Fall Arts Guide 2019: Through Afrofuturism, local artists plan for a bright tomorrow

Dancer Darrius Strong takes a strange trip in Joe Horton’s Vessel.

Dancer Darrius Strong takes a strange trip in Joe Horton’s Vessel. Joe Horton, 'Vessel'

Right now, Afrofuturism is blossoming in all corners of the Twin Cities cultural landscape.

Many creatives— including authors, visual artists, choreographers, and poets—use the genre to explore the possibility that dreams, magic, science fiction, and the future can offer complex understandings of blackness, ones that subvert narratives confined to a white supremacist vantage point.

Afrofuturism exploded onto the mainstream nationally with the premiere of Black Panther in 2018, but its roots go back much earlier. The term was coined in the 1990s by cultural critic Mark Dery, and iconic examples of Afrofuturism include George Clinton, OutKast, and Janelle Monáe. Its predecessors include major figures of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s; think people like jazz musician Sun Ra and writers Amiri Baraka and Henry Dumas.

Here in the Twin Cities, a growing understanding and appreciation for Afrofuturism, black speculative forms, and black geekdom has been building for a number of years. Last January, audiences soaked up Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s incredible musical adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower at the O’Shaughnessy. In February, author Marlon James released Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first in a planned fantasy trilogy series that will play off of African mythologies and history. The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s “Mapping Black Identities” subverted the colonialist gaze through the work of artists who are making connections across time and space through the concept of blackness. Choreographer Jonathan van Arneman of Atlantis 13, the band Astralblak, and writer Senah Yeboah Sampong are some other creatives who have drawn on Afrofuturist tenets in their recent work.

New Renaissance brings Afrofuturism to the Southern Theater stage.

New Renaissance brings Afrofuturism to the Southern Theater stage. Denzell Gilliard

Poet/musician Joe Davis created an entire series of performances last year, called Ancestral Echoes, around Afrofuturist themes with his company, the New Renaissance. He heads to the Southern Theater in December as part of the venue’s new Amplify Series.

For Davis, Afrofuturism is about casting a suggestion for what the world can be.

“So many times, we get stuck in the problems and the struggle without having a vision forward,” he says. “Afrofuturism makes space for us to dream and to imagine, to add color and texture. We can make that world possible.”

For Davis’ upcoming show at the Southern, he continues an exploration of storylines about rebel scientists in the future who use music to find healing.

Throughout September, Maya Beck is hosting a Geeks of Color reading and open mic at Boneshaker Books. Each event brings writers of color together to share in the joy of fandoms and nerdery.

Beck is happy the Twin Cities has finally caught up with the trend. “I feel like I was always a geek, but I’m not the only one who is that way,” she says. “It’s become a lot more culturally acceptable.”

Writers featured in her Geeks of Color series include local artist Junauda Petrus-Nasah. Her novel, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, is a queer coming-of-age love and friendship story centered on two black girls, one from Trinidad and one from Minneapolis. The book launches on September 17.

Junauda Petrus-Nasah

Junauda Petrus-Nasah Image provided by the artist

“I wanted there to be magic in a variety of ways within the characters just to keep people paying attention to the ways that we don’t have to accept this reality,” she says.
Petrus-Nasah’s prose is rhythmic, colloquial, and unabashedly erotic. Her poetic sense of black liberation and Afrofuturism seeps through the novel, offering surrealistic imagery, levitating spirituality, and astrology.

Petrus-Nasah, who considers herself a Black Diaspora Futurist, believes that speculative devices—including fantasy and science fiction—have allowed her to reclaim a sense of space for herself free from the imagination of white supremacy.

“[Afrofuturism] has always been an aspect of black art in a lot of ways,” Petrus-Nasah says. “The black experience has been a speculative experience—starting with getting kidnapped en masse by a total foreign entity and forced to do labor in ways that are grotesque and generational. I think so much of our reality is resonant with that speculative space. You wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t know it was true.”

There are aspects of Afrofuturism to be found in Joe Horton’s Vessel, an experimental film that debuts at Mia on September 13. The piece uses stop-motion animation and a trippy, poetic storyline.

In the film a man, played by dancer Darrius Strong, goes on a psychedelic—and possibly fatal—drug trip. For Horton, the piece is about trying to figure out how to face mortality, and asking why, especially in American culture, we have so few tools for dealing with anxiety over our inevitable demise.

“It’s this idea that colonization stripped us from certain psychological antibodies to help us prepare for the concept of our own mortality,” he says. “I think other cultures have had very elegant ways of dealing with that impulse to destroy parts of yourself or dampen it down and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Horton likes to keep his work close to the chest, though, and is hesitant to put a label on it. “It might be the most joyous experience to catch a butterfly in a jar for a second,” he says. “My goal is to put the butterfly in a jar, and then let them go.”

Still, Horton sees fantasy as a powerful tool for artists.“I see the dream as a place to go, not a place to run to,” he says. “It’s not that we have to escape the problems of Donald Trump and company... I’m like, fuck that. Let’s leave this motherfucker on Earth and go everywhere else.”