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Black To The Future Series: An Interview with D. Denenge Akpem

D. Denenge Akpem, Installation for Extreme Studio, June 24 - July 21, 2010. (Image Credit: A+D Gallery.)

This article is part of the Black To The Future Series. Titled after an essay by cultural critic Mark Dery, the Black To The Future Series is a sequence of interviews with Chicago 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.

Artist D. Denenge Akpem could easily be described as a conduit. Her work and its complexities move through the past, present and future simultaneously and attempts to articulate concepts and realities that are beyond words. Her practice is a cosmically charged mix of installation, performance, sound and experience. Her work channels, provides sustenance for and pays homage to the primogenitors and future griots of histories written and unwritten.

With a combination of images, video, soundclips and a lyrical narrative, D. Denenge Akpem gives us a glimpse into her understanding of AfroFuturism as she has crafted it through a life-long accumulation of knowledge, the re-imagining of liberation and time, and recognizing art’s ability to be a catalyst into alternate destinies and a more authentic understanding of ourselves.

 

Tempestt Hazel: Do you consider yourself an Afrofuturist, an AfroSurrealist or both?

D. Denenge Akpem: Up until the present point, I have located much of my work in the AfroFuturist genre. I was then introduced to the AfroSurrealist genre and am still learning how its adherents define it. According to the definitions I have seen thus far, my work falls within AfroSurrealism as well. But it’s not my biggest concern at the moment to locate my work in one or the other; the work says what it says. My main connections and themes are rooted in the work of Sun Ra and others who work in a similar vein whether pre-dating Sun Ra and harking back to ancient ways, his contemporaries, or those who have come after him.

Since the questions have been posed with a separation between AfroFuturism and AfroSurrealism and since my work has been linked with AF, I will focus my answers on that genre (though this does not mean that I do not see my practice as part of/linked to AfroSurrealism).

D. Denenge Akpem, Costume portrait from Rapunzel Revisited: An Afri-Sci-Fi Space Sea Siren Tale, Installation image c. Michael Rose, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2006. (Image Credit: Matt "Motep" Woods.)

TH: How do you define Afrofuturism?

DDA: AfroFuturism is an exploration and methodology of liberation, simultaneously both a location and a journey. The creative ability to manifest action and transformation has been essential to the survival of Blacks in the Diaspora.

In “Bopera Theory” Amiri Baraka instructs us to “step outside the parameters of this society’s version of just about everything…Add five more senses to the five we know…Our use of the rhythm and motion and image become a social force, grasped by the people…”[ii] AfroFuturism is rooted in history and African cosmologies, using pieces of the past, technological and analog, to build the future. These works rethink and rework notions of identity; hybridity; the alien and states of alienation; belonging, immigration, migration; and the “vessel,” both corporeal and metaphoric, symbolized as a vehicle for liberation. AfroFuturism asks: what does “Blackness” or “liberation” look like in the future, real or imagined?

AfroFuturism is hot, moist, black nutrient-rich, deep in the bowels of memory and soul iterations. It lives in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. In “Black Secret Technology (The Whitey On The Moon Dub)“, Julian Jonker writes: “The central fact in Black Science Fiction…is an acknowledgment that Apocalypse already happened: that (in Public Enemy’s phrase) Armageddon has been in effect.”[i] In AfroFuturism, however, according to filmmaker Jonathan Woods “everything is alive and transformed as opposed to being destroyed.”[ii] AfroFuturism says: even “solid” matter is made of slow-moving molecules; Jesus walked on water and you can, too. Jonathan Woods characterizes AfroFuturism as an act of freedom with holistic intent where “all points of space and time are accessible.”

AfroFuturism has no tense: it is spiral, past-present-future tense, manifesting alternate realities and spaces for the true realization of self, destiny and freedom. AfroFuturism is within and without; in our vessel traveling to new realities/spaces/time, it is the core capacitor.

AfroFuturism is dred coils of rich magma-laced soil. Glorious and untamable, the afro’s existence is predicated on flow. It is that moment when every cell in your body comes alive. AfroFuturism asks: what does the future look like? And who has the power to control it?

D. Denenge Akpem, Alter-Destiny888. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: How do these concepts influence and manifest themselves in your practice and the form that your work takes?

DDA: These concepts are the root of everything I do in the creation of my AfroFuturist works. I also run a design company specializing in site-specific sculpture for private and corporate clients, and residential interior decor. I am interested in building parks and interactive sculpture for the city of Chicago for spaces/developments within a range of income levels. People will often ask me how my design practice and my AfroFuturist work are linked, and to me all that I do is part of the same continuum. It’s all about the creation of spaces that reflect individual agency, about empowering individuals and communities, about manifesting the desires and goals of inhabitants through the conscious and intentional shaping of physical spaces that serve as jumping points to activate transformation.

I consider myself to be a “space sculptor.” At core, I am interested in empowerment, in creating spaces that provide an opportunity for myself and others to examine worlds, selves, and dreams, and to use my work as a portal in a ritualistic manner. Interactivity is a key interest because I come from a rural background where ingenuity, innovation and reuse were paramount. Getting one’s hands engaged pushes past the blockages of the mind. It’s a foothold. And this liberatory vision with Afro-Futurism also manifests in my educational practice with the many public art and student projects that I’ve guided since 2000. I am a strong believer in education and specifically in activating imagination, and I believe that AfroFuturism in all of its myriad manifestations holds within it infinite potential as a tool of empowerment. This is why in my definition of AfroFuturism I refer to it also as a “methodology.”

As a Black woman at this moment in time, I am aware of the iterations of my existence, of perceptions from within and without, of histories both positive and horrific, of the continuing legacy infused in this country’s fabric. These facets are real to me so as fantastical as the work may appear to be, the themes address very real-world concerns for me. As with the Black Arts Movement where process was privileged over product, the process of creating the works is for me the ritual of transformation. It all comes back to the act, the physicality of it.

D.Denenge Akpem, Mutatis Mutandis. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Some of my early works such as Mutatis Mutandis (2001) and Virtual Exorcism (2002)–and actually the first interactive sculpture I built in 1997 after an internship at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art–began to explore the role of ritual within modern settings (museum, virtual). This pre-dates a lot of the information and the interactive systems that are now available especially online. I was interested in the role that ritual plays in the present age and whether technology is able to replace elements that we have thus far considered to be inherently “human.” Virtual Exorcism developed out of a realization that, at that particular moment in time, all of my core relationships existed virtually. Science and experience tell us that a newborn baby left alone will die without physical touch. This is still the case despite the visuals of a future of human-growing pods in War of the Worlds and Aliens. I was exploring how ancient rituals translated into virtual space and whether their core shape was altered in the new format and if their efficacy was enhanced or compromised. Along with that I am interested in how the forms we use for communication have hardly changed throughout the history of time from clay cuneiform (referenced and sculpted in Super Space Riff: An Ode to Mae Jemison and Octatia Butler in VIII Stanzas at HPAC, 2006) to Luba Lukasa memory boards to mobile devices. Information may be contained within these forms in different ways and activated in different ways but the shape and how it sits in your hand is still the same. New technologies are beginning to change that with applications that allow us to “draw” our screens on whatever surface we wish; we may not even need to use our hands anymore with the new headsets being developed where the screen will be visible in space before our eyes. All of this technology exists and is being honed, little by little, for mass market. Perhaps in some ways such technologies actually bring us closer to biological systems, how our brains and neurons actually function. How much changes over time and how bound are we to biology? I am interested in the way sound (as with Sun Ra) and intentional, ritualized acts can reshape our DNA, reshape individual and collective memory.

D. Denenge Akpem, Cuneiform, Lukasa, Palmpilot. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

TH: Do you remember when you first became aware of Sun-Ra?

DDA: My first introduction to Sun Ra was through the Black Arts Movement.

TH: What is it about his philosophy that resonates with you?

DDA: Pretty much all of his core philosophies resonate with me and the work I’ve been engaged with in the private and public sectors. To me, Sun Ra is liberation theology through music. My early training was in jazz vocals and I create soundscapes for my installations, which are a combination of recorded sounds (water dripping/rushing), sounds from archives (Saturn’s rings vibrating, whale calls), and voice.

“Teleport the whole planet through music”…”the music of your soul…each playing our part in this vast cosmos”…”I am the alter destiny the presence of the living myth…sent here by your ancestors”… This concept of “alter destiny” was the foundation for my 2008 performance-installation Alter-Destiny 888 at THE LAB for performance + installation at Roger Smith Hotel, NYC. It opened on 08.08.08–the same day as the Beijing Olympics–and the significance of this number cannot be overemphasized. I utilize elements of feng shui in my design work and study Eastern philosophies, so I was aware of the numerological significance and attempting to harness that power as well.

The piece was based on the concept of the alter destiny and of transformation that Sun Ra addressed. But is was personalized in the sense that I focused primarily on the question of whether one does have the power to alter one’s destiny and whether one might act as conduit to affect global destiny or to heal trauma in collective cellular and psychic memory. What I focused on was those traumas that women–and specifically black women in the Diaspora–keep hidden within and which are completely disregarded or not even on the radar as a point of concern such as the epidemic of fibroids for black women and women of color in the U.S. The focus on fibroids was inspired, in part, by a poem by Krista Franklin. For women whose bodies were sites of unimaginable trauma, I was horrified and fascinated to think of the metaphor of these fibroids (some of which grow bits of hair and teeth) as calcified fetuses, as if we are growing stones in our wombs. Because I believe that all things are connected and that what happens physically is absolutely connected to what is happening emotionally, psychically, mentally, my question was what is it in the collective memory and in present circumstances that has led to this? I was meditating on Sun Ra in Space Is The Place, considering what it means to have the power to alter one’s destiny and whether the artist can serve as conduit to enact ritual healing and open a portal on behalf of a community/people/for self/others.

Denenge Akpem: 8-8-8 from Panman Productions on Vimeo.

Over the course of a month of daily performances, I used sound force (singing abstract songs based on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana which has great significance to me as a sound piece,) as I sculpted clay baby forms, gently added hair in a stroking and rocking motion, and then suffocated/buried each it in a pile of earth. Each clay-hair-soil form was then attached in meditation to the rope encircling my chest and waist. This shapeshifting used costume as a portal, turning the body into a vehicle of transport, an activatable site. The day’s performance ended when I rose to drag the ever-heavier clumps around and out of the space. Each day the headdress “grew” as I sculpted extensions and by stage two, the two sides were twisted into horns in homage to the god Pan, whimsical trickster whose energies I commandeered to assist in destroying the calcified forms. With mallet, I set about smashing all of the dried clumps, turning them to dust in reference to the Biblical “dust to dust”/”ashes to ashes.” For stage three on the final day, the Being was joined by members of the community/family (long-time friends representing all corners of the planet) to move the bags of clay dust out of the gallery space, leaving only a film of dust.

D. Denenge Akpem, Alter-Destiny888. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

What alternate destinies were set in motion through this performance-installation, I am honestly not sure. What I do know is that the intention was there; the manifestation occurred. It was an experiment, a gesture that was deeply significant to some and seemed crazy to others. In this way, I identify very much with Sun Ra. As a practitioner of AfroFuturism and specifically as a performance artist, I know that much of what I do exists in my own conception; I hope to provide points of entry for the audience onto which they can layer their own experiences and references. Years ago I talked about my installations as portals, of the myriad elements contained with them as a systematic attempt to make sense of the esoteric, of emotions. Grids, maps and paths to the soul. In performance, I have to immerse in the so-called madness of it; I’ve set the stage and who knows what will follow…

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?

DDA: People are excited by the revolutionary liberation philosophy. We still need what it offers. It is also directly linked to the technological age we live in. Technology and the internet have provided access in a way that humanity hasn’t seen before so people are being able to imagine themselves, perhaps, in new ways, not so limited by their immediate environments, being exposed to new things. There is an increased sense of agency, at least with the artists and specifically with the teaching artists who are shaping new generations. In 2010, I developed a course entitled AfroFuturism: Pathways to Black Liberation, which will be offered again this Fall 2012 at Columbia College Chicago. Students are embracing the possibilities inherent in the genre, and Chicago with its tumultuous and revolutionary history–and the historic center of Sun Ra’s operations–is an amazing place to offer this.

Image of poster for Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation course, 2012. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Also, currently, MOCADA Director of Education Ruby Amanze has curated an exhibition AfroFuturism: Imagining Tomorrow by students from seven different NY area schools. She told me that they’d utilized some of my writing on the subject and that the students had been so inspired by the different directions the teaching artists took to help them develop the works. The resulting exhibition covers all media and represents student visions of what AF is and what the future might hold. It is so wonderful to see students approaching the subject and really delving into these core questions, gaining a sense of agency through imagination. In the physical sculpting/making, there is empowerment, I believe.

Collaborations across genre are especially hot right now. It taps into the African sensibility of innovation and ingenuity. As a buzz-word, people want to know what this thing is called “Afro-Futurism.” Richard Branson is in the news all the time with his private development of space travel; James Cameron uses Avatar profits to travel to deepest part of the ocean anyone has ever been. Grace Jones performs as part of the Queen’s Jubilee. On every level in popular culture, we are seeing artists and visionaries taking the future into their own hands. What my mission has always been is to translate that possibility across economic, gender and class strata; I believe strongly that AfroFuturism is a people’s movement/tool.

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?

DDA: There seems to be an increased presence and participation from the African continent, which is tremendously exciting to me.

I am interested in the genre as a liberatory methodology for black women. In keeping with this, I created a soundwork for the exhibition My Mythos curated by Ingrid LaFleur at Fe Gallery which opened on 11.11.11 based on personal interpretations of the myth of Drexciya.

So I am very honored to be part of a national and international group of individuals–and in particular, I treasure the connections with other black female artists– who are exploring the genre in all media. I think AfroFuturism is a buzz word right now to which a lot of people are drawn. I do think it’s very important to have a foundation in what has come before and to understand the history of the genre. For myself, AF springs from core beliefs about black liberation. Gil Scott Heron’s concept of the “buy-centennial” and his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” come to mind. Because intention and manifestation of transformation in terms of self and community are such core concerns, that is what interests me when looking at other work within the genre. I believe that AF is infinite-dimensional so my main focus is on doing my work and saying what it is I need to say through that, and enjoying the creativity that others are bringing to the table around this theme. It’s a tremendously exciting time for the subject and I am so blessed to be here on Planet Earth at this moment in time.

 

To see more of D. Denenge Akpem’s work, visit www.denenge.net/.

Also, take a look at these videos of her recent work:
The Dream, #2: http://vimeo.com/13417220
Constructing Future Forms: A performance-lecture on Afro-Futurism and fashion in the work of D. Denenge Akpem: http://vimeo.com/38647168

Read more articles in the Black To The Future Series here.

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1 Response to " Black To The Future Series: An Interview with D. Denenge Akpem "

  1. Daveed says:

    incredible.. brilliant… ethereal ..

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