1. An Inquiry Into Existence

    October 20, 2019 by Chris Motley

    A German artist I met at a feminist arts conference in Montreal came to visit me in Chicago once. She wanted me to show her Afrofuturism. This was a few years before the film Black Panther took Afrofuturism to blockbuster status. She was hoping that I could take her to an exhibit, a building, some physical construct that symbolized this art aesthetic and philosophy of which I spoke. 

    This particular week there were no art exhibits to attend, no seminars, no lectures. There was no gleaming piece of architecture I could think of to point to either.  I thought it would’ve been cool to take her to a deep house music party or creative jazz event. Both events would’ve been nice but they were slices of a broader perspective. She wanted to see Afrofuturism. Outside of performers like funk pioneer George Clinton or Janelle Monae known for their sci fi fashion, Afrofuturism doesn’t always show up as fandom and spectacle. I’m not saying that as an aesthetic, there isn’t a heavy fashion component, but Afrofuturism in everyday life is less likely to look like the Emerald City in The Wiz or Funkadelic’s Mothership, and more likely to feel that way.

    After that moment, I’ve been preoccupied with how one creates this experience of Afrofuturism. How does one create the feeling of being in both the conscious and subconscious as one reality for those unfamiliar with black cultural lenses? How does one create the feeling of being in a space that shifts dimensions? How does one create surrealness that permeates African diasporic and continental places? How does one articulate the feelings of bridging times, both past and future in a present moment? As a filmmaker I work with images. As a writer, I paint pictures with words. Can I write in a way that feels like the soulful base and heavy Malian strings of a Ras G song? Can I keep one grounded while simulating flight with language? 

    We are often at the intersections of times. The more I travel, the more I see the ongoing dialogue. As an Afrofuturist, I’m always seeking to uncover the intersections of African continental and diasporic culture. In light of population dispersion, forced and otherwise, this quest for intersecting points is a lifeline. Thinking of the past, future, and present as one, I see a multi-pronged conversation where the future speaks to the present and vice versa.

    I’m inherently interdisciplinary because my evolution into Afrofuturism and beyond was tapped by a seemingly random assemblage of moments and mediums. A discussion about metaphysics on the quad at my historically black campus, a Childcraft book referencing African explorers before Columbus, an epiphany on an Atlanta dance floor listening to the Brides of Funkenstein, a late night talk with a Chicago pianist rhumba clave counts and time, a tango lesson. My evolution wasn’t purely based on solitary contemplation with an artifact, although I did a great deal of reading and grew up in metaphysics. My quest has an ongoing soundtrack. I was being pulled toward greater understanding and the alternative press, late night dialogue, rhythms in world music, copious reading fueled the inquiry. However, community gave these insights context. My message to writers and readers of the world: If you want to understand an aesthetic or philosophy you must engage with the people who gave rise to it in communal dynamics. How does one create the dynamism of community in a book? 

    A Place Called Birth of an Afrofuturist

    If A Spaceship in Bronzeville were a play it would be an ensemble. I could reframe it as performance art. I think my childhood felt that way. My extended family celebrated all holidays and nonholidays in major fashion. My aunts, uncles, and cousins were a bevy of jovial and unique personalities that reveled in music, dance, board games, and debate. They debated into the wee hours of the morning. Everyone’s home had the requisite basement, as I would learn later, designed on par with Chicago lounges. They were decorated with holiday lights, autographs from famous people, and swirling with an assemblage of soul, doo-wop, and blues. 

    My foundational experience in dance is with tap. We tapped mostly to a lot of Afro Cuban jazz, a pretty rhythmic genre. Tap is all rhythm. In one sense, I was a body percussionist wired to hear rhythm in every way imaginable. Although I studied an array of dance styles, from contemporary to salsa, from ages 6 to 18, I took tap dance consistently. Somewhere between these tap lessons, listening to aunts and uncles debating for hours about history, reading biographies, and contemplating next year’s science fair project, I became sensitive to patterns and story. It wasn’t until I took salsa and rumba lessons in Cuba that I realized that dance was a language on par with learning Spanish or Wolof. When I went to Senegal recently and prepped by doing reading on poet/philosopher and president Leopold Sengor, I learned that his Negritude work articulated rhythm as a core aesthetic of African visual art and philosophy. A thread, one I’d contemplated for years, came alive with my discovery of his explorations and came to explain the theories I expressed in my Afrofuturism Dance Therapy courses.

    A Beginning to Infinity

    I can’t separate community and this cornucopia of interdisciplinary strain of inspirations from Afrofuturism. I was always cognizant of my life being at the intersection of ideas, histories, and futures.  As a result, my fiction always involves community, small groups, and worlds. Bonnie, the protagonist in A Spaceship in Bronzeville, is a journalist who writes for a paper that covers a community – one lens into a larger Diaspora. Her dealings with the association of speculative seekers she finds is a world within a world. Yet, the community is a bottleneck of global issues and aspirations. The group she affiliates with is as informed by the community practices beyond its’ circle as it molds the world around it. Bonnie’s epiphanies take her elsewhere. However, as she travels, she and the community she joins is informed by the past, a past she knows intimately, and yet its shaped by a future yet to be seen. 

    My dad liked reading the daily newspaper, Jet Magazine, and all things black cowboys, Native American history, and boxing. It also was a devoted reader of The Chicago Defender; the paper Bonnie writes for and the one I wrote for in high school and after college. My mom read historical fiction, liked all things Queen Elizabeth, American presidents, and enjoyed mysteries. Both were shaped by the civil rights movement, they came of age during the black power movement, and as parents they immersed my siblings and I in history and the arts.  My dad crafted a Wall of Respect, inspired by Africobra, the Chicago based art collectives’ famous mural in Bronzeville in our modest attic. The wall featured posters, autographs, and news articles from black icons, African art, and posters from the miniseries Roots to encourage cultural pride.

    We went on road trips to family reunions in Galveston, Texas and Gulfport, Mississippi. We toured American tourist sights. We drove to see the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls. My sister and I took dance lessons, stacking up trophies for dance competitions. My brother was a martial arts champion. Our parents had us all take piano lessons at Mayfair Academy founded by tap dancer Tommy and Sutton. We learned to swim at the YMCA in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood.

    The church I grew up in was a nondenominational, headed by Johnnie Colemon, a black woman, who in retrospect was very Afrofuturist (she once won an award for ‘preparing people for the 21st Century’) with Broadway fashion, a voice that spoke truth to power. The New Thought philosophy she taught was a precursor to the book The Secret. Think positive or bust was the through line to universal oneness. Despite building a mega church and dozens of sister churches around the world, she was criticized for being a bold woman with eternal optimism and the grit to see her visions through.

    I attended Clark Atlanta University in undergrad. CAU was one of six schools in the Atlanta University Center including the all-boys school Morehouse College best known for its alumni, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Clark Atlanta University was less steeped in tradition that the other AUC schools. A mergence of Clark College and Atlanta University (where W.E.B Dubois taught for several decades), the campus was a haven for dialogue about the future and art. My first conversations about Afrofuturism began here. 

    A Lens on Connectivity

    I spent the latter half of summer 2019 after the Kickstarter for A Spaceship in Bronzeville in Dakar, Senegal. After Part of the inaugural residents with Black Rock Senegal, a residency created by artist Kehinde Wiley, the experience was designed for art and culture immersion. Wiley is best known for painting Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait. However, much of his earlier work was a recontextualization of Neoclassical paintings with subjects of African descent from the likes of Brooklyn and Bahia. A remix of time and history, his subjects wore fashion with a heavy hip hop aesthetic, timberlands, baggy jeans, and baseball caps but were posed like the royalty and nobility of 17th century Europe.

    I was in Dakar to think about Afrofuturism from the Senegalese perspective. I did a deep dive into thinking about Leopold Sedar Senghor, the Senegalese poet and philosopher who in 1960 became Senegal’s first president. A philosopher in the Francophone Negritude Movement, he looked at rhythm as a guiding tenant in African visual art. As a dancer who leads Afrofuturism Dance Therapy workshops, I was overjoyed to see how Senghor’s perspective connected ideas of my own.

    A feeling I had instinctively about rhythm in Chicago was articulated by a poet turned president in Senegal in the 1950s. Separated by time, but more significantly, language (French/Wolof) nationality, and an educational system that teaches very little about Africa. Despite independent reading, I wouldn’t learn about the depth of his work until well into my adult years. Cuba, the place where I realized dance was a language, I was separated from too by language (Spanish) and national politics. As an avid reader, I find it appalling that an idea I felt so connected to and was immersed in, I would be inherently separated from. Add to that the media narratives about the continent of Africa and Latin America in the Western world, and the separation seems that much more intentional. How many books do I have to read to connect with myself? How many countries must I visit to get a greater perspective on my own thoughts and override these problematic divisions that separates humanity from itself. 

    Amid several hundred years of African migrations, forced migrations and otherwise, the dispersion of cultures of African descent in the U.S, Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and throughout the continent of Africa create unique communities that emerge in spite of often dehumanizing dynamics. Media often facilitated dehumanizing narratives of people of African descent and more recently is a tool wielded to create a voice to counter these narratives on the world stage.

    Senegal, next to Cuba, has one of the most symbiotic art and dance cultures around. To see the philosophy of a culture so deeply embedded, where dance movements, the landscape, the music, the fashion, and food is a language of its own is pure magic. Deconstructing Mbalax music, Senegal’s percussion heavy national sound, and the accompanying dance, for those who look for the “one count” in music, is a treasure trove of self-discovery. 

    A Trek Through Art’s Past

    Shortly after my trip to Senegal, I was in London, presenting on Afrofuturism for Black History Month at the Wellcome Trust. The founder of this global medical research society was also an avid art collector. A man who came of age during the height of the British Empire’s imperial conquest, a significant portion of his art from the likes of Africa and Asia came were likely stolen or smuggled artifacts. The Wellcome Trust Museum, like many museums in Europe are reassessing their collections. They are exploring repatriation or means to return this treasured art to the cultures they were snatched from.

     As the museum directors gave me a tour, many of whom were descendants of nations colonized by the empire, we had exciting discussions about the museums Being Human exhibit. The exhibit is a revealing look at wellness concerns from a culture-rich and communal lens.  The exhibit includes “Remembering Henrietta Lacks.” Lacks, an African American woman’s cells were taken during a medical procedure and used in thousands of experiments without her permission. Her cells would later transform medical research and at various points were sent into space for testing. Lacks case wrestles with ethics and the dehumanization of people of color in research. Lack’s “Hela” cells, along with her photo, were featured in the exhibit. Refugee Astronaut III, a creation by Yinka Shonibare, is a commentary on environmental refugees. A fiberglass Astronaut with a space suit made with African inspired prints, the figure carries a backpack of home appliances. Discussing the new efforts with the directors and staff explore health and wellness through the lens of global culture was a thrilling one. 

    All Hail the 1s & 2s

    Remixing, a core aesthetic in deejay techniques, where samples of songs, beat patterns, machine noise, and vocals are layered and stitched like patchwork quilts, evolved from hip hop culture. Remixing is a defining aesthetic in postmodern art and it’s also a core metaphor for African continental and Diasporic life and cultural production. The practice preserves cultural pockets while simultaneously deconstructing popular narratives. In the remix, the deejay is both creator and critique; the archivist who creates the time capsule and the one who uncovers it. Perhaps, as a dancer and writer, I am a remixer at heart. I write both theory and fiction, looking to history and futures, to rewire our default paradigms around how we’re taught to perceive the world around us. 

    A few weeks ago, I shared my trip to Dakar with a few people I know. Many were incredibly curious, asking questions, and nearly as excited as I was. Others were confused. My descriptions of an African city with a thriving art scene and fashionistas didn’t align with their thought paradigms and the media overload of a depressed Africa. Rather than listen, they sought to question my impression, as if I was being fantastical. In the same week, I was in a very gentrified Bed Stuy Brooklyn. There, I overheard a tourist speaking to hotel staff, remarking that “one day Bud Stuy” would be a nice neighborhood. Bud Stuy, a multifaceted neighborhood, has created more artists than some major cities and has been culturally rich for decades. But there’s a relationship in the desire of those who don’t or can’t see the value or the culture in spaces like Brooklyn, Dakar, and South and Westsides of Chicago. Was it a default of design elements that rendered some spaces invisible? Why assert hierarchy over narratives that challenge convention? Chicago’s Southside, despite the media narratives of violence, is also a launching pad for Afrofuturism and undergoing an arts renaissance.  Must the assertion of the value of the people and lives in such spaces always be an argument? 

    My hope is that we push past our limitations to see one another. There is beauty in these thriving spaces around the world that are all too often downplayed. Life insights thrive in many locales that mainstream literature or media has either exoticized or dismissed. In many such spaces, culture as resilience is a lifestyle and we’re all the richer for connecting with it.