE: The term “AfroSurreal” was first introduced to me by my fellow colleague and friend Devin Cain—undergraduate film major pursuing his degree at Columbia College. At first I thought he was crazy. We were sitting at a small table in our favorite spot, Cafécito on Congress. It must have been November or December of last year. He showed me the manifesto written by San Franciscan-based writer, visual artist, and scholar D. Scot Miller, “AfroSurreal Manifesto: Black is the New Black” and told me that I should read it. I didn’t. The concept seemed too bizarre, even for me. “What does he mean by ‘AfroSurreal?’” I thought to myself. I certainly understood the ‘Afro’ part of that statement, but what does it mean to be Surreal as person of color? What exactly does AfroSurrealism look like? Where can I find it? I didn’t have a clue.
It wasn’t until February when Devin asked me to meet with him and another friend of mine, Krista Franklin— interdisciplinary arts/book & paper arts graduate student, also seeking a degree at Columbia College. [Devin] wanted the three of us to submit a proposal for an exhibition focusing on AfroSurrealism. Proposal? Exhibition? Now my ears were listening. In our meeting we listed a bunch of examples of people, places, experiences, artwork, that we felt were AfroSurreal: the visceral collages of Wangechi Mutu, the masked MF Doom, Kara Walker’s mysterious silhouettes, Bodys Kingelez and his cityscapes of Africa reimagined, Prince as a symbol, Tina Turner in white face, eating a watermelon, Toni Morrison, Gwendylon Brooks, Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, Yinka Shonibare, the performance work of Faustin Linyekula, OFWGKTA, 6 year olds appearing on The Ellen Show for a perfect recitation of a Nicki Minaj track, a Black President, Barron Claiborne, Chris Ofili, Xaviera Simmons, Nina Chanel Abney, contemporary art masters such as Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, William Pope L., David Hammons, and Glenn Ligon, and the fact that I have the privilege to study at a highly esteemed institution for art as a person of color.
I went home and read D. Scot Miller’s manifesto right after our meeting. Finally it all started to make some sense. These examples that I listed before you don’t fully define AfroSurrealism as a whole, but I’d say they come pretty close. The beauty about this aesthetic is its malleability and hybridity and susceptibility to change. It has a remarkable ability to completely transform, quite like a chameleon or, better yet, an animorph. Yes, I’d characterize AfroSurrealism as animorphic, like the books. It’s like an odd language that you’ve never heard before but understand exactly what each sound is trying to communicate; it’s making meaning of absurdity. It’s a long lost friend that you want to shape a future with. That’s what AfroSurrealism is to me.
As for AfroFuturism, I, too had to refer to the Wikipedia version of the definition:
“an emergent literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.”
What a beautiful definition. I’m not sure if I should even attempt to mess with that. So I won’t.
TH: How do these concepts influence and manifest themselves in your practice and the form that your work takes?
AE: I refer to music quite a lot for alter ego and character development in my performance work. The mythology and mysticism in AfroFuturism is something that I look for to pull into my personal work. I’ve always felt that it was one of the best genres to listen to for that type of content, lyrically, rhythmically, and conceptually. A large portion of my work appears very rite and ritualistic, especially in my hair sculptures and performances. The Birth of A(ph)FRODITE was definitely a manifestation of several hours, days, weeks, spent listening to AfroFuturistic sounding tracks. It’s funny though because the portraits I photographed of A(ph)FRODITE are totally AfroSurreal. I love the way that body of work weaves itself in and out of both dialogues. One of my favorite things about AfroSurrealism, however, is that it addresses both the future and the past, all the while managing to maintain a completely relevant present. AfroSurrealism presents “old gods with new faces” and “new gods with old faces.” I try to keep that quality in my own work— something new and something old as they both are equally necessary and essential in my book.
TH: What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about AfroFuturism? What are the biggest misconceptions about AfroSurrealism?
AE: That’s a tough question. I suppose if anything I just want people to understand that there is a difference between the two aesthetics because they get confused a lot… I’m finding that AfroSurrealism often gets categorized with AfroFuturism because AfroSurrealism doesn’t quite have the cultural history that AfroFuturism has yet. Hopefully that will change in the next few years.
TH: Do you remember when you first became aware of Sun Ra?
AE: I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I first became of Sun Ra two years ago when I took a course with Calvin Forbes, writer and instructor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago called, “Jazz and Blues Aesthetics.” Music as a whole just sort of opened up to me in a completely different way after that class. I’m still amazed at how much I’ve learned and how much my taste has expanded since then. Thanks again Calvin.
TH: What is it about his philosophy that resonates with you?
AE: As a performer, I can’t help but to be fascinated by the performative identity that Sun Ra created. He fictionalized, reimagined, and innovated with complete fearlessness and conviction that he was convincing. When you listen to his music or watch him perform, Space IS the place, without any question or doubt. He is so mesmerizing. I love it.
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?
AE: I think for me, personally, the idea of being able to reinvent my own cultural history and future is quite intriguing and exciting. As a Black maker whose history is constantly being edited and re-edited, subtracted and added to, highlighted for a moment and then suddenly, erased, taking matters into my own hands seems like the only viable and valuable solution. AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism combined are great at movements to reference in terms of (re)imagination. I think right now, people, specifically people of color are beginning to realize the true power that they possess as individuals, and especially as collectives. I can’t fully explain it yet, but something is definitely surfacing here in Chicago. A lot of creative minds are consciously uniting and working together to see what they want to see in their community. I think it’s great.
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?
AE: I’m just interested to see AfroSurrealism launch off as an individual movement. Something tells me that it will happen soon, and I think the world is ready.
To see more of Alexandria’s work, visit her website and Vimeo page. Also, be sure to stay tuned for the 2013 exhibition featuring AfroSurrealist work from Chicago-based artists, Marvelous Freedom, Vigilance of Desire Revisited at Columbia College Chicago in the winter of 2013.