Afrofuturism is the thematic thread tying together the four artists featured in “Space is the Place,” a new exhibit on display this month at Disjecta. But co-curators Josephine Zarkovich and Elizabeth Spavento are quick to point out that the loosely defined artistic movement is only a jumping-off point for their exhibit, which contains work from a culturally diverse group of artists.
The term “afrofuturism” was coined by cultural critics and art historians in the 1970s to describe the work of artists and writers such as Parliament-Funkadelic, Sun Ra, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler, who have used the language and imagery of science fiction to explore themes of race, identity and technology.
Zarkovich and Spavento say they created the exhibition to investigate how the movement has evolved and matured with the work of a new generation.
“These artists may not necessarily be labeled afrofuturist artists,” says Spavento, “but all of them use it as a starting point to build a visual vocabulary and narratives. So in this case it might be called ‘chicanofuturism’ or ‘indigenousfuturism’ or ‘afrofuturism.’ “
Visitors to the show are greeted by Saya Woolfalk’s colorful and dramatic work “Star Compusion,” which radiates across the gallery wall. The piece portrays one scene from Woolfalk’s ongoing multimedia work, The Empathics, which builds a mythical narrative around a group of half-human, half-plant women who have developed a second consciousness that lets them see into the future.
“I use science fiction [in my work] because it has the ability to reimagine culture,” says Woolfalk. “I can speculate about the possibilities for a human future and do it in a completely fantastical way.”
Crow artist Wendy Red Star’s work also imagines future worlds. She creates fanciful versions of traditional pow-wow costumes and photographs herself in cosmic landscapes to reimagine space exploration from a native perspective and what future native peoples might look like.
The exhibit features painting and sculpture from California-based artist David Huffman, whose work mixes abstract celestial landscapes with iconic images of basketballs and his astronaut minstrel figures called “traumanauts.” In Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s 1996 video piece El naftazteca: Cyber-Aztec TV for 2004 A.D., the artist portrays a Chicano-Aztec veejay that has taken over your television.
“The piece picks and chooses from different cultures to talk about what it’s like to live in a borderland,” says Zarkovich. “Gómez-Peña has this ability to take the edges of culture and bring them to the center to make the supposed mainstream seem foreign.”
“All of the artists in the show are drawing on the past,” adds Spavento, “and they are re-imagining what the future could look like based on that history.”