Unlike what the name suggests Afrofuturism has nothing to do with Africa, and a lot more to do with power imbalances and cyberculture in the West. Bring on Sun Ra; 90’s Hip-Hop; the Techno mashups of Scanner and DJ Spooky with African-American identity in outer space. The term was coined by American author, lecturer and cultural critic Mark Dery in Pyrotechnic Insanitorium, the article “Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0” (1999, now found only on through the Internet’s wayback machine) writes:
“Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th centaury technoculture — and more generally, African-American signification that appropriated images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future — might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism”.
At its origins Afrofuturism like Cyberfeminism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, in the case of Afrofuturism to escape a definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western Culture. Cyberculture and the rise of turntables and remixes as an instrumental form opened the gateway for redefinitions that led to dealing with the concerns of identification. By placing the black man in space, out of the reach of racial stereotypes, Afrofuturism allowed for a critique of both of western culture and techno-culture.
Dery’s Afrofuturism however was a product of the nineties, and where it may reflect the seventies futuristic fetishes of P-Funk, Afrofuturism through literary criticism had a different agenda. The notion of alien and other are aesthetically explored in Afrofuturism as a way to address identity, marginalisation and issues of identification. Mark Dery in “Black to the Future” quotes Erik Davis the author of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, he states: “This loosely gnostic strain of Afro-diasporic science fiction emerges from an impoverished confrontation between modern technology and the prophetic imagination, a confrontation rooted in the alienated conditions of black life in the New World”. I see Afrofuturism addressing the similar critique as cyberfeminsim; a critique of the centralised and outward looking view of technology and its power associated culture in the west, which was having an increasing impact on a new form called Globalisation.
Afrofuturism of 90’s musical techno-culture extended it in a twofold manner by celebrating the release from the earth as a mechanism to question notions of identification and proposed decentralisation in its aesthetic. In an interview with Kodwo Eshun the Ghanaian/British writer and musician and author of More Brilliant than the Sun, with the Dutch Media Theory Professor and Writer Geert Lovink titled “Everything was to be done. All adventures are still there.” A Speculative Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun (2000, Netime Archives) – Eshun states:
“We found that we could use all this material as speculative playground and have an adventure of concepts…Afrofuturism as a transversal tendency running through popular culture, acting to destabilise what people thought black identity was, what pop identity and culture identity were. There was not only a compulsory pessimism in theory when I started. There was also a compulsory ghetto-centricity of black popular culture. Always this hermeneutics of the street.”
In 2010 I wrote a paper titled “Rephrasing Protocol: Internet Art in the Global South”. The paper addresses a trend towards decentralisation in South African and South America Internet Art and Art concerning global networks. In it I indentify Digital and Networked media as a learnt and adopted medium, one that is created on a western protocol of technology development and information exchange. In the attempt to be understood in this realm, Global South artists rephrase this protocol, as a form of destabilisation. The mechanism of the black man in cyber futuristic space in Afrofuturism breaks an imposed notion of black identity, but more importantly Afrofuturism shows us that within techno-culture the medium at its very nature grants us an opportunity for decentralisation. To quote Eshun again, “Identity as intermittent fluctuation, the epiphenomenon of convergent processes”. This however is not as potentially fluid when the location itself is geographically, not only ideologically, orbiting a Western centralised worldview.
Afrofuturism is not the science fiction of Africa, but a critical engagement with technology and the power ideals of “the other”. The aesthetic that has emerged from Afrofuturism still flourishes its critical head in various contemporary African iterations, even though its origins are located elsewhere.
Tegan Bristow is a media artist and full time lecturer at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. Most of her projects are aimed at educating and developing an understanding of the creative use of technology and interactive digital media practice.