Seattle artists bring Afrofuturism to Black Future Month

The cast of "2155: An Exploration of Afrofuturism in Performance Art," which was held over two weekends at Gay City Arts. (Photo by Naomi Ishisaka for Imani Sims.)
The cast of “2155: An Exploration of Afrofuturism in Performance Art,” which was held over two weekends at Gay City Arts. (Photo by Naomi Ishisaka via Imani Sims.)

In the year 2155, racial purity will be the law of the land, leaving the mixed-race “amalgamated” to the scrutiny of a Nazi-esque regime. A glimpse of this future reveals a woman under interrogation, raising her arms for a scan that is equal parts TSA security screening and “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” When the scan reveals both African-American and Filipina heritage, a disembodied voice asks how she pleas. Denying any wrongdoing, she answers, “Resistance is our DNA.”

This dystopian scene, a short piece written and performed by local artist and activist Luzviminda “Lulu” Uzuri Carpenter, is ripe to be stamped #blackfuturemonth. The hashtag went viral this year as a reinterpretation of Black History Month, which is traditionally celebrated in February. For some, like Carpenter, the annual ritual that spotlights key figures in African-American history feels like an empty gesture in the shortest month of the year.

With Black History Month, people tokenize us and put us into the past,” she said, speaking during an audience talkback following the final show of “2155: An Exploration of Afrofuturism in Performance Art,” a Gay City Arts series that ran in February.

Afrofuturism is an aesthetic related that considers African and Afro-diasporic as agents of future change rather than victims of the past. In literature, the leading figure is science fiction writer Octavia Butler, whose final years were spent in the Seattle area. In music, think jazz visionary Sun Ra, or more recently the android style of pop sensation Janelle Monáe.

“Today we imagined what we would be like in the future,” Carpenter continued. “We’re going to make it there. We’re going to stay alive. That’s what #blackfuturemonth is all about.”

Writer Chinaka Hodge has blogged about Black Future Month since 2011, highlighting influential black thinkers, artists and others poised to shape history. “Black Future Month” then popped up in 2013 as the name of a Toronto afrofuturist art show whose fourth annual exhibition wrapped up this month. Last year, Black Lives Matter organizers seized on Black Future Month as a partial rebranding campaign for Black History Month. And this year, Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) has pushed #blackfuturemonth on social media, as well as hosted a film series and poetry reading under that banner.

Here in Seattle it’s been #blackfuturemonth too. A prime example came last Thursday, when Juliana Huxtable, the DJ behind New York queer underground party Shock Value, played Chop Suey. The crowd was freaky and fabulous, crisscrossing the spectrum of gender and sexuality, while gamely following a set that lurched from club to ambient by the rising star who has taken the art world by storm with her uncategorizable takes on trans and black identity.

The very next night at Nectar Lounge, Seattle’s Chimurenga Renaissance made their case for #blackfuturemonth with a fusion of Congolese and Zimbabwean melodies that match hip-hop stylings and digital production. Tendai “Baba” Maraire, also one-half of Shabazz Palaces, presided onstage in an updated take on African prints that he designed himself with an Accra-based clothing maker and rocked a pair of Cazal sunglasses. The outfit debuted at that show, part of a line he hopes to market that would normalize new African clothing designs for a generation that’s not so into kente cloth.

“You can wear it to an art exhibit, to church or to see your kid play a basketball game,” Maraire told the Globalist. “I’m trying to get African fashion, patterns, and colors to be more consistent like the Italian-cut suit. There was a time that was special, now it’s everyday.”

Meanwhile, the “2155” show was rife with riffs on the theme. Like Carpenter’s unsettling future vision, Jourdan Imani Keith supplied an eerie take with an excerpt from her choreopoem/one-woman play “The Uterine Files,” where a pregnant-by-rape slave comes back to haunt an African-American studies professor in a medical mystery straight out of the “X-Files,” all narrated by an intergalactic griot.

But “2155″ was as much glamor as gloom, promising a future with plenty of drag – care of The Lady B, who stripped from Reese’s Cup to g-string by show’s end – and burlesque, where a costume transformation and burlesque by dancer Namii evoked the image of a Sankofa. For some viewers, her performance also subverted the ugly history of the Hottentot Venus.* All alongside poets and spoken word artists who declaimed future visions of erotic fulfillment, freedom from gender binaries, and fluid sexuality continuums. In Seattle, #blackfuturemonth is very much liberated.

I believe in dreaming up an ideal future. If we do not, we will repeat the cycles into which the system has forced us,” director Imani Sims told the Globalist. “2155 set out to imagine our brown bodies in the future. I think it coincidentally aligned with the idea that black culture needs to imagine our world in a way that encourages a shift in the social narrative.”

Online, #blackfuturemonth has encompassed everything from racism in the tech community to activism around police shootings.

“I absolutely believe in the idea that we need to look forward, instead of celebrating the same few past events we are taught in K-12 education,” Sims said. “I do not think we should abandon the accomplishments and struggles of the past, but I do think there is a disproportionate emphasis on the past during ‘Black History Month’. I would love to see the black community shift our focus to afrofuturism and imagining a future for our community.”

Gay City Arts’ March performance is “Marching in Gucci: Memoirs of a Well-Dressed AIDS Activist.” On March 22, Hugo House hosts Writers Under the Influence: Octavia E. Butler.

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to refer to Namii by her performance name, and to clarify the intent of her performance.)