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Curating Contemporary Art



KOSMICA x Astroculture

Daniella Rose King - 23 May 2013

The Arts Catalyst's series of KOSMICA  sessions take Astroculture - a history of the cultural approaches to space and life outside planet Earth from the 20th  century onwards - as their focus, through talks, screenings, debates and performances. These consider the wealth of production, study and speculation on the alternative and cultural uses of space. Held in Arts Catalyst's  space in Clerkenwell, the latest iteration, KOSMICA X, focussed on Afrofuturism. The event consisted of a lecture-performance, Afrogalactica   (2013), by Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga followed by a screening of her film The Sun Ra Repatriation Project   (2009), a discussion between the artist, the event's curator Jareh Das, and guest academic Dr Nick Campion, (Director of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David), followed by galactic, space-age music and drinks. Combining elements of performance, film, active discussion and music, the event created an open, affable environment where the topics ranged from philosophy to the social importance of Star Trek.

Afrofuturism is a term coined in the early-nineties by critic Mark Dery  in his essay "Black to the Future", and has since been a source of fascination across the cultural fields. The most significant contribution has been through music, with icons such as Sun Ra, George Clinton (aka P-Funk, aka Parliament, aka Funkadelic), Jimi Hendrix and Lee "Scratch" Perry. African American Science fiction writers including Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler and Steve Barnes have added much to their genre, and are also attributed to Afrofuturism. The same applies to a few visual artists (and many more since 1993 when Dery wrote his paper), such as Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I would also extend this list to include The Otolith Group, Black Audio Film Collective, Ellen Gallagher and many more.

Afrofuturism denotes a spectrum, upon which the individual works, or tendencies of artists, writers, musicians and cultural producers can be located. According to Dery, Afrofuturism signifies an "African American [appropriation of] images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future". It equally applies to an African Diaspora that also seeks to imagine not only a future enabled by technology, but also a present and past reconfigured in relation to Ancient spiritual sources and modern science. The birth of Afrofuturism has been linked to multiple factors. In many ways it is a reaction to the historical oppression in the west of the African Diaspora and its culture. Further, it is interpreted as a means of forging an alternative, potentially unbridled, mythology that reclaims technology where access was previously denied. Sun Ra once asked in his poem Imagination, "If we came from nowhere here, why can't we go somewhere there?". Kiwanga describes this attitude, as well as the development of a new alternative aesthetic, as evidence of an empowering articulation of a creative force, will and self-emancipation.

Much of this context was brought alive by Kiwanga's performance Afrogalactica (2013), film The Sun Ra Repatriation Project (2009), and the resulting discussion between Das and Dr Campion. Afrogalactica pulled together extensive research into a digestible format.  She highlighted a central Afrofuturist motif of the mothership, as described by the music of Parliament (with their 1975 album Mothership Connection) and Sun Ra (evidenced by his 1974 film Space Is the Place), Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Arc  recording studio and Marcus Garvey's 1920 Black Star Liner. Kiwanga locates the foundation of the mothership in the lyrics of Wallis Willis' 1862 spiritual "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" that speaks of a chariot, held aloft by a band of angels that is "coming for to carry me home". Here technology is utilised to make possible the mass exodus of the African Diaspora, to Saturn, outer space, Africa and heaven respectively.

Through video, sound and images Kiwanga demonstrated the complexity of Afrofuturism, and its various manifestations in the 20th  and 21st  centuries. Rather than slipping into the reductionism that has been used to portray Afrofuturism, her performance, film, and the discussion engendered by these projects, went beyond the eccentricity and 'far-out-ness' of the costumes and rhetoric. Thoughtfully curated by Jareh Das, KOSMICA X  provided a compelling platform in which to theorise, critique and reflect upon Afrofuturism, a field that - by virtue of its creative and alternative potential - continues to grip and inspire scores of individuals. The final question asked by a member of the audience at the close of the event asked "what is the future of Afrofuturism?". Judging by its heterogeneous and technological underpinnings, it will know no bounds.




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