On Afrofuturism and My Upcoming NMAAHC Internship

I recently received and accepted an internship to work at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The position, beginning in February 2020—the onset of Black History Month, will place me as a research assistant for a forthcoming exhibit on Afrofuturism. Having concretely finalized this opportunity in paperwork and upon recently hearing that an anonymous faculty member of my MFA program thought I had a poor grasp of afrofuturism, I've decided to post my submission essay *sideways googly eyes, tongue out emoji":

The third wave of Black renaissance arts is taking place and it takes the form of visual Afro-Futurism—with the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement as its predecessors in a permeable, nonlinear sort of timeline. However, Afro-Futurism is not only an arts movement, but an embodied ideology. I was an afrofuturist before I knew the word. The written and visual works of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Octavia Butler (1947-2006), and Martine Syms (b. 1988) have given me the framework and language to express my identity as an afrofuturist. I enjoy that the term can still be loosely defined, uninhibited by mandated institutional conventions of what it can and can’t be, because to me, Afro-Futurism can be seen in nearly anything, and it can be timeless. As Ariell Johnson, the first Black female comic book store owner on the East Coast, says: “Black people today...we are afrofuturism. The freedoms we have now—the things that we are working to accomplish. ... I am afrofuturism; You are afrofuturism. We are … defying and challenging stereotypes and negative images” (Drumming). Today, I am an avid researcher, reader, and cultural producer of the movement.

Pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in Intermedia and Digital Arts (MFA), my work engages social commentary and critique around issues of religion, socio-political awareness, and self-identity with an afrofuturist lens. Lately, my interest has been most piqued by the spirituality within Afro-Futurism, and I firmly believe that embodying its ideology is a means of healing from the oppressive systems of the present by reimagining home. My art practice often takes the form of non-interactive installation works in and through which I establish myself as a conceptual artist and researcher. My academic career—including Towson University where I attained a Bachelor's degree in Electronic Media and Film—has equipped me with both a broad framework in which to navigate the world of Afro-Futurism, as well as the technical experience necessary to being a strong researcher and curator. My artistic production, philosophies, and technical skills have well-prepared me for the African American Popular Culture Internship at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

My knowledge of Afro-Futurism brushes across all of its forms from music to literature, but with a primary focus on visual arts. This focus in my work often manifests itself as artist interviews, artwork reviews, and other research-based writings, denoting and demanding a place for and the ascension of Afro-Futurism amongst other widespread fine arts movements. Examples of my writing include “A Black Space” (2017), a brief history of visual Afro-Futurism and how Radcliffe Bailey’s installation “Windward Coast” (2008-2011) falls into the afrofuturist repertoire; “Golden Record: Take Two” (2019), a review of Somali-American artist Suldano Abdiruhman’s playful take on extraterrestrial first contact in her work Voyager 3 (Signs and Symbols Aliens Should Know and Understand) (2017); OBSIDIAN (2019—), a speculative fiction narrative podcast anthology series based in Afro-Futurism in which we address issues such as surveillance, artificial intelligence, and alternative realities. This collaborative project, with co-creator Adetola Abdulkadir, was recently awarded a 2019 Rubys Artist Grant, a highly competitive award from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. Born in Nigeria, Abdulkadir offers a more inclusive, pan-African perspective to Afro-Futurism through which we strive to not limit our work to a Western worldview; and “Making a Case for W.E.B. Du Bois as a Proto Afrofuturist” (2019), a research paper situating W.E.B. Du Bois within the foundational framework of Afro-Futurism through the praxis of his life’s work.

In reference to visual artist and writer Martine Sym’s theories of the mundane versus fantastic aspects of Afro-Futurism in her film The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto (2015), I am interested in making space for the “mundane” within the current field of highly imaginative and tech-driven renditions of Afrofuturist visual arts. This concept is at the core of Making a Case for W.E.B. Du Bois as a Proto Afrofuturist” (2019) as well as my most recent visual artwork Envisioning Black Livelihoods: Filling a Void with Things Imagined (2019). “Making a Case” positions Du Bois’ political actions and sociological research, such as his debate with Booker T. Washington’s 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” and his data visualizations in The Georgia Negro: A Social Study (1900), within the mundane aspects of Afro-Futurism. Conversely, I frame Du Bois’ speculative fiction writings, such as The Princess Steel (1908-1910) and The Comet (1920), within the fantastical. Envisioning Black Livelihoods is a series of community facilitations designed to create spaces of dialogue for Black people to imagine and inscribe images or texts of their imagined futures onto circular halo-silhouetted mirrors. These ideas are key to my practice: involving the dissemination of my or others’ personal narratives through conceptual visual storytelling—an art form I’d like to further develop and encourage engagement in within African-American communities, akin to the elaborate and deep-rooted storytelling textiles of West African regions.

An internship at the National Museum of African American History and Culture would propel my career, current work, and breadth of the art movement. Beyond my current roles as an academic and visual artist, I am a teacher dedicated to art education in museums and local nonprofits. I identify as a teaching artist who prioritizes under-served Baltimore City students; However, I would like to extend my radius of influence. It is at institutions like the Smithsonian, where education and outreach are principal initiatives in the creation of exhibitions and programming, that I imagine my dream job. I see myself in workplaces where values like these are the foundational ideals. It is my greatest aspiration to find or create a livelihood in which I am able to take charge of the narratives near to me and create the works I want to see in the art world, as well as to support young cultural producers in the cultivation, and later curation, of their own work. Institutional programming has always been of great interest to me in that here lies not only the connection to public audiences and their engagement, but also the diversification of both the institution‘s internal staff and external audience.

As a person of several maginalized communities (i.e., as a Black, Muslim, woman), it is important to me that cultural institutions reflect and involve their native communities. As a national museum, NMAAHC has begun that process and is committed to ongoing efforts. Since its grand opening, I have aspired to contribute to the museum’s expansion of current areas of culture as well as produce new ones through the intersection of my visible and invisible identities. For example, NMAAHC’s singular panel of content presenting the scope of Islam in America. It is in areas like this that I would be keen on pitching exhibition ideas that promote the expansion of such an influential and long-standing component of Black American culture (see digital archive-based artwork #AllRappersGoToHeaven (2014—)).

Several work experiences have prepared me for this internship. Beginning in 2013 as a Research Intern at the Maryland Film Festival (MdFF), I researched films and surveyed audiences to recommend films that were fitting for festival programming. This position also included drafting the weekly e-newsletter to advertise the festival and its contents. From this experience, I came full circle to co-curate a MdFF-sponsored animation screening called Sister Cities Animated! which screened at the Parkway Theater in Baltimore earlier this year. As a found footage filmmaker throughout my undergraduate studies, I researched databases and sifted through hours of digital archival materials for the ideal footage for my films. This relationship to digital archives extends into my art practice as a digital archivist using social media platforms to indicate instances of Black Rappers engaging with aspects of Islam within American pop culture in a living online collection and photo installation called #AllRappersGoToHeaven. As a volunteer Short Film Judge for the annual Muslim Interscholastic Tournament, I watch hours of student-made short films, assessing their technical skill and themed storytelling. All to say, I am well-acquainted with pouring over profuse amounts of digital and physical media.

Today, as an Exhibition Designer at the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture at UMBC, I assist in communications with featured artists and the installation of exhibitions. Still in the early stages on this path, I am eager to seek opportunities like this in which I am able to engage with the curatorial side of exhibition planning. As a NMAAHC African American Popular Culture Intern, I will be able to complete the full process of exhibition design, learning the ins and outs of curation from museum professionals at the national level. This experience would be unmatched in the scope of furthering my career and piquing the interest of this deep passion of mine. Contributing to the cultural understanding of Afro-Futurism would not only affect my professional status, but would also be personally fulfilling to my growth within these fields. This internship would catalyze my pursuit in becoming an expert in Afro-Futurism to later disseminate internationally as a means of expanding the mental image and physical output of how Black people envision their futures (similar to W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle). I hope that you will consider my application not only as an academic and researcher, but also as a cultural producer in the field, offering perspectives from both sides of the equation. Thank you for your time.

Works Cited

Drumming, Neil, host. “Prologue.” We Are in the Future, This American Life, 18 Aug. 2017. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/623/we-are-in-the-future

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