- Afrofuturism and the Technologies of Survival
Situating the Afronaut in contemporary art and Afrofuturism is very much about finding safe spaces for black life. It is about exploring and protecting and preparing the body for hostile environments. In an Afrofuturist vision that stakes out black space in the future, black life is often obscured and simultaneously endangered. This obscurity is the result of the overdetermination of the past on black future spaces, namely the baggage of colonialism and apartheid, slavery and Jim Crow, and legacies of displacement. Through the image of the Afronaut, artists are making definitive statements about current situations of liberation, freedom, and oppression, while simultaneously referencing the past and staking a place for black life in the future.
Tegan Bristow, interestingly, situates the Afrofuturist legacy within the trajectory of "the black man in space" (Bristow 2012). Several other theorists, such as J. Griffith Rollefson, also adopt this trajectory, acknowledging Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic (P-Funk) as the progenitors of Afrofuturist thought. Bristow notes that "by placing the black man in space, out of the reach of racial stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both Western culture and technoculture" (Bristow 2012:26). I do not want to reduce Bristow's article to just "the black man in space." She also makes interesting claims about the relationship Afrofuturism has to art in Africa, but notes its potential to be global and not centered on the West. She points out the centrism of the United States in theories of Afrofuturism. She is correct in this assessment, but it is not because Afrofuturism doesn't apply to the arts of Africa. Addressing technoculture broadly and technology as a medium especially in music, Bristow notes the potential for a global theory that reflects the hybridity of African experience as well as the opportunity to decentralize identity and the totalizing views of African culture.
Afrofuturist thinkers, such as Kodwo Eshun and Alondra Nelson, have indicated the overwhelming tendency of Western visions of Africa to indicate impending doom and disaster. The tendency has also been to disqualify Africa from claims of technological invention and innovation in favor of a discourse of tradition. Elsewhere I wrote about how this tendency has more to do with the validity and prosperity of art markets as they traffic in authenticity and tradition (almost fetishizing the possibility) and the stubborn persistence of imposing a chronologically driven canon upon African art. I would like to address technology as a subject recurring in the various costumes of the Afronaut depicted across the Diaspora in various media and formats.
J. Griffith Rollefson argues that "Afrofuturism is most prominent in music … because a number of its artists have continually highlighted the mythic qualities of both historical tropes of magic and futuristic narratives of science through the seemingly paradoxical figure of the soulful spaceman" (2008:86-87). He thereby centers the "soulful spaceman" as icon in Afrofuturism. The "black man in space" is a significant symbol and signal ubiquitous in music of the 1970s, but is making a resurgence in the twenty-first century as the Afronaut in contemporary art of Africa and the African Diaspora. I contend that this resurgence is a response to current oppressive conditions, such as extrajudicial killings of black people in the United States and continued human rights disparities based on race elsewhere in the world. Artists are asking through these works containing Afronauts: What are the technologies of survival? The artists parallel these images of technologies with black people's predicament in a white supremacist society.
The word "Afronaut" is a neologism, so it is difficult to pin down its roots or know when and where it was first used. For the purposes of this research, the Afronaut is a person of African descent who travels through outer space. The term seems to have gained popularity with the advent of African space programs, like the one in Zambia in the 1960s (De Middel 2012). As the race for space by countries like Nigeria continues and the first South African-born astronaut will be launched into space, the term gets more popular, fascinatingly, through artists' imaginings of the Afronaut (Monks 2016, "Mandla Maseko...