The Afro-fu­ture is Al­ready Here

and Black Pan­ther cos­tume de­signer Ruth E. Carter is at the fore­front

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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.

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