Prompted by Rochelle Johnson and Ella Maria Ray
On Medium: “The Construct (The Art & Politics of Afrofuturism)” by Rick Griffith, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable on The Art & Politics of Afrofuturism
Discussion Prompt: The Art & Politics of Afrofuturism
For diasporic and continental African people, the apocalypse began with European contact, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and European colonialism. Afrofuturism, a term coined by Mark Dery in his 1994 article “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” emerges as an interdisciplinary and imaginative approach that Pan-African writers and visual and performing artists have developed to detox from historical, cultural, social, and political trauma, as well as to create a new way to see the world. Jazz musician Sun Ra and leader of the collective Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton, represent early forms of Afrofuturism expressed through music. Choreographer and author Ytasha Womack uses Afrofuturism to inform contemporary dance and free style movement. Award-winning speculative fiction writer Octavia E. Butler was a literary force who insisted upon people of color and gender-marginalized people claiming a space in the future. More recently, African and Caribbean artists and writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Olalekan Jeyifous, and Nalo Hopkinson have demanded that Pan-Africans not forget the motherland—rich in storytelling and mythology—when envisioning the future. And this past February, Afrofuturism captured the national and international imagination when the film Black Panther opened in movie theaters around the world.
Afrofuturism as an imaginative artistic movement has a sankofic quality. This West African term and symbol emphasizes the power of heritage and ancestral connective tissue to ensure that Black people can claim an empowered future. At a basic level, it reminds us that in this present moment, humanity must embrace, learn, and heal from the past. Seen through an Afrofuturistic lens, the forthcoming world may be filled with technologically advanced scientific creations, but we must also acknowledge the value of the mind and body, as well as the ancestral world of the unseen in time and space. This is an essential foundation if Black people are to sustain themselves in external and internal environments that have become toxic over time because of the ways that the planet has been exploited and depleted of resources. An Afrofuturistic universe must have a commitment to cleansing the internalized oppression that has originated from one privileged group’s noxious thoughts, behaviors, and desires to exploit people of color, particularly Black people.
This roundtable will dive deep into a dialogue that explores the way Afrofuturistic artists and writers, as interdisciplinary emissaries of this creative movement, offer a rich vision of the future that could push humanity to a more fulfilling level of development and ensure humanity’s existence beyond the dystopic present in which we live.
—EllaMaria Ray, roundtable prompter
Suggested Readings and Background Materials
Olukotun, Deji Bryce. “Utopian and Dystopian Visions of Afrofuturism.” Slate, November 30, 2015.
Thrasher, Steven W. “Afrofuturism: reimagining science and the future from a black perspective.” The Guardian, December 7, 2015.
About the Prompters
Rochelle Johnson was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she developed her passion for drawing at an early age. As a child, she discovered the work of Lois Mailou Jones and Jacob Lawrence and was further inspired by the Denver Black Arts Festival in the 1980s. In 1989, Johnson enrolled at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where she learned to create stories using oils and watercolors and received a B.A. in Illustration.
In 1992, Johnson moved to Seattle, where she worked as a freelance designer, creating community theater posters and identity packages for local businesses. These opportunities paid the bills, but she remained intrigued by the idea of being a storyteller through her work. In 1997, she entered the annual Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle Minority Art Exhibition and sold her first non-commercial piece.
In 1999, Johnson returned to Denver and eventually resumed pursuing the idea of storytelling through painting, a calling that had never left her consciousness. In 2005, her artwork was featured on the cover of the novel When a Sistah’s Fed Up, by Monica Frazier Anderson. Johnson’s work has been published in several journals, including American Art Collector Magazine. In addition to painting in her Denver studio, Johnson has recently taken on several curatorial projects. In 2017, she curated Inclusion: Diverse Voices of the Modern West at the McNichols Civic Center Building in Denver. She is currently curating The Search Within: Daughters of the Diaspora, which opens at the Western Colorado Center of the Art in Grand Junction in December 2018.
EllaMaria Ray is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Cultural and Visual Anthropology at Metropolitan State University, and a ceramicist. She holds a B.A. from Colorado College and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Johns Hopkins University. Through visual art, she explores the relationship between ethnographic data, literature, and Africana culture and history as a tool for understanding humanity.
As a child, Ray expressed her creativity through the performing arts. Ballet, African dance, music, and oration provided her imagination with rich nutrients for growth. Her mother, who cultivated her deep appreciation for the arts, insisted that Ray embrace her gifts. When her mother died in 1985, her creativity was subsumed by the demands of graduate school and developing her understanding of anthropology as an academic discipline. Following her father’s death in 1997, her muse guided her back to a creative vocation, directing her to focus her intellectual energy towards clay and story telling.
Ray’s ceramic sculpture emerges from a commitment to acknowledge the ways in which continental and diasporic Africans share cultural commonalties, while simultaneously expressing cultural distinctions. As an anthropologist and visual artist, she strives to understand the complex vision diasporic Africans are creating for themselves and for all of humanity as we walk further into the twenty‑first century.