UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW by BLACKMAU (2019) from the collection of New York Live Arts. Exhibited in Curating the End of the World online exhibition by New York Live Arts; Courtesy of the artist.

Curating the End of the World: Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Art in Times of COVID-19

IN CONVERSATION WITH FLORIEN KIJLSTRA

Scrolling through the online exhibition Curating the End of the World – hosted by New York Live Arts and The Black Speculative Arts Movement[i], soundscapes and visual imageries blend into a submerging audio-visual digital sphere, slowly yet steadily drawing the viewer into a digital third space. [ii] Then, the music stops and a new image fills up my computer screen. UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW, a figure with a child strapped to its back calmly stands in front of (what looks like) the New York skyline and confidently returns a distanced gaze through the dark holes of a gas mask. Filled with a sense of ominous bareness I slowly continue scrolling. A poster-like image captures my attention. A Black woman contemplatively rests her head on her hand, her face surrounded by colorful and abstract pattern, word snippets, interrogative phrases and multi-discursive symbols. Her almost camouflaged face mask reads two words; Life-altering.[iii]

These two Afrofuturist speculative works, UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW (2019) by BLACKMAU and Life-altering (2020) by La’Nora Boror, exploratively interrogate existing neo-colonial narratives of Black violence, medical Apartheid and racist pathology, while reclaiming Black agency and reimagining new ways of existence.[iv] Both works through their respective production and form engage with the pressing question how, within the current conditions, one “brings together fabrics within a tapestry that tells a coherent and powerful story?”, working from the present and looking into the future.[1][v] The art works offer a wealth of meaning, unfortunately impossible to all address here. As a result, I will focus on the calm yet militant presence in UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW and the speculative and contemplative power evoked in Life-altering.

Curating the End for a New Beginning

The exhibition of these works in the online Afrofuturist commentary Curating the End of the World, on view June 2020, is eerily timely as COVID-19 reveals the hidden contours of a highly unstable social-economic system. A system that is confronted with global existential threats tied to climate change, anti-Blackness, poor governance, ecological exhaustion, broad-scale human rights violation and a global health crisis.[2] In light of these events, art can and needs to offer critical contemplation and re-figuration, as according to art critic and philosopher Boris Groys, “in our contemporary world, only art indicates the possibility of revolution as a radical change beyond the horizon of our present desires and expectations”.[3] Curating the End of the World explores this potential to the fullest from an Afrofuturist and Black Speculative angle.

Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Art – “a creative, aesthetic practice that integrates African diasporic or African metaphysics with science or technology” that “seeks to interpret, engage, design, or alter reality for the re-imagination of the past, the contested present, and as a catalyst for the future” – are especially powerful de-colonial tools to envision a new radically changed future through and beyond the historical and present moment. [4] Afrofuturist and Black Speculative art practices enable an interrogation of future building by what British-Ghanaian filmmaker, theorist and artist Kodwo Eshun has termed the “futures industry”[vi], consisting of big science, big business and global media, that is dominated by master narratives of White modernism.[vii][5]

UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW

Within the multi-media image UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW, the photo fragment of the Black figure that seems to be wearing traditional African clothing, the cosmic visuals and African color scheme situate western Black personhood in a genealogy of trans-global African Diaspora. The geographical displacement of the central figure in front of the New York skyline distorts the logic of western systems of signification based on narratives of White modernism. These narratives continuously place Black bodies in non-western environments, or if they do, present them as permanent aliens, often forcing them to occupy a marginal and veiled space. The photographic fragment  reveals the figure’s racialized supposedly “geographically incorrect” assigned place, making the viewer aware of the highly (neo) colonial, in-cohesive and racialized context of the media depictions and spatial placement of Black people within western culture.[6] Contrary to such marginalizing prescriptions, this Black figure occupies center-stage with an aura of confidence, agency and calm, firmly stating its presence.

Created in 2019, UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW holds a revolutionary and militant, though not inherently violent potential. The evocative object of the gas mask, a widely-known symbol representing the post-apocalyptic and dystopian, worn by the displaced protruding figure and by the young child strapped to the back, evokes an eerie dystopian struggle for present and generational Black survival.[7] The figures wearing gas masks – wearing a gas mask prepares a person for impact – evokes a readiness and confrontational calmness that in light of the current events speaks more powerfully than ever.

UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW by BLACKMAU (2019) from the collection of New York Live Arts. Exhibited in Curating the End of the World online exhibition by New York Live Arts; Courtesy of the artist.
UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW by BLACKMAU (2019) from the collection of New York Live Arts. Exhibited in Curating the End of the World online exhibition by New York Live Arts; Courtesy of the artist.

Confronting Marginality

Within the US, COVID-19 statistics show disproportionately high victim numbers amongst the Black community, harshly bringing to light systemic inequalities and exclusionary practices Black people have been facing for eras. These statistics are an accumulation of a series of exclusionary and intersecting discriminatory mechanisms of exclusion and racismhat shape certain bodies as being the most vulnerable, a process that has been taking place since colonialism and the start of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Such discriminatory mechanisms against Black people are expressed and endorsed through widespread racial pathologization, medical Apartheid, economic marginality, anti-Blackness, and excessive police brutality, to name but a few.

The present dystopian struggle for Black survival literally pushes Black people to cross the (police) line. However, it is important to note that, despite the crossing of the police line, UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW creatively dissects and critically subverts justifications of police brutality against Black people and anti-Black violence. The police line is crossed but rather than resulting in bursts of uncontrolled fury, as stories in popular media often imply, this figure stares back at the viewer, at ease with a distanced calmness. The gun morphs into a bouquet of flowers, implying a fool-like effect at the expense of the viewer, confronting and subverting western White depictions of Black bodies as inherently violent, provocative and dysfunctional. Countering such harmful messages is now more urgent than ever. It also questions the construction of dominant narratives by the media in which, especially Black men, are labelled as “criminal and dangerous”, supposedly justifying excessive police brutality and anti-Black violence exercised upon them.[8]

Life-altering by La’Nora Boror (2020). Exhibited in Curating the End of the World online exhibition by New York Live Arts; Courtesy of the artist.
Life-altering by La’Nora Boror (2020). Exhibited in Curating the End of the World online exhibition by New York Live Arts; Courtesy of the artist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life-altering

Where BLACKMAU’s UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW evokes a strong sense of Black dystopian present reality, Life-altering by La’Nora Boror places the current conditions within a line of future speculation as it engages with the “new ‘normal’ of wearing a mask, and the conditions of looking this might produce” in the future.[9] A poster-like mixed media image shows a woman, holding a position similar to that of “The Thinker” (1880) by August Rodin – one of the most well-known symbols of western, White, male philosophical thought. The woman is engulfed in collage-like paper snippets, symbols, abstract fragment-like patterning and letterings, such as “Enlightenment”, “Changers” and “Where are you going?”. The contemplative reading of the woman’s posture and her evocation as part of the African Diasporic is strengthened by the tree roots, which form the phrase “African Roots” but which,  as a multi-discursive symbol, simultaneously evokes a literal sense of rootedness, interconnectedness and of “branches of knowledge […] and structures of thought itself”.[10] By placing a Black woman in a position that historically – and presently – is mainly reserved for White men, the work reclaims the practice of epistemological contemplation and defies the intersectional oppressive mechanisms that have prevented, and often still prevent, Black women from filling such positions. Through this engagement, Life-altering subverts the exclusionist and racialized implications of Western Enlightenment from an intersectional perspective. This re-designed form of Enlightenment is paired with the non-western notion of spiritual foresight and higher consciousness, evoked by the “Third Eye” on the woman’s forehead. By evoking a “subaltern knowledge system […] from outside of the borders of the dominant West” the work refutes the dominant western separatism of (White) western “true science” versus (non-White) non-western, non-scientific knowledge systems”.[11] Additionally, this re-shaped knowledge system is presented as a tool for Black empowerment. Evoking a global transformation, a “new global renaissance” a message that is strengthened by the textual snippets “Changers” and “where are you going?”.[12]

Masking to Reveal

Taking it back to the present moment, the almost seemingly transparent, white patterned fabric of the face mask almost completely blends into the abstract black and white parts of the background, where it not for the subtle brown line following the contours of the woman’s face. The face mask refutes supposed Black immunity against COVID-19, a dangerous rumor that circulated global media at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, reviving colonial myths of Black physical peculiarity perpetuating medical Apartheid.[13] Historically, western medical science has had an especially problematic role in the perpetuation of myths concerning Black viral immunity and the consequent oppression of Black people, as physiological differences found amongst Black and White populations were used to justify White supremacy and Black subordination. Till this day, racial medical discourses are still ingrained within western medical practices, though in often less overt forms.[viii] Within this context, the face mask evokes an additional critique. As a token of responsibility but also of vulnerability, the placement of a face mask on a Black woman’s face counters media narratives that state that “Black people are to blame for their own deaths”.[14] Such narratives imply the perpetuation of racial colonial stereotypes deeming Black people inherently lazy and reluctant.[15] A harmful stereotype that till this day is heavily endorsed through popular media.[16] By means of these visual elements, Live-Altering argues for a present and future re-imaging of planetary futures in which Black people are no longer defined within the confines of White Enlightenment and life-threatening neo-colonial narratives of medical Apartheid, racist pathology, and Black passivity and reluctance.[ix]

Pandemics have been major change-makers throughout human history, holding both a vast exclusionary as well as equalizing potential.[17] In this moment, the world seems to be reaching a long-awaited tipping point as people worldwide demand radical reform in the dehumanizing treatment of racialized Others and the misplaced celebration of contested historical figures. Through both their speculative and interrogative character, UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW and Live-Altering grasp this moment’s contested, dystopian, yet also transformative and possibly liberating potential. The works offer a speculative, interrogative dialogue between epistemological frameworks of racial oppression, consequent dystopian Black realities and alternative, potentially liberating futures. This simultaneity holds significant weight in the current historical moment as the veiled dynamics between systems of exclusion and inclusion, destruction and re-creation are coming to light, loud and clear in manner and intensity not often precedented in modern history.

Florien Kijlstra is an editorial office and research intern at MOED. She recently graduated from the master’s Literary Studies (English) at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and is currently a student in the one-year Gender Studies  Master programme at Utrecht University. Her research interests focus on the representations of race and gender on the intersections of sonic, visual and literary cultures.


[1] Carrie Mea Weems quoted from“Covid-19: the intersection of race, art, social justice and medicine”. The Brotherhood Sister Sol. May 18 2020, video.

[2] “New York Live Arts: Curating the End of the World”. New York Live Arts. June 23 2020.

[3] Groys, Boris. “On art activism.” e-flux journal 56 (2014): 10.

[4] Anderson, Reynaldo. “Afrofuturism 2.0 & The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a manifesto.” Obsidian 42, no. 1/2 (2016): 231.

[5] Kodwo Eshun rephrased in Yaszek, Lisa. “Afrofuturism, science fiction, and the history of the future.” Socialism and Democracy 20, no. 3 (2006): 47-48).

[6] Becker, Danielle. “Afrofuturism and decolonisation: using Black Panther as methodology.” Image & Text 33 (2019): 3.

[7] Brennan, Rachel. “Gas masks – more than just steampunk couture” Rebels Market. March 23, 2020. Np.

[8] Oliver, Mary Beth. “African American men as “criminal and dangerous”: Implications of media portrayals of crime on the “criminalization” of African American men.” Journal of African American Studies 7, no. 2(2003): abstract

[9] Curating the End of the World/part I. Google Arts & Culture. June 25, 2020. The work was produced online during a live-event on Instagram.

[10] Crews, Judith. “Forest and tree symbolism in folklore.” UNASYLVA-FAO- (2003): 40.

[11] Paranjape, Makarand. “The third eye and two ways of (un) knowing: Gnosis, alternative modernities, and postcolonial futures.” In Postcolonial philosophy of religion. Springer, Dordrecht, 2009, p. 56.

[12] Idem, 55.

[13] Ross Janell, “CoronaVirus outbreak revives dangerous race myths and pseudoscience” March 19, 2020 NBC news.

[14] Kendi, Ibram, X.  “Stop blaming Black people for dying of the Coronavirus: new data from 29 states confirm the extend of the racial disparities” The Atlantic. April 14, 2020.

[15] Horton, Yuri et. Al. “Portrayal of minorities in film, media, and entertainment industries. Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race. Edge: ethics of development in a global environment .  June 1, 1999, np.

[16] Horton, Yuri et. Al. Np.

[17] Ballegeer, Daan en Helle Hueck, “Historicus Scheidel: ‘Coronavirus zal ongelijkheid alleen maar vergroten’”. Financieel Dagblad, 29 April 2020. [translated by author of this article]

 

[i] I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the organisers of the exhibition, Reynaldo Anderson, Tiffany E. Barber (curator) and Stacey Robinson, New York Live Arts and the Black Speculative Arts Movement for their involved collaboration and critical contribution to this article.

[ii] New York Live Arts is an arts center hosting and supporting diverse artists focused on “body-based investigation that transcend barriers between and within communities”. Celebrating and exploring our common values, humanity and human spirit and supporting those who “participate courageously in the world of ideas and ask difficult questions” (website, About no page number). The online exposition is presented by “The Black Speculative Arts Movement” and conceived by the Reynaldo Anderson (co-curator of Live Ideas 2020), Stacey Robinson and Tiffany E. Barber (curator) and explores “the end of this age and Cyclical Chaos” and “global existential risks tied to ecology, climate change, anti-Blackness, medical apartheid, and responses to the dystopian present”. “New York Live Arts: Curating the End of the World New York Live Arts. June 23, 2020.

[iii] This is also the title of the work.

[iv] Racial Pathology here constitutes the mechanism in which pathology, the study of disease, is racialized and in which deviations of the racial norm, or whiteness, are considered pathological conditions.

[v] UNADJUSTEDNOWRAW is the collaborative work of “professor Stacey “BLACKMAU, the art moniker of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Art + Design, professor Stacey “Blackstar” Robinson and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Clinical Services Counselor (DJ) Kamau “KamauMau Grantham. The duo deploys strategies of appropriations and what they call “unperfected experimentation”. This collaboratively-made image conjures black dystopian survival via photographic fragments, deep house music, and Afrofuturism”. Life-altering by La’Nora Boror is made during a “live virtual event on Instagram”. Curating the End of the World/part I. Google Arts & Culture. June 25, 2020.

[vi] According to cultural critic Kodwo Eshun our mainstream understanding of the future is shaped by three sources: big science, which generates data about the past and the present in order to predict the future; big business, which funds scientific research and acts upon its results; and the global media, which synthesizes scientific and corporate activity into a relatively coherent narrative and then disseminates this narrative throughout the world (Kodwo Eshun rephrased in Yaszek, Lisa. “Afrofuturism, science fiction, and the history of the future.” Socialism and Democracy 20, no. 3 (2006): 47-48).

[vii] In this article I have chosen to capitalize both Black and White to emphasize these terms as a social category. Not capitalizing White too would imply a naturalness that is highly misplaced. However, I am aware that the capitalization of White is employed by White supremacist movements. I by no means wish to perpetuate such ennoblement and rather on the contrary aim to subvert this use through the normalization of its capitalization. For more information of this debate, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The case for capitalizing the B in Black” The Atlantic June 18, 2020.

[viii] For more information on this in a US context see Cohen, William. “Medical apartheid: the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 6.4 (2009): 356-360 & Calman, Neil, et al. “Separate and unequal: medical apartheid in New York City.” New York, NY: Institute for Urban Family Health (2005)

Bibliography

Anderson, Reynaldo. “Afrofuturism 2.0 & The Black Speculative Arts Movement: Notes on a manifesto.” Obsidian 42, no. 1/2 (2016): 228-236.

Ballegeer, Daan en Helle Hueck, “Historicus Scheidel: ‘Coronavirus zal ongelijkheid alleen maar vergroten’”. Financieel Dagblad, April 29, 2020.

Becker, Danielle. “Afrofuturism and decolonisation: using Black Panther as methodology.” Image & Text, 33 (2019): 1-21.

Brennan, Rachel. “Gas masks – more than just steampunk couture” Rebels Market, March 23, 2020.

Crews, Judith. “Forest and tree symbolism in folklore.” UNASYLVA-FAO- (2003): 37-40.

Curating the End of the World/part I. Google Arts & Culture. June 25, 2020.

Groys, Boris. “On art activism.” e-flux journal 56 (2014): 1-14.

Horton, Yuri et. Al. “Portrayal of minorities in film, media, and entertainment industries. Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race. Edge: ethics of development in a global environment. June 1, 1999.

Kendi, Ibram, X.  “Stop blaming black people for dying of the Coronavirus: new data from 29 states confirm the extend of the racial disparities” The Atlantic. April 14, 2020.

New York Live Arts: Curating the End of the World”. New York Live Arts. June 23, 2020.

“New York Live Arts; About”. New York Live Arts. June 23 2020.

Oliver, Mary Beth. “African American men as “criminal and dangerous”: Implications of media portrayals of crime on the “criminalization” of African American men.” Journal of African American Studies 7, no. 2 (2003): 3-18.

Paranjape, Makarand. “The third eye and two ways of (un) knowing: Gnosis, alternative modernities, and postcolonial futures.” In Postcolonial philosophy of religion, pp. 55-67. Springer, Dordrecht, 2009.

Ross,Janell, “CoronaVirus outbreak revives dangerous race myths and pseudoscience” March 19 2020 NBC news.

The Brotherhood Sister Sol,“Covid-19: the intersection of race, art, social justice and medicine”. The Brotherhood Sister Sol. May 18, 2020, video.

Yaszek, Lisa. “Afrofuturism, science fiction, and the history of the future.” Socialism and Democracy 20, no. 3 (2006): 41-60.

Contextual Reading

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The case for capitalizing the B in Black” The Atlantic June 18, 2020.

Calman, Neil, et al. “Separate and unequal: medical apartheid in New York City.” New York, NY: Institute for Urban Family Health (2005)

Cohen, William. “Medical apartheid: the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 6.4 (2009): 356-360.

Khazan, Olga. “Being black in America can be hazardeous to your health” The Atlantic July 2018.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. “The Black Plague” The New Yorker. April 16, 2020.

Ro, Christine “Why some racial groups are more vulnerable” BBC Future April 21, 2020.