Cosmic Ghost at the Museum: The Shadows Took Shape Panel Recap


As Afrofuturism becomes more mainstream, sometimes popular conversations about it become also a bit stagnant, which is why I enjoy local conversations about it and hearing people’s personal relationships to it; I tend to learn a lot more. That’s what I got with this week’s panel discussion at the Studio Museum in Harlem with curators Naima J. Keith and Zoe Whitley, and Alondra Nelson and DJ Spooky.

In the discussion Thursday night, we received a polyphony of responses to the cultural importance of Afrofuturism, from those who were new to it and those who have engaged it for years, as well as an expanded view of all the diaspora threads that make up Afrofuturism.

Nelson gave one view of Afrofuturism as putting a context around and providing analytical value to the intersections of black cultures and technology, while Spooky resisted definition of Afrofuturism, seeing it as a collage or mixtape of various voices and possibilities of black culture that can remix the present into the future.

Although I was entrenched in the conversation with both of them overall, DJ Spooky really caught my attention with his various sources of influence in his relationship with Afrofuturism and his insights into it. He demanded more exploration in both the exhibition and Afrofuturism itself, being the slightly irreverent artist he is. Spooky wanted other artists to be looked at, like Saul Williams and Pedro Bell, or the influence of Caribbean dub and dancehall music in world music, mentioning producers Lee “Scratch” Perry and Mad Professor (I was turned on to him recently). Caribbean dub music basically spreads its rhythms into different trajectories all over the world, and took over the consciousness of the world through artists like Bob Marley and later influencing hip-hop.

Other interesting points he made were that the alien from the film Alien looked like a Yoruba statue with its elongated face, that his other name “The Subliminal Kid” comes from poet William S. Burroughs,” introduced us to the work of Paul Rucker, included Claude McKay and Paul Robeson (Body and Soul) in Afrofuturistic lineage, and described time in Afrofuturism as not futuristic in a linear sense but almost sideways as if parallel dimension of time, but that sometimes the language can be futuristic, like the Caribbean phrase “soon come.” He even gave suggestions on how the exhibition should have expanded to include music and the internet, but you’ll have to go to Korea to see his version. hehe.

There was much more to take from the panel, but I will stop here and leave you with texts to read from it:

Everyone should read Octavia Butler’s Kindred,the book that brought Nelson to Afrofuturism (book club at Studio Museum tomorrow).

The 2002 issue of Social Text edited by Nelson is free this month.

Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology”

Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises

Another post of the panel – “Afrofuturism, Pastlessness, the Studio Museum of Harlem and Jamaica.”

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