The Afrofuturist Village was a solo exhibition of photographs and a short video by Masiyaleti Mbewe, a Zambian artist and writer based in Windhoek, Namibia (Fig. 1). It was part of FAVT: Future Africa Visions in Time, an ambitious program of exhibitions, performances, and workshops held at the Goethe Institute Namibia, between January 24 and March 27, 2018. The program explored various “modes of futuring,” or ways of experiencing and manipulating time.1 By conceiving of time in terms of present actions, such as remembering or desiring, rather than as fixed moments, FAVT highlighted the possibilities available within contemporary art to reinterpret the past and shape the future. Opening just a few days after the premiere of the film Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018), Mbewe's Afrofuturist Village offered a glimpse at how Afrofuturism is being conceptualized in Southern Africa in an age of social media.
Although inspired by theories of Afrofuturism developed in the diaspora, Mbewe sought to imagine a pan-African future but one grounded in the spatial, historical, and cultural contexts of Namibia. In doing so, she discarded some of Afrofuturism's most familiar visual tropes: no black astronauts, technological gadgets, or comic book costumes. Given the Namibian historical context of settler colonialism and apartheid, she asked, “What if black people, as rich in culture and diverse as we are, stayed right here on Earth and claimed our rightful spaces?”2 The photographs presented a utopian community set in a near future in which blackness is understood to be both “diverse and equal.”
Mbewe utilized the exhibition opening itself as an opportunity to explore these ideas. It began with a ritual cleansing by a sangoma, or traditional healer, in front of the gallery (Fig. 2). Against a backdrop of drumming, burning candles, and smoldering herbs, the healer moved through a series of actions and vocalizations that culminated in a ritual offering. If this seemed out of place at a German cultural center, that was precisely the point. It reminded viewers that the white-cube gallery encodes a set of assumptions concerning art and modernity that have historically excluded or decontextualized African cultural and aesthetic practices. The need to cleanse a German cultural space also referenced the history of colonialism and genocide in Namibia. The Goethe Institute is located in the symbolic center of the city, where the colonial-era Alte Fest Fort, Christ Church (built to commemorate the 1907 victory of German forces over native Herero and Nama peoples), Parliament Building, and the National Independence Memorial Museum uncomfortably meet. By highlighting the cultural politics of both gallery space and urban space, the ceremony reminded viewers that speculations about the future always emerge from a place and present shaped by the past.
Inside the gallery, large color photographs were arranged in clusters that depicted one or two people in a series of poses. Labels provided the names of the village residents and brief descriptions of how their identities would be affirmed in this ideal future. If the cleansing ritual spoke a local language, the labels spoke a global one developed at the intersection of scholarship, activism, and social media: LGBTQAI+, gender nonconforming, womxn, differently abled.3 The juxtaposition was sometimes jarring, but it reflected the way that seemingly disparate identities and values can coexist in the same place and even the same person. The artist used settings, costumes, and make-up to visualize this complexity. Jay Aeron and Rumano were photographed in the famous Moon Landscape in the Namib Desert near Swakopmund wearing bright pink and violet wigs, sheer clothing, and metallic makeup (Fig. 3). Although their appearance referenced a queer, cyberpunk aesthetic usually associated with urban spaces, here it claimed an iconic Namibian landscape as a “safe space” for gender nonconforming people. In contrast, the wax print fabrics, natural hairstyles, and body painting on Selma, Nunu, and Georgina suggested an evolution of contemporary African fashions. The lack of a homogenous sartorial aesthetic or consistent location suggested a future where individuals are free to express themselves on their own terms.
The idea of a village suggests two different models of community: one in which face-to-face interaction produces social cohesion or a “global village” of individuals electively connected through technology. The exhibition gestured toward both. Many of the photographs were set in identifiable Namibian landscapes such as Post Street Mall in Windhoek and shot with local models, but Mbewe found most of the models through Instagram and the photographs were shaped by the aesthetic and performative conventions of contemporary social media. Most of the models projected a sense of power either through a confrontational gaze or by turning away from the camera just enough that they seemed simultaneously conscious and dismissive of it. Some of the resulting photographs, for example one of the artist staring out at the viewer, were intense and memorable (Fig. 4). This need to project self-confidence for the affirmation of a viewer located elsewhere perhaps stemmed from the rejection or judgment the models had faced in real life because of their bodies or identities. However, self-assured yet isolated from one another on the white walls of the gallery, they often seemed like a collection of individuals rather than members of a utopian community. The photographs of Nunu and Georgina, a mother and daughter who lovingly held one another, avoided this trope (Fig. 5). They seemed to possess a sense of self formed through a deep and sustained connection with others, one not mediated primarily through images.
Although the near future is often the setting for dystopian narratives, Mbewe offered an optimistic vision of where Namibia may be in ten or fifteen years in regard to the acceptance of diverse appearances, sexualities, and abilities. One of the functions of speculating about a distant future, however, is that it can radically question current assumptions about what may be possible. At times, the exhibition actually felt a bit cautious, as though it were forecasting the arrival in Namibia of a more liberal and inclusive society that already existed somewhere else. But at its strongest, it showed how an African future could offer something unexpected. One photograph depicted a mysterious, veiled figure named Ericke holding an animal horn against his chest and face (Fig. 6). While his clothing and adornment suggested a fusion of modern and traditional dress, the metallic green color of his hand and the horn hinted at something supernatural or even alien. The label explained how, in a more ecologically balanced future, “some humans were able to merge with animal spirits.” Evoking certain cultural beliefs surrounding therianthropy in Southern Africa, it presented an alternative to the Christian or rationalist worldviews that now dominate.
When visitors were finally allowed into the gallery after the cleansing ritual, they found the models from the photographs posing in full make-up and costume (Fig. 7). Their presence was electrifying. Naturally, smart phones emerged from bags and pockets. After a few minutes, however, the models stopped posing and began to mingle and interact. As that happened, visitors stopped taking photographs of the models in favor of photographs with the models—a significant moment of solidarity considering the social marginalization the models currently face within Namibia. It showed how art photography, vernacular photography, and the social ritual of an exhibition opening could merge the best aspects of different kinds of communities.