On Jan. 29, 2018 — in the middle of the Trump presidency and an increasing rise of white nationalism — Marvel’s “Black Panther” hit the box office and introduced Afrofuturism into the mainstream zeitgeist. Director Ryan Coogler took Stan Lee’s concept of a futuristic African nation and channeled Wakanda through his artistic direction as a Black American man.
Afrofuturism is a subgenre of speculative fiction by Black authors in the African diaspora that explores themes of Blackness. Although some of the most seminal works of Afrofuturism are science fiction, it can also include fantasy, alternate history and magical realism. Afrofuturism can take place anywhere in the world where there are Black people, which is everywhere, including Seattle, Washington.
Two stellar Afrofuturistic exhibits are currently in Seattle: “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) and “Hollaback to the Future: Afrofuturism Dimensions” at the Museum of Museums on First Hill.
Ruth E. Carter is the Acadamy Award-winning mastermind behind the clothing of Wakanda. At MoPOP, the gorgeous pieces — inspired by Maasai, Ndebele, Lesotho and Himba cultures, among others — encapsulate a dream for the African diaspora. Embedding traditionalism into imagined technologies, Afrofuturism maintains that not all invention has to be formed at the behest of profit-driven corporations like SpaceX and Tesla but instead can come from the desire to see how far our people can go, together. It allows us to see a place for Blackness in a world where facial recognition can’t differentiate between Black folks but can between white folks.
Carter’s skill and love for her craft can easily be seen in the meticulous designs of every outfit. The influences for most pieces are listed next to the exhibits. Looking at the clothes up close brings a different kind of realism to “Black Panther.” Without the movie magic, the clothing is even more beautiful and practical. Each costume is a statement and acknowledgment of different corners of the vast African continent.
At the Museum of Museums, in “Hollaback,” artists from around the globe contribute their visions of the future. Much of this art might not be as palatable to white Western sensibilities. It requires more knowledge of Black culture, where “Black Panther” ultimately was made to be a box office success, appealing to non-Black audiences.
The “Hollaback” exhibit showed a lot more of the Black American influence. Roller skates with jets on them feature alongside paper cutouts of microbraids turning into strands of DNA. While MoPOP’s “Ruth E. Carter” exhibit showed a unified dream of Afrofuturism in fabric and design, “Hollaback” showcases more individualistic imaginations. The artwork ventures into the obscure and esoteric.
For example, a piece of digital art by Kenya-based Dada titled “Kurapika” requires knowing who or what a Kurapika is. The anime “Hunter x Hunter” by Togashi Yoshihiro has a character named Kurapika who uses magical chains as weapons. The art piece features a dark-skinned Black woman using chains to fight. Chains have been used as a tool of horrific oppression against Black people. Using the chains on the offensive becomes a statement.
There are a wide range of influences in “Hollaback” from Basquiat to traditional mud cloth paint to NFTs, aka non-fungible tokens, a form of commodified digital art. Despite varying opinions on the practicality and long-term effects of NFTs, including them still provokes some sort of reaction and shows that Black folks are working in all mediums.
American artist Kottavei uses mixed-media textiles for her piece “i am the altar not the sacrifice. do not approach me without an offering.” The large quilt features a Black woman who appears to have eco-cyborg components.
There are vines and leaves growing through her prosthetic parts, and she stares at the viewer wearing nothing but her brown and metal skin. It is an ode to Black women being more than meets the surface and rooted in the earth, as beings to be appreciated and worshiped. The sentiment is surprisingly impactful in a world that often describes Black women as mammies or Jezebels.
Seattle is a city that highlights Blackness when it becomes a national topic, such as during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, but, more often than not, is a typical liberal and rapidly gentrifying place where we have conversations about diversity every so often at mandatory work diversity, equity and inclusion meetings. But the “Hollaback” and “Ruth E. Carter” exhibits showcase Blackness outside of racial trauma. Creativity and thought are centered around joy and self-expression rather than pain.
However, these exhibits aren’t the first time Afrofuturism has found a home here. Seattle-based speculative fiction author Nisi Shawl has edited Afrofuturist anthologies, often in tribute to established pioneers like Octavia Butler.
Outside of cinema and fine art, the literary world has had a prolific and storied history of Afrofuturism beginning with the likes of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney and with more recent authors like Tochi Onyebuchi and N.K. Jemisin.
Being a part of the African diaspora is often complicated. As descendants of enslaved people, it is even more so.
To be a stolen body on a stolen land cannot easily be forgotten; we were forcibly closed off from our own heritage. Afrofuturism provides a beautiful thought experiment. We can use what we do know about where we come from to carve a future of our own imagination, outside the Eurocentric narrative that overwhelms speculative fiction.
I highly recommend seeing the two exhibits before they leave the city to experience the different types of futures the human imagination can envision.
“Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” is on display at the Museum of Pop Culture through Jan. 2023.
“Hollaback to the Future: Afrofuturism Dimensions” is on display at the Museum of Museums through August 31.
Read more of the July 27-Aug. 2, 2022 issue.