Modern Griots Recap: Li Sumpter, Greg Tate and Danny Simmons on Afrofuturism, Myth and “Image as Prophecy”


Myth Media: 21 Symbol

One of the final events for The Shadows Took Shape exhibition, which recently closed at the Studio Museum of Harlem, featured a conversation between mythologist Li Sumpter of Myth Media:21 Studios, cultural writer and musician Greg Tate and painter and curator Danny Simmons, in which they discussed afrofuturism, the apocalyptic, myth and archetypes.

Li Sumpter opened the conversation presenting her doctorate work in mythology studies focused on the apocalyptic in post-millennial culture. Sumpter claimed that images shape our reality, that mythology provides the framework for reality, and reality is always shifting because of the various possibilities of perspectives and subjectivity. Different perspectives and beliefs can define reality and normality for one person or culture. The images we invest in, the psychic frameworks we develop determine our psychical world. The misconception that myth is the antithesis to reality is not true because it provides the foundation for it. Myth and reality are the same just on different sides of the spectrum. Below are two quotation that Sumpter referenced:

“We need images of tomorrow; and our people need them more than most. Without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped by blind history, economics. and politics beyond our control. One is tied up in a web, in a net, with no way to struggle free. Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one could go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there in a reality tomorrow will bring all too quickly. And nothing gives such a profusion and richness of images of our tomorrows-however much they
may need to be revised-as science fiction.” – Samuel R. Delany “The Necessity of Tomorrow(s)”

“Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.” – Maya Deren

As for the apocalypse myth, she sees apocalypse as not just the end of the world but part of a cyclical pattern of transformation, as the etymology of the name suggests, an uncovering or revealing of truth. The idea of apocalypse has been part of most religions and spiritual beliefs and it is always happening. This cyclical, spiraling pattern or fractal algorithm as she calls it, for the apocalyptic is birth, death and rebirth. Some of the concepts related to the apocalyptic are the quantum quest (hero journey, singularity vs. synchronicity, subjectivity vs. multiverse), alchemic individuation, evolution and entropy, oppression and rebellion, and life cycles of humans and civilizations. Tropes of the apocalyptic include the anima (Jung) or dark feminine. This is a time connected to the return of the goddess. One example Sumpter mentions is Michonne from The Walking Dead. Sumpter stresses the importance of mythic literacy as a next step to media literacy and general literacy. It is important to see the universal symbols used in our various media and genres and why those symbols are used.

Greg Tate

Tate always saw an almost interchangeable connection between the black power movement and science fiction, witnessing these mythic-like narratives play out and black prophetic art and politics. He read from one of his essays, “Black Man’s Heaven is a White Man’s Hell,” based on a speech from Minister Farrakhan, about the NBA and greats like Darrell Steven Griffith, aka Dr. Dunkenstein. He sees hope in afrofuturism, a mix between homecoming and healing, and fugitivity and escapism, giving space for vast leaps of the imagination. It is applicable to numerous works like Julius Hemphill’s “Dogon A.D.,” or even usable to analyze works like the gospel group Golden Gate Quartet’s “Atom and Evil” (which reinforces sexist stereotypes). He doesn’t only see afrofuturism as about the future but also claiming the present, the power of now

Danny Simmons

Simmons, who co-curated the 2007 MoCADA exhibition, Post Millennial Black Madonna: Paradise and Inferno, also sees it as rooted in black art and community. It is another way of reaching for power and control over one’s future and past, a way of looking back and deconstructing the past, making it present, and creating a future. Basically, artists are observing the world around them, interpreting and synthesizing the information and projecting it forward. As they do this, the art aggregates and turns into a philosophy.

From Post-Millennial Black Madonna Exhibition Source: NewsGrist

After the discussion, we did a short exercise looking at the artwork from The Shadows Took Shape exhibition, analyzing them from a mythic lens. Here, you can see the worksheet parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 and use it with any work you see in the future.

By the way, here is a post about John Corbett’s Sun Ra Arkive, which was the presentation before this one that I was unable to attend.

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