Photographs of surreal darkness hang against a stark white background at the Art Galleries at Black Studies on the University of Texas campus. But the photographs are not empty black spaces; they are filled with vibrant and vivid cultural imagination.
Artist and cultural critic Teju Cole adds words to one of his photographs on display: “Darkness is not empty.”
For some, this phrase confirms a fear of the dark, of what menacing creature may exist in the spaces we cannot, or refuse to, see. But through the lens of Afrofuturism, Cole’s words among all the artwork on the gallery walls illuminates the reimagining of Black culture as not empty or frightening, but full and rich with possibilities that remain to be seen outside of the viewer’s imagination and within their imagination as well.
From Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography comes “In Their Own Form: Contemporary Photography and Afrofuturism,” on view at both Art Galleries at Black Studies locations — the Christian-Green Gallery and the Idea Lab. Curated by MOCP’s Sheridan Tucker Anderson the exhibition presents photography by Cole and 12 other artists from around the globe that explore those very possibilities.
The Afrofuturist movement, Tucker Anderson says in her curator’s statement, seeks to “explore alternative realities, cope with the past as a means of navigating the present, and reimagine the future.” Afrofuturism contains a decades-long history of music, arts and literature in which Black people have imagined possibilities for their lives where in reality there may have been none.
At once stunning and haunting the images by the 13 artists in this show place Blackness on a platform assembled by its own community that ranges from materially clunky to ethereally elegant — all equally vibrant meditations on how Blackness relates to both the tangible world and the inexplicable sublime in past, present, and future.
The existence of this series of photographs in itself displays radical possibilities for Black subjects. Tucker Anderson cites as inspiration the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who sat from more than 160 photographic portraits in his lifetime, making him the most photographed American of his time, more so than Abraham Lincoln. The widely spread images of Douglass unlocked a new possibility for the power of representation. In the 19th century, formal photographic portrait depictions of a Black man were outside the popular images of theatrical minstrelsy and racist caricature. Even after Douglass, it remained difficult for positive images of Black people to be circulated in American popular culture.
Photographic technology played its part in the problem. Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis, writing in the New York Times on the racial bias of photography, states, “light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology,” and points out that it wasn’t until Kodak received complaints in the 1960s from furniture companies and chocolate manufactures that the color film producing company worked to create film that could capture darker subjects with proper light and detail.
When you walk from photo to photo in “In Their Own Form,” this fraught history of Black images leaves you with the provocative questions. How has technology transformed the photographer’s ability to capture all of this color?
Alexis Peskine’s “Aljana Moons III – Twin Carriage” sticks out with its extreme contrast. The image features two boys, one standing and one sitting, on a horse-drawn carriage on the beach, adorned in spacesuit-like outfits made of reused cans and newspapers. Peskine’s staging uses recycled materials, all things that are easily recognizable as materials found on Earth; yet the ways that these worldly materials are repurposed and the postures that the human subjects wear them in make them other-worldly. Yes, the setting is familiar, but the peculiarity of two boys makes them highly visible against their white background and forces the eye to see them in a context all their own.
The word, “Aljana,” refers to the Arabic word for “the paradise,” or “the heavens.” And it’s easy to imagine these boys as space explorers of the moons that orbit paradise, or angels rounding up souls to be taken on a carriage to the heavens. Peskine’s print both formally and subjectively gets at the essence of Afrofuturism. It repurposes what is otherwise recognizable in order to create a new context for the present, and therefore opens a gate for the questions and futures for the Black subjects within them.
Each piece in this exhibition deserves its own careful consideration for how it contends with traditions and alternatives, histories and futures of Black representation and storytelling. Together, they capture and reimagine the radiance of what beautiful things we may see when the light is turned on.
“In Their Own Form” is on view through May 16 the Art Galleries at Black Studies, at Christian-Green Gallery and the Idea Lab. Artists featured in the exhibition include Alun Be, Kudzanai Chiurai, Jim Chuchu, Teju Cole, Ayana V. Jackson, Mohau Modisakeng, Fabrice Monteiro, Zanele Muholi, Aida Muluneh, Paulo Nazareth, Zohra Opoku, Alexis Peskine, and Mary Sibande.