The Afro-future is Already Here
and Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter is at the forefront
Black Panther has broken box-office records, become the first movie in 35 years to screen in Saudi Arabia and the most tweetedabout movie ever – it’s also kick-started a cultural renaissance. Piet Smedy caught up with Ruth E. Carter to discuss the future of African design.
The majority of Black Panther is set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a country that ‘hides in plain sight’ and, by virtue, has remained untouched by colonialism. This is a major concept to not only comprehend but also represent on screen. How did you tackle this visual identity and which elements were emblematic for you in achieving this? Because I wasn’t an African historian there had to be this learning curve, I had to study, as you always do when it comes to representing something through design. Ryan Coogler (Director) and Hannah Beachler (Production Design) decided that we would use artistic elements from certain indigenous African nations and bring it to our fictitious country. As I developed this, I looked at the indigenous people in different cultures – Turkana, Ndebele, Dogon – and what their earliest forms of adornment were. I wanted to appreciate how people in Saharan environments lived, how the Basotho people in the mountains lived, why the Dogon were considered astronomers, because those are the elements that belonged to them and not an outside influence.
That’s the big misconception: Africa is one country with a single identity.
From the start I knew I’d be seeing a modern Africa; it wasn’t just going to be Himba girls. I’ve travelled to the continent after Black Panther, too, but one thing I did find on my early trips: everyone needs their culture preserved – and honoured.
You recently posted on Instagram about the importance of representation, which really brings us to the crux of the discussion: we’re seeing modern African design becoming a global commodity. Do you think it runs the risk of losing touch with its identity?
I think all design needs innovation and we can’t say in one aspect of African design its politically correct or not selling out. Africa shares with everyone. When we look at
what Missoni did, they totally used african pattern and colour in their knitwear, so I’m so happy that Laduma Ngxokolo has got a knitwear line to rival that. You know, the film uses a lot of the traditional shapes but we’re in afro-future now and we’re thinking about it as a new marketplace. Designing for an international audience isn’t a demerit on the african designer, it’s a way of moving it forward. Afrofuturism is nothing new, coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993 but widespread since the 1950s. How do you think its manifesto has changed in the last two decades?
I think that Black Panther was, in a big way, a catalyst for the movement because it gave people a way to contextualise it. afrofuturism today lets people celebrate the idea of a fantasy world within which there was no negative influence from the outside. We all can relate to a story about a future culture that asks: if things had been different, where would my culture be? The wonderful thing about it is that it gives africans authorship.