More than black science fiction

24.08.2018 - Article

Futuristic worlds are often shaped by Western visions of humankind’s destiny. Afrofuturism offers an alternative that emphasises how entrenched mainstream science fiction genre has become. This African-inspired vision is gathering ground in film, literature and music.

Afrofuturism in film: A scene out of Marvel’s blockbuster Black Panther
Afrofuturism in film: A scene out of Marvel’s blockbuster Black Panther© Goethe Institut/dpa

The term science fiction usually conjures up visions of the future with spaceships zipping through the cosmos, futuristic constructs creating new habitats for humanity, and robots as an integral part of everyday life. These images are generally shaped by Western ideologies, where the future is all about progress, technical innovation and colonising new planets, and rarely about improving the living conditions of oppressed groups. Afrofuturism shows how different our vision of the world to come could be.

Black to the Future

In film, literature, fashion, music, fine arts and theatre, Afrofuturism depicts societies in which black people can live in equality. American cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term back in 1994 in his essay “Black to the Future”, where he posited African Americans as experts in the field of science fiction, and asked why there were so few African American science fiction authors. In a widely cited description of Afrofuturism, musician and writer Greg Tate referenced life as a black person in the USA in an interview by saying: “Being black in America is a science fiction experience.”

Many black artists describe their role as that of an “alien” in Western society. This analogy is particularly manifest in the USA, where the term “alien” is both the official US government term for people from other countries, and the word for creatures from outer space. The concept of feeling alien in one’s homeland draws on African-American history, on ancestors abducted from Africa and brought to the USA as slaves where they have never been treated as equals. British writer and journalist Kodwo Eshun sets up a vivid parallel: “Like the robot (...), the slave was actually manufactured to fulfil a function: as a servomechanism, as a transport system (...). Slaves are aliens.”

German literary scholar Peggy Piesche notes that Afrofuturism is often misinterpreted as black science fiction where black actors are simply cast in the traditional roles. But Afrofuturism should be understood more as a resistance movement inventing completely new science fiction worlds.

Afrofuturism in German theatres

Since the 1990s, artists and other creative minds have engaged with the phenomenon of African science fiction. The issue has been highlighted in critical discourse on pop culture, racism, feminism, and society, especially in Anglo-American countries, and was explored at the Loving the Alien conference organised by Diedrich Diedrichsen at the Berlin’s Volksbühne Theatre in 1997.

Since then, German theatres in particular have put on plays with Afrofuturistic themes, while young artists like author Olivia Wenzel explore how alternative narratives can employ outer space as a trope for a utopian projection of equality. In her theatrical collage “We are the Universe”, which is based on texts, films and theories of black science fiction, she addresses current events such as the Mars Expedition.

In the feminist play “First Black Woman in Space”, German performer Simone Dede Ayivi looks back at the history of Africa and the African diaspora while also addressing the situation of black women in the present day. In stories of liberation struggles and empowerment, Ayivi and her team show that black female role models are not rare, and have simply been seriously underrepresented in public perception.

A scene from the play “We are the Universe” performed in Berlin’s Ballhaus Naunynstraße Theatre
A scene from the play “We are the Universe” performed in Berlin’s Ballhaus Naunynstraße Theatre© Goethe Institut/Zé de Paiva

Not about a black Star Wars

Both German and Anglophone Afrofuturism differ essentially from Western science fiction. They do not completely overwrite tradition, mythology and even folklore with shiny, silver, robotic elements. Instead retaining African elements such as national costumes, architecture and landscapes is a characteristic of Afrofuturism.

Films like Star Wars envision purely fantastical worlds, but Afrofuturistic science fiction is solidly rooted in reality. As an art form, it depicts a world in which people with African roots rebel against a purely white future and fight for equality. Writer and author of the book “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi & Fantasy Culture”, Ytasha Womack, explains that Afrofuturists are primarily concerned with overcoming social, ethnic and racist conditions. She cites “empowerment” as the guiding principle. Artists like Ingrid LaFleur and Martine Syms do not see a future in outer space. With her film Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, Syms created a kind of earthly alternative to interstellar living spaces, one that brings an Afrofuturistic destiny within reach and not light years away.

© Goethe Institut

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