Afrofuturism: Seeing parallel worlds

By Billie Adwoa McTernan in Accra
Posted on Monday, 20 July 2015 14:37

The metallic tannoy voice raps out: “Dream detected… Take your dream suppressants” in a dystopian future where a security elite controls access to the surface of a dead planet.

If you think of it as speculative fiction, then we have always used it

Or perhaps, African superheroes bounding across re-imagined cities.

Or perhaps again, an ocean beneath which lurks a hidden world of mutating sea creatures, aliens and monsters and glowing multi-coloured healing sources.

‘Afrofuturism’ – a label first given to African American musicians like Sun Ra in the 1970s – is the in-vogue if vague term that groups together a recent upswell in film, music, writing and visual art drawing on science fiction and fantasy tropes.

1 Nairobi-based artist Cyrus Kabiru wearing his ‘C-STUNNERS’
2 She’s got the whole world in her by Wangechi Mutu
3 Fespaco-winning sci-fi film Les Saignantes
4 Planetary art by Yinka Shonibare
5 Planetary art by Yinka Shonibare

Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu is one of the names most often associated with it.

“But I challenge the idea that this has only just started in Africa”, she says. “If you think of it as speculative fiction, then we have always used it.”

“When you define something you limit it and almost reduce it,” argues writer Nnedi Okarafor, “My idea of Afrofuturism is that it would be rooted first and foremost in Africa.”

Back in 1996, British Ghanaian filmmaker John Akromfrah made his documentary The Last Angel of History.

Akromfrah’s futuristic film placed black people at the centre of sci-fi, fantastical and speculative art forms in a way unseen before.

It highlighted the works of Jamaican reggae producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, funk musician George Clinton, jazz musician Sun Ra and sci-fi writer Octavia Butler – all, except Perry, African Americans.

Two decades on, Afro-futurism is increasingly permeating the creative industries on the continent itself, and a new wave of artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and innovators are demystifying the concept, placing their work in the realm of the present and everyday life.

In the Akan languages there is a word – sankofa, – meaning to go back and take it. It expresses the idea that you cannot look to the future without an
understanding of the past.

For Africans and those in the diaspora, history was systematically erased and rewritten so people became accustomed to living parallel realities.

While school history books told tales of European travellers “discovering” settlements, renaming mountains and lakes that had been part of communities for time immemorial, at home children listened rapt to stories of a time when the people of their lands were also the rulers of the land.

Thus, imagining alternative realities was part of their relationship with the past.

In addition to these hidden histories, stories of alternative magical worlds appear across African cultures.

“Within our own folklore there are alternative realities, in stories, in music, in dance,” says Mantse Aryeequaye co-founder of ACCRA[dot] ALT, an arts-promoting organisation in Ghana.

“When we were young they would tell us stories and say ‘They went to some town, nobody walks there, everybody floats in the air’.

Immediately that’s an alternative reality. These permeate all our traditional stories.”

Aryeequaye says that cinema brings these alternative ways of being that have always existed to a wider world.

“Kumawood movies are a gritty example of a Ghanaian version of Afrofuturism,” he says.

“The special effects are crude, the acting is [sometimes] atrocious but there is a concept of people living within alternative dimensions who do things that humans can’t do.”

Back to magical reality

And the same is happening in Nigeria.

Films are often set in a seemingly nondescript village where a series of fantastical and magical events take place, usually against the background of a love story or a power struggle.

“When it’s done in Hollywood it’s magical realism, when it comes from Africa it’s voodoo. And voodoo also denotes a certain type of thing that is dark and negative,” Aryeequaye points out.

Despite attempts to label him as an Afrofuturist musician, South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo is keen to separate himself from the term.

“I don’t consider my music to be futuristic at all,” he says. “Through sound and film, I am trying to articulate a very current reality. My vision of where we are now.”

He adds: “I have a rich history and an exciting present. That is where a reading of my work and energy should lie.

“We live in the so-called future that ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s science/speculative fiction foretold.”

Events like Maker Faire Africa prove that some of the inventions coming out of the continent could easily feature in a post-apocalyptic fiction where humans have to use their ingenuity to survive.

Take Kenyan Richard Turere’s ‘Lion Lights’ – a light system made of solar-charging cells and flashlights designed to curb cattle killings by lions in his Maasai community.

In 2013, aged only 13, Turere spoke to thousands of people about his invention via the TED platform.

Wanuri Kahiu addresses some of these survival issues in her film Pumzi, showing how local knowledge could provide answers.

“I believe a hut was built in the way a hut was built for a specific reason,” she says.

“But now we are rejecting our past and looking for better solutions without using the past as an example. We’re building houses that would be perfect in Europe but make no environmental sense here.”

“Afrofuturism is built on people remaking perceptions of themselves and an awareness of their power,” Aryeequaye says, in an all-embracing description.

“How are you able to live your dreams? If you imagine something and make it manifest.”●

Bernard Akoi-Jackson: Performance and visual artist

Dressed in kente cloth and painted a shimmering gold, Akoi-Jackson’s ‘Gold Man’ is a representation of a Ghanaian chief. Other performances that key in on Ghana’s history and heritage include the ‘Dutchman’, alluding to the Dutch occupation of Ghana and the origins of the wax fabrics, and the ‘Blue Man’, painted in a deep indigo, who references the name the Dutch gave Indonesians when they first arrived in Java.

Finally, in the ‘Grey Man’, Akoi-Jackson looks to the future in a culmination of all the previous characters and their linked histories.

“Some of my ideas may be Afrofuturist,” he says. “There are aspects of Afrofuturism that look to Africa as the mother-source, the beginning, the cradle of life and therefore everyone comes from Africa, so I see it in that context. When people look at the history of African nations they look at colonialism and thereafter. So I was influenced by things that happened in colonial times but were also imagined before.”

As a Ghanaian he is familiar with the idea of sankofa. “[It] is to look back to the strengths that are really ours and find ways of empowering the present so that the future will become brighter. Even the colonisers have to look at history and make sure that they don’t repeat this, while the colonised and formerly enslaved have to watch themselves so that no one tricks them once more into slavery.”

Akoi-Jackson believes education and taking a critical look at history are key. “It’s sad that of course the colonialist machine also created an education that miseducates you,” he points out. “So whilst you are in this system you also have to find ways of ‘othering’ the system. It’s difficult for a people who have so long been enslaved and colonised to come out of it.” Citing the recent racist attacks in South Africa, he laments the effects of a poorly constructed society.

“The machine has been created such that your oppressor is so far away from you that the next person to attack is your brother.”

“All futures are imagined but if our power of imagination has been clipped then how can we dream?” he asks. “We have to look at alternative ways of bringing these things to schools, maybe in the form of drama or poetry readings – to introduce these as extra-curricular things to students that eventually become mainstream.”

Nnedi Okorafor – Author and Professor

Visiting Nigeria regularly since she was a child, writer Nnedi Okorafor noticed interactions with technology that were different to what she was used to in the US.

“We’d be in the village and there would be no running water and some of the girls would go to the stream to collect water – a very traditional ‘African’ image, but while bringing the water back the girls were texting on cellphones and holding the water on their heads. I wasn’t seeing this being written about anywhere.”

At the time, sci-fi writing was quite limited to the Western experience and any reference to Africa was usually dated. “All I’d see is ancient old portrayals of Africa as a country – as opposed to a continent – and a place of the past, a place that people have left, a place that people remember, not a place that is alive and well and moving into the future.”

Inspired by what she saw in Nigeria, Okorafor decided to pen her own stories. Many of them are set in an imagined version of Nigeria, though her most recent novel

The Book of Phoenix – a prequel to her novel Who Fears Death – transcends North America and Africa. In the material world Okorafor predicts a multi-pronged evolution in technology, with different parts of the world demanding technologies more specific to their needs.

“Where the infrastructure isn’t there where you can’t just plug something in, so the idea of portable devices is going to take on a whole new shape,” she says. “In places where the light goes on and off, laptops are more popular and cellphones are being used in more dynamic ways.” It’s these differences that make science fiction fascinating Okorafor says – and its ability to make geographical leaps.

Wanuri Kahiu – Filmaker

With her 2009 film Pumzi, writer and director Wanuri Kahiu didn’t think she was writing a science fiction story. “For me it was just a story,” she says.

Set in a secluded dystopian city where water scarcity has driven people underground, Pumzi (breath in Swahili) tells the story of a young woman who escapes from her protected community in search of an outside ecosystem. “Afrofuturism is such a broad subject that nobody has completely defined it,” Khahiu says.

“We talk about mythical realism, fantasy, science fiction, any speculative fiction is thrown under the Afrofuturism banner so that leaves a lot of leeway for things.”

Kahiu points out that these genres are not new in African storytelling. “Now that it has been coined and I’ve thought back on my own history of storytelling or mythology I see that ‘Afrofuturism’ has always been present in my life as a Kenyan.”

Thinking back to creation stories she has heard in Kenya, with their mythical and magical elements, Kahiu says: “I don’t think there is a separation between Afrofuturism and Africa or Africans. If you talk to different people from across Africa they have different creation myths that in this day and age would be labelled Afrofuturist.” In Pumzi, Kahiu makes the council of elders that govern the compound in which the story is set a trio of women – a nod, she says, to an old Kikuyu tradition where women were in power.

“Afrofuturism should not only give us the ability to imagine ourselves in our own future but also to use our instruments so we can better navigate the future that’s coming,” she says.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options