‘In Their Own Form’ takes a long look at Afrofuturism beyond Black Panther | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

‘In Their Own Form’ takes a long look at Afrofuturism beyond Black Panther 

The movement—really more a wide-ranging cultural and aesthetic philosophy—has roots deep in the 19th century.

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click to enlarge Alun Be, Potentiality, 2017

Alun Be, Potentiality, 2017

courtesy of the artist

O n the third floor of the Museum of Contemporary Photography's current 13-artist, 33-piece exhibition exhibition "In Their Own Form," are two sets of work that depict the dreamscapes of Senegalese children. On the right side of the exhibition space is Senegalese photographer Alun Be's series "Edification" (2017), well-composed snapshots of young boys engaged in common activities, such as assisting each other onto the back of a bus or bathing in the sea while peering through virtual reality masks. At the back of the room, French photographer Alexis Peskine's "Aljana Moons" (2015) presents posed portraits of young people dressed in handmade astronaut suits, designed by Peskine from food packaging detritus: old tomato cans and discarded rice bags.

Peskine's photographs are metaphorical representations of talibé children, Senegalese youth who often collect money on the streets for their religious teachers. "I used talibé children because I wanted to create a visual oxymoron," Peskine says. "Tomato cans represent a precariousness. There is not a future in begging, even if you learn a couple of useful tricks. When you are a kid you dream that the sky is the limit, which is I why decided to incorporate the astronaut suit into the series."

Both series address notions of escapism subtly wrapped in youthful daydreams. They are also examples of Afrofuturism, a wide-ranging cultural and aesthetic philosophy specifically tied to people of the African diaspora that combines elements of history, science fiction, magical realism, and futurism to imagine an existence beyond the present reality.

Afrofuturism and its themes of nostalgia, escapism, and speculative futures permeate the photographs and films presented in the exhibition curated by Sheridan Tucker Anderson, the MoCP's curatorial fellow for diversity in the arts. Anderson specifically chose works that underpin this movement, long represented by musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton and writers such as Octavia E. Butler and recently popularized by the blockbuster hit Black Panther, Kendrick Lamar and SZA's "All the Stars" video, and Janelle Monáe's music-centered short film Dirty Computer. But Anderson wants to emphasize that the movement existed long before author and culture critic Mark Dery gave it a name in the early 1990s.

"I didn't exactly want [Afrofuturism] connected to the title of the exhibition because it has been dressed up as this very new, trendy thing," she says. "There are a number of reasons why that is the case, and I think that is both good and bad. It gets people talking, and gets people interested, but I wanted to focus on Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois in my [exhibition] essay because they had been working toward an Afrofuturist-styled thought very early on. I want to highlight Afrofuturism as much more historical and consider their important contributions. I wanted readers to realize that alternative realities [like those imagined by Douglass and DuBois] have always been something that marginalized people, people of color, have kind of accessed to buffer experiences here in the U.S. and elsewhere."

Although photography is the focus of the exhibition, Anderson weaves in other media. American artist and writer Teju Cole frames his diaristic images—such as the photo Brazzaville (2013) which features a young boy grasping a railing above a body of rushing water—with short poetry and texts that examine memory. Belgian-Beninese documentary and fashion photographer Fabrice Monteiro explores the world as it might be after humans in The Prophecy (2014), dressing models as postapocalyptic monsters thriving at the edge of human-designed disasters such as oil spills and forest fires. South African photographer and filmmaker Mohau Modisakeng's film Passage (2017), an exploration of the still-apparent effects of the transatlantic slave trade, presents three subjects who are each confronting the rising water in their own slowly sinking rowboat. A deeply engaging soundtrack connects the three channel work, which, alongside the captivating visuals, compel the viewer to stay seated for the full length of the 19-minute film.

During his lifetime, Frederick Douglass posed for hundreds of photos to spread a subjective view of himself and other African Americans, a tactic which Ralph Waldo Emerson explored in his 1844 antislavery essay "Emancipation of the Negroes in the West Indies." Anderson pulled the title, "In Their Own Form," from Emerson's text which imagined the opportunities that people of color, specifically enslaved people in the West Indies, might have had without the horrific imposition of slavery. This theme is represented through the figural image in the bulk of the exhibition's works, which aim to present subjective views of the black experience from a wide-reaching global perspective.

"Representation is having an opportunity or agency to present yourself as you see fit," says Anderson, "regardless of what someone might want to impose or attach onto your experience or existence."   v

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