The Mercury News

OMCA show explores stunning world of Afrofuturi­sm.

- By Martha Ross » mross@bayareanew­sgroup.com

When “Black Panther” became a 2018 Hollywood box-office sensation, it didn’t just entertain the world with an unusually smart and meaningful superhero movie that championed Black protagonis­ts.

It introduced many to the look and ideas of Afrofuturi­sm, a cultural and artistic movement coined in the 1990s that looks at Black lives and the African diaspora through the lens of fantasy and science fiction. In the Marvel film, T’Challa (the Black Panther) and a cadre of powerful women lead a fantasy African nation that’s socially enlightene­d, more technologi­cally advanced than any other on Earth and unencumber­ed by a history of colonialis­m, slavery, racism and sexism.

An upcoming exhibition at the recently reopened Oakland Museum of California should add to people’s understand­ing of a movement that has long thrived at the edges of popular culture while celebratin­g artists ranging from 20th-century icons Jean-Michel Basquiat and jazz legend Sun Ra to contempora­ry figures such as actor and singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe.

With “Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturi­sm,” the museum celebrates its reopening, after more than a year characteri­zed by a global pandemic and civil unrest over police violence — historic events that the exhibition’s curators say should make the concepts of its special exhibition more relevant than ever.

The exhibition, which opens Saturday, pulls together an array of works by more than 50 artists, many from the Bay Area, who contemplat­e science, technology and progressiv­e ideas about race and gender in a variety of media: painting, music, literature, film and immersive multimedia works. It will allow viewers to contemplat­e the dystopian worlds envisioned by the late science fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler and the otherworld­ly talents of funk and jazz musicians George Clinton and Ra.

“After ‘Black Panther’ came out, a lot of people started to ask the question, ‘What is Afrofuturi­sm?’ ” said OMCA curator Rhonda Pagnozzi. “When 2020 became about a pandemic and dismantlin­g white supremacy, a lot of people started to think about Black science fiction writers, like Octavia Butler, who predicted the landscape we’re in right now.”

The exhibition, in fact, features a female bodyguard’s costume from “Black Panther” — whose designer, Ruth E. Carter, won an Academy Award. The exhibition also devotes an entire section, “Dawn,” to Butler and her ideas on race, politics, morality and feminism. Visitors can enter a planetariu­m-like mural by San Francisco artist Sydney Cain that was inspired by Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” series, while listening to a soundscape created by jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell.

“Mothership” was originally set to open last year, but was, of course, delayed by shelter-inplace orders. Following a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and the social inequities revealed by the pandemic, Pagnozzi and consulting curator Essence Harden questioned whether they needed to somehow update the exhibition.

They wanted to make sure its content would still be relevant for whenever the museum got the green light to reopen. But in the way that Afrofuturi­sm also is known for manipulati­ng time and collapsing “the past, present and figure” into “a singular experience,” Pagnozzi realized that many works in the show both predicted and illuminate­d what happened in 2020. Harden added that the events of 2020 are part of the “the long trajectory” of injustices that Black people face.

The original idea for “Mothership” emerged from research into an earlier exhibition on hip-hop, which Pagnozzi said showed the extent to which contempora­ry artists of different genres are inspired by Afrofuturi­sm, from “Black Panther” to the music and videos of Solange Knowles, Missy Elliott and Monáe.

The exhibition’s title also pays homage to one of Afrofuturi­sm’s pioneers: Clinton. The musician’s Mothership, a flying-saucer-like spaceship, was the main prop in his 1970s and 1980s stadium concerts when he performed with his Parliament Funkadelic ensemble. Clinton’s alter ego, Dr. Funkenstei­n, made his grand entrance after the Mothership whizzed over the screaming crowds and landed onstage.

OMCA had a replica of the Mothership built for visitors to walk in and around, while they can simultaneo­usly listen to a Spotify playlist of about 165 Afrofuturi­stic songs curated by musician Paul Dennis Miller, aka DJ Spooky.

Aside from its P-Funk connection, Clinton’s Mothership resonated in other ways as a unifying theme for the exhibition. The word “mother” evokes what Harden said are the guiding Black feminist principles of Afrofuturi­sm, while Pagnozzi said: “We’re thinking of the entire institutio­n of OMCA as a gathering place for Oakland, as itself a mothership for Oakland.”

Other cultural touchstone­s in the exhibition speak to the breadth of Afrofuturi­sm’s applicatio­ns. One display looks at the medical legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a Black cancer patient in the 1950s whose cancer cells were used in groundbrea­king research on viruses and the human genome. Lacks’ life and her famously “immortal cells” became the stuff of “science fiction,” Pagnozzi said.

“Earthseed,” another of the exhibition’s four sections, explores past and current events, such as the Black Panther Party’s survival programs and Black Lives Matter, to “rejoice in the simple pleasures” of people’s day-to-day lives and to highlight the recent impact of Black media on cultural conversati­ons.

“I hope people come away from ‘Mothership’ thinking about the lens history has traditiona­lly been told through, how this shapes our perception­s of ourselves and others and influences our imaginatio­ns, which ultimately shapes our future,” Pagnozzi said. “Last year, there was so much depth and mourning, I hope people will come out to celebrate Black life and think about it through the lens of Black joy.”

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 ?? CALIFORNIA GETTY IMAGES ARCHIVES ?? MUSEUM OF OAKLAND
E. Butler is writer Octavia figures Science fiction seminal the earliest one of considered movement. Afrofuturi­sm of the
OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA “The Bluest Eye,” Chelle Barbour’s collage-like work, is part of a series of creations that she says are intended to “reimagine the body of the black female through the lens of AfroSurrea­lism.”
George Clinton, who created a “mothership” motif for his concerts and employed science fiction imagery in his groundbrea­king funk music, is a key figure in Afrofuturi­sm.
CALIFORNIA GETTY IMAGES ARCHIVES MUSEUM OF OAKLAND E. Butler is writer Octavia figures Science fiction seminal the earliest one of considered movement. Afrofuturi­sm of the OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA “The Bluest Eye,” Chelle Barbour’s collage-like work, is part of a series of creations that she says are intended to “reimagine the body of the black female through the lens of AfroSurrea­lism.” George Clinton, who created a “mothership” motif for his concerts and employed science fiction imagery in his groundbrea­king funk music, is a key figure in Afrofuturi­sm.
 ?? COURTESY OF OLALEKAN JEYIFOUS — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA ?? Olalekan Jeyifous’ photo taken in Nigeria, “Shanty Mega-structures: Makoko Canal,” focuses on the confluence of images of privilege and poverty.
COURTESY OF OLALEKAN JEYIFOUS — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA Olalekan Jeyifous’ photo taken in Nigeria, “Shanty Mega-structures: Makoko Canal,” focuses on the confluence of images of privilege and poverty.
 ?? COURTESY OF ALUN BE — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA ?? “Potentiali­ty, Edificatio­n” is part of photograph­er Alun Be’s “Edificatio­n Series” (2017), which imagines the future role of technology in Africa. It’s on display at the Oakland Museum of California.
COURTESY OF ALUN BE — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA “Potentiali­ty, Edificatio­n” is part of photograph­er Alun Be’s “Edificatio­n Series” (2017), which imagines the future role of technology in Africa. It’s on display at the Oakland Museum of California.
 ?? ADAM ABRAHAM/COURTESY OF JOHN CORBETT AND TERRI KAPSALIS — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA ?? Avant-garde jazz legend and Afrofuturi­sm icon Sun Ra is seen on the set of “Space Is the Place,” which was filmed in San Francisco.
ADAM ABRAHAM/COURTESY OF JOHN CORBETT AND TERRI KAPSALIS — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA Avant-garde jazz legend and Afrofuturi­sm icon Sun Ra is seen on the set of “Space Is the Place,” which was filmed in San Francisco.
 ?? MARVEL STUDIOS ?? Lupita Nyong’o, left, and Letitia Wright are among the stars of “Black Panther,” which drew raves for its Afrofuturi­sm-influenced costumes designed by Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter.
MARVEL STUDIOS Lupita Nyong’o, left, and Letitia Wright are among the stars of “Black Panther,” which drew raves for its Afrofuturi­sm-influenced costumes designed by Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter.
 ?? COURTESY OF WAYNE HODGE — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA ?? Wayne Hodge’s collage “Android/ Negroid #13,” one of many works in which he blends provocativ­e symbols with traditiona­l images of Black men, is on display at the Oakland Museum of California.
COURTESY OF WAYNE HODGE — OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA Wayne Hodge’s collage “Android/ Negroid #13,” one of many works in which he blends provocativ­e symbols with traditiona­l images of Black men, is on display at the Oakland Museum of California.

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