Situating the Afronaut in contemporary art and Afrofuturism is very much about finding safe spaces for black life. It is about exploring and protecting and preparing the body for hostile environments. In an Afrofuturist vision that stakes out black space in the future, black life is often obscured and simultaneously endangered. This obscurity is the result of the overdetermination of the past on black future spaces, namely the baggage of colonialism and apartheid, slavery and Jim Crow, and legacies of displacement. Through the image of the Afronaut, artists are making definitive statements about current situations of liberation, freedom, and oppression, while simultaneously referencing the past and staking a place for black life in the future.
Tegan Bristow, interestingly, situates the Afrofuturist legacy within the trajectory of “the black man in space” (Bristow 2012). Several other theorists, such as J. Griffith Rollefson, also adopt this trajectory, acknowledging Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic (P-Funk) as the progenitors of Afrofuturist thought. Bristow notes that “by placing the black man in space, out of the reach of racial stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both Western culture and technoculture” (Bristow 2012:26). I do not want to reduce Bristow's article to just “the black man in space.” She also makes interesting claims about the relationship Afrofuturism has to art in Africa, but notes its potential to be global and not centered on the West. She points out the centrism of the United States in theories of Afrofuturism. She is correct in this assessment, but it is not because Afrofuturism doesn't apply to the arts of Africa. Addressing technoculture broadly and technology as a medium especially in music, Bristow notes the potential for a global theory that reflects the hybridity of African experience as well as the opportunity to decentralize identity and the totalizing views of African culture.
Afrofuturist thinkers, such as Kodwo Eshun and Alondra Nelson, have indicated the overwhelming tendency of Western visions of Africa to indicate impending doom and disaster. The tendency has also been to disqualify Africa from claims of technological invention and innovation in favor of a discourse of tradition. Elsewhere I wrote about how this tendency has more to do with the validity and prosperity of art markets as they traffic in authenticity and tradition (almost fetishizing the possibility) and the stubborn persistence of imposing a chronologically driven canon upon African art. I would like to address technology as a subject recurring in the various costumes of the Afronaut depicted across the Diaspora in various media and formats.
J. Griffith Rollefson argues that “Afrofuturism is most prominent in music … because a number of its artists have continually highlighted the mythic qualities of both historical tropes of magic and futuristic narratives of science through the seemingly paradoxical figure of the soulful spaceman” (2008:86–87). He thereby centers the “soulful spaceman” as icon in Afrofuturism. The “black man in space” is a significant symbol and signal ubiquitous in music of the 1970s, but is making a resurgence in the twenty-first century as the Afronaut in contemporary art of Africa and the African Diaspora. I contend that this resurgence is a response to current oppressive conditions, such as extrajudicial killings of black people in the United States and continued human rights disparities based on race elsewhere in the world. Artists are asking through these works containing Afronauts: What are the technologies of survival? The artists parallel these images of technologies with black people's predicament in a white supremacist society.
The word “Afronaut” is a neologism, so it is difficult to pin down its roots or know when and where it was first used. For the purposes of this research, the Afronaut is a person of African descent who travels through outer space. The term seems to have gained popularity with the advent of African space programs, like the one in Zambia in the 1960s (De Middel 2012). As the race for space by countries like Nigeria continues and the first South African-born astronaut will be launched into space, the term gets more popular, fascinatingly, through artists' imaginings of the Afronaut (Monks 2016, “Mandla Maseko” 2014).
Several artists, such as Daniel Kojo Schrade, Gerald Machona, and Robert Pruitt, have adopted the term “Afronaut” to describe the subjects in their projects, while others have applied the label loosely to those subjects in art that convey the theme of space travel. I made this determination from the most obvious accoutrement—space suits, helmets, boots, rockets, ships—which are ubiquitous in the work I examine. There is also a conscious naming of the artwork that classifies the subjects as Afronauts (Nick Cave's and Yinka Shonibare's work is less obvious in this sense).
Afronaut is an obvious play on astronaut that reveals the ethnic identity of the space traveler. There are deeper implications, which also indicate an eternal tension between African identity and technological stasis. In a linguistic sense, the Afronaut is a tense construction, an oxymoron in a sense: afro–naut, when taken in consideration with stereotypical notions of African-ness and technological advancement. Alondra Nelson (2002) indicates this in her now-canonical Social Text issue about Afrofuturism. This tension between blackness and technology is also evident in the conversation between Mark Dery, Tricia Rose, Greg Tate and Samuel Delaney (Dery 1993). Whereas Dery believes that black artists will shun technology, Rose, Tate, and Delaney challenge this assumption.
Elsewhere, I have written that Afrofuturism is the injection of futurity, fantasy, and technology in the arts of Africa and the African Diaspora (Hamilton 2013). This definition has expanded tremendously, as contemporary situations in art and contemporary events are in constant flux. Presently, I define Afrofuturism as a mechanism for understanding the real world situations of oppression in the contemporary world in the context of the ever-present past, while charting the future situation through the arts. My prior definition was bogged in recovery and optimism; I am open to the possibility that neither of these exist as options. To understand Afrofuturism as a mechanism, I developed a visual, a casual graph, that addressed the interdependence of certain terms to Afrofuturist thought in the visual arts (Fig. 1). In this graphic, Afrofuturism as a mechanism relies on not just the injection of futurity, fantasy, and technology, but also an ever-present orientation toward black liberation that draws its strength from liberation movements in the past. There is a tendency to romanticize here, though. Other characteristics that keep Afrofuturistic visual arts grounded are the reliance on the material (materiality), the manipulation of temporality, and the impetus for artists to demonstrate all sorts of transformations.
The former definition is still relevant. However, an expansion is needed to accommodate the moving target that visual speculation and visual science fiction narratives encompass. By its very nature, these types of narratives—whether in cinematic, literary, or visual art—progress, evolve, and artists are constantly innovating.
An insistence on materiality, rather than a nebulous reliance on concept, is remarkable in Afrofuturist works. The material does not by any means subordinate the subject, but it is significant to the understanding of each work of art. The transformative nature of Afrofuturist art addresses not only the subject, but also the audience. Afrofuturist art is a mechanism for understanding and making meaning for audiences—transforming them in the process is its goal. The artwork I examine is overwhelmingly figural; therefore, the subjects are always going through profound physical changes that have some effect on their spiritual or mental states. Temporality is in constant flux with time travelers and artists as temporal interlopers. As temporal interlopers, artists are constantly making useful space for the past to make a stake in the present or the future.
From the time the notion of Afrofuturism was first conceptualized—by Mark Dery in 1993 and expounded upon a decade later by Alondra Nelson—the situation of the alien and the outsider have played prominently. Afrofuturism seemed like the natural way to discuss the rift that black people felt with the dominant culture in the United States. However, theorizing about Africa was left by the wayside even though the interfaces are fruitful and ripe for the picking.
The art of Yinka Shonibare, Nick Cave, and Gerald Machona demonstrates trends of the Afronaut across the diaspora as well as the overlaps of experiences of people of African descent across the globe. They expand the idea of the black man in space with the notion that we are already in alien environments. The three artists discussed here are male, and the overwhelmingly masculine figures they create are worth noting, considering that the black female body is also in danger in a white supremacist society. Their figurative works of various media adorn the black human figure in the technologies that are needed to survive, but the absence of the woman in space as Afronaut is a glaring omission in the artworks discussed in this paper.
Yinka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist whose conceptual project relies on the duplicitous messages communicated through fabrics deemed “African” by European textile merchants. Specifically, Dutch wax print fabric is brightly colored, elaborately designed cotton marketed to countries in Africa. It has been adopted as an exemplar of African culture, even though it has no origins in the countries to which it is marketed. This duplicity is what interests Shonibare and why he uses Dutch wax print fabrics, as they are ubiquitous in his oeuvre of (usually) headless human forms. The fabric communicates the constructed-ness of identity and cultural heritage and its inherent difficulties in “pinning down” origins in a global society. With the fabric, Shonibare is able to address important issues about creativity and identity (specifically African) and the notions of authenticity that often bog down understanding of African art and ideas of belonging that plague the diasporic, nomadic artist.
Shonibare's biographers have addressed the idea of the alien in Shonibare's work, but this seems awkward to me. This is where the astronaut, the particularity of the Afronaut especially, comes into play. Shonibare's diverse media and ways of working in his Afronaut works are very much about mediating the spatial, not so much the temporal. Human subjects in astronaut accoutrement are not traveling though deep space; they are navigating Earth utilizing the technologies of survival needed to engage the problems associated with immigration, exile, colonialism, and the attendant xenophobia and racism.
Shuttling between Britain and Nigeria is not necessarily alien when one considers the spatial slippages resulting from the legacies of colonialism. Place is rather arbitrary considering those legacies of conquest. The made-up, politically imposed boundaries make and mark identities in the same arbitrary ways that the Dutch wax print makes something authentically African. But the boundaries are significant, nonetheless, and have real-life consequences, especially for refugees and migrants, those vulnerable to the spatial slippages and violence that results. The violence does manifest itself through racist and xenophobic policies that create outsiders and noncitizens. Consequently, I believe the Afronaut is a more cogent symbol than the alien for communicating the situation of the refugee and the migrant. Shonibare's installations depicting astronauts demonstrate the strength of this symbol.
The figure of the Afronaut seems to begin in Shonibare's work at the turn of the century. Into the new millennium, Shonibare began a conversation about futurity, fantasy, and technology that is in concert with space exploration. The figures are all costumed in African wax print fabric, helmets, and space boots. Various accoutrement for travel makes each installation distinct.
Cloud 9 (2000)1 consists of a mannequin in an astronaut's costume made of Dutch wax print fabric. The figure stands beside a flag made from a different print of Dutch wax print fabric. The installation photograph is reminiscent of Neil Armstrong's “conquest” of the moon. The image also brings to mind themes of conquest and colonization on Earth, specifically on the African continent.
Vacation (2002)2 depicts a family of astronauts, two adults and two children, who are attached to what appears to be oxygen packs. They wear helmets and boots also. Their helmets are all oriented towards the ground, as if they are searching for something. The title denotes a leisure activity, but the astronaut suits and the searching complicate the assumptions of leisure. One child is seemingly separated from the rest of the family and his suit fabric is different. Perhaps this installation demonstrates Shonibare's own anxieties about being a cosmopolitan nomad—someone who traverses continents effortlessly, but whose identity requires more effort to “pin” down. But pinning down isn't the goal for Shonibare. The opposite seems to be true. Throughout his body of work he is interested in the fluidity of identity and the sometimes dubious implications of ethnic content in his work. The astronaut figures are no different, but they speak to the sustained feeling of isolation and otherness that people of color feel when traversing white spaces. The environments are sometimes hostile; so, the technologies that they wear are a necessity.
Space Walk (2002)3 demonstrates the drive for survival in a hostile and alien environment. Shonibare's artistic process differs in this installation, because he designed and created the silkscreened fabric himself as an artist in residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. The installation includes two figures dressed in the trademark fabrics of Shonibare's oeuvre. The fabric features vocal artists native to Philadelphia and responsible for the so-called Philly Sound. The figures are suspended from the ceiling along with a half-size replica of the Apollo 13 shuttle, which is made from fiberglass and wood. The figures wear backpacks, helmets, and boots. Their suits are attached to the replica of the space ship with tubes covered in the colorful fabric.
Refugee Astronaut (2012)4 features a single figure dressed in a Dutch wax print astronaut's suit. A net full of survival items burden this astronaut's back. Pans, ropes, and a lantern are visible through the net. The items tell the story of an itinerant astronaut, who has yet to find home. Instead, he travels with his most important belongings from place to place. The tubes that are connected to the spaceship in Space Walk are connected back into the astronaut's suit in Refugee Astronaut. The latter installation emphasizes a sense of homelessness with the placement of the tubes and a notable lack of the mothership that we see in the former installation. A cool sky blue dominates the costume that is interspersed with fiery orange and red forms. The contrast brings to mind the conflicting situations of actual refugees. All of these astronaut-themed installations point to Afrofuturism and technologies of survival for people of color in Europe in the United States.
Nick Cave is a multimedia artist from the United States who made his first Soundsuit in 1992 in response to the Rodney King beating. King was an unarmed citizen whose brutal and sustained beating during a traffic stop by the Los Angeles Police Department was caught on videotape and disseminated to the media, causing a public outcry that led to a trial and subsequent acquittal of the offending officers. Cave's feelings of vulnerability as a black man in a white supremacist society guided the construction of a protective apparatus that he called a Soundsuit for its kinetic and sonic qualities. The Soundsuit is an Afrofuturist project that adopts the themes of fantasy to create safe spaces for black bodies. Moreover, the performers in the suits function like the Afronaut, who need a protective layer in a hostile environment. In a world where black people can be beaten, and even killed, without legal retribution, Cave desired “a kind of outerwear to protect (his) spirit,” he says.5 The first Soundsuit was made from detritus to reflect the ways that black people and their true identities are discarded and dismissed through racial profiling. The collection of found objects are assembled to form a suit of armor that protects against the outside world and its racism.
For over two decades, Cave has continued to make the Soundsuits and they continue to maintain their relevance to current events in the United States. Cave's Soundsuits have been compared to synthesized versions of African masquerade performances. The Soundsuits do not just function visually, but have kinetic and sonic functions that support this claim. When they are worn, they are activated in ways that harness “the power within the black male, that intimidation and scariness” in addition to preliminary protective function.6 Although this quote from Cave emphasizes the masculinity of the Soundsuit's function, history demonstrates that women are also vulnerable and are in need of a similar harnessing of power. In some ways, that intimidation and scariness becomes its own performer and takes on a life of its own in narratives about black people in interactions with police. The fantastical nature of the costumes mimics the imaginary nature of the presumed deviance and violence of black people.
While his messages and meanings remain consistent, Cave's materials and messages have changed throughout his history as an artist. The labor-intensive process of assembling found objects to create Soundsuits is now the work of multiple assistants who commit Cave's visions to reality. How he finds objects has also changed. The objects are not simply discarded, but also constructed by artisans and bought from thrift shops. This alters the process of finding and repurposing discarded items. Cave claims that through the objects that he carefully chooses for his Soundsuits the viewer can come to an understanding of the world and how to navigate it through her relationship to memory.
This mnemonic process is evident in Cave's Soundsuit for Trayvon Martin, titled TM 13 (Fig. 2). Martin was a teenager murdered by George Zimmerman after visiting a store to buy a soft drink and candy. Zimmerman was acting under the auspices of the neighborhood watch and was subsequently acquitted with the aid of Florida's Stand Your Ground Law, which allows armed citizens judicial leniency for self defense. The acquittal led to the rallying cry and movement: “Black Lives Matter.” In Cave's imagining of a Soundsuit for Martin, the body is shrouded in a protective net that is made of brightly colored beads that mimic and recall the Skittles that Martin never got to enjoy that fateful night. Though obscured by the beaded net, the costume underneath is equally compelling7: a black mannequin wears sneakers, a hoodie, and jeans. Surrounding the mannequin are plastic yard decorations, typically used at Christmas and Halloween—a cherubic-looking Santa Claus and a costumed teddy bear. These playful figures recall the innocence lost and the clothing reflects a sort of vulnerability. Cave refers to the holiday figures as guardians. The net of beads in gold with red, black, and green, the colors of the black liberation flag. The net encases the body—traps it, yet protects it. Through the Soundsuits, Cave's Afrofuturist project imagined a technology of survival that is performative and meditative on the materials that he chooses.
Gerald Machona's Vabvakure (People from Far Away) (2013) is both a short film and installation. Machona is a Zimbabwe-born artist commenting on the collapse of Zimbabwe and the subsequent upheaval and migration of people into South Africa. With the works, Machona comments on the nature of migration and refugee status in South Africa for people from Zimbabwe. The life-size Ndiri Afronaut (I am an Afronaut) (2012), which is performed in the short film, is made from decommissioned Zimbabwean dollars, foam padding, fabric, wood, Perspex, rubber, plastic tubing, nylon thread, and gold leaf. The migration was not without difficulties, however. South Africans rejected the Zimbabwean refugees and created a racial and social hierarchy similar to apartheid.8
Vabvakure opens with a discombobulated Afronaut, trying to compose himself after landing in a desert.9 His costume is disheveled—tubes are loose and a space boot is strewn to the side. He dizzily moves around and then begins to dance. As if remaking a scene from Neil Armstrong's famous lunar landing, the Afronaut plants his flag, which resembles the flag of Zimbabwe, but Machona's flag is metallic and has the same decommissioned Zimbabwean dollars as the astronaut suit. The Afronaut then ventures away from the landing site, which he has claimed with his flag. The suit functions as the Afronaut's protection, but it also represents economic instability and, consequently, vulnerability in a foreign environment. The Afronaut's intentions in the new place are its conquest despite that vulnerability communicated through the defunct currency.
Next, the Afronaut finds a plant specimen and puts it into a vessel. The plant is obviously alien and artificial and looks to be made of the same currency as the other items. The Afronaut ends up at an ATM, which is strange considering that his suit is made of money, but it emphasizes that the currency that comprises the suit is defunct. In the next scene, the Afronaut is carrying the plant specimen down the street. He arrives in front of a crowded store, where people stare, and he retrieves a shopping cart and places his plant specimen in it. The camera focuses on the uprooted plant in an alien environment as the Afronaut pushes it through the store. People stare and one can only compare the two—the plant and the Afronaut traversing the land as outsiders.
The Afronaut retrieves water from the store shelves, people point and stare, and then he heads to the cashier to pay for his purchase. He leaves the grocery store and stops in front of a fast food restaurant. At this point, the Afronaut opens the vessel of the plant specimen and pours in the water that he just purchased. He closes the vessel and places the plant specimen in his backpack. The Afronaut nourishes and protects the plant in ways that underscore its displacement. In this way, the specimen and the Afronaut are parallel.
To end the film, Machona emphasizes the performative nature of the film, by focusing on the audience screening and viewing the Afronauts costumes in the next scenes. Groups of people stoop over the suits, discussing them, and pointing, and touching and even trying to get into them. The technologies of survival in Machona's work are in response to the abject violence against Zimbabweans who fled to South Africa, which came to a head in 2008, but persist presently.
What are these artists saying about the black body in their work? That it is fragile, permeable, and under attack. It is fungible and open to meanings that may destroy it. Through Afrofuturism, the technologies of survival mitigate these dangers as the black body navigates space. The body and the attendant identity is in orbit, but not always freely navigating the space.
The piece can be seen at http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/reviews/robinson/robinson5-15-5.asp