We need Afrofuturism more than ever

There must be more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions.

Originally published by Dazed&Confused, November 2015

charl landvreugd

Charl Landvreugd

Ever noticed how few black characters there are in sci-fi flicks? How those that do exist are sidekicks, baddies or set up to die? How the attitude towards space exploration is markedly similar to colonisation? That the robots are almost always slaves to human masters? (no wonder they end up coming after us in the other handful of narratives) How economic and racial inequalities either magically become non-issues or are aggravated even more while everyone remains nonplussed?

These are some of the questions that Afrofuturist writers, artists and filmmakers from Philadelphia to Lagos, Rotterdam to Cairo and beyond are highlighting, inspired by the likes of interstellar jazz musician Sun Ra (famous for Space is the Place), and black feminist sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. By using science fiction to unpack hard-hitting social issues, these voices are saying we need more intersectional visions of the future that include all races, genders, sexualities, species and religions that make up humanity.

APOCALYPSE NOW

What is different to traditional science fiction is that Afrofuturism generally doesn’t play out in the distant abstract future but is set in the impending present. After all, technology-wise we’re living in the future that many of us grew up reading about – except for the flying cars. Many are also living the proverbial apocalypse. From the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Burundi and Baghdad to the earthquakes in Japan and Mexico, and the continued need for Americans to be reminded that #Blacklivesmatter, how much more catastrophic does it need to get before we agree that it’s time to reimagine our collective future?

That’s not to ignore the lived experience of everyday domestic apocalypses such as sexual abuse and violence. This is what Philadelphia-based social worker Ras Mashramani and lawyer Rasheedah Phillips translate into Afrofuturist fiction. Along with musician and writer Camae Defstara aka Mother Moor Goddess, the three women spread their work through photocopied zines that deal with issues like gentrification using the space invader metaphor, and domestic and sexual abuse through the lens of alien abductions.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

For many, along with the one in nine people in the world that go hungry every single day, even the notion of thinking about a future beyond the existing apocalypse – their next meal – is a provocation. Here Phillips, also the founder of the Afrofuturist Affair, proposes revisionist historical narratives that recast people of colour, women and LGBTI people as heroes of their own destiny.

In mainstream sci-fi, the time-travel paradox – in which changing something in the past might erase your very existence – trips up any attempt at changing history. However, says Phillips, this is a linear sense of time in which we are all slaves to the clock. In Black Quantum Futurism, she bends space and time in order to see into alternative futures.

TECHNOLOGY WON’T SAVE US

Unlike the externally imposed Western sense of time, an African sense of time is innately human and “it’s time” when everyone gets there. Egyptian graphic novelist Sherif Adel stretched time in his satirical depiction of Cairo in 1,000 years. Spoiler: he reckons it will be about the same – one giant traffic jam. This dystopian future expresses the disappointment following the Arab Spring revolution euphoria when mobile messaging technology was heralded as a rallying cry for the masses to bring down every corrupt state. And then the dust settled and the same people were still in power, only worse than before.

It is for this reason that novelists such as Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is addressing political complexity with magical realism, best seen in Who Fears Death, winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. This year she published the prequel, The Book of Phoenix. The books engage with issues of ethnicity, female genital mutilation, gender equality and colonization.

Sherif Adel

EUROPA EUROPA

Charl Landvreugd’s Movement Nr 8: Destination Inner Space looks at a future vision of art in which a black body can talk about humanity in general, not just ethnicity. He says that he is from Rotterdam and the city is his home, but he has multiple homes, as with increasingly more people, regardless of ethnicity, impacted by migration. “Through the black body I’m trying to give a glimpse of us in the future.”

“I see the urgency of Afrofuturism for Rotterdam as a postcolonial, multiethnic city with a strong presence of the black diaspora. It is the speculative and non-white vision that this city needs, against the currently dystopian rule driven by angst-ridden white nostalgia,” Florian Cramer, says. Because of its experimental DIY countercultural avant garde quality, Cramer places Afrofuturism in the same realm as the punk, Fluxus, hacker and net.art movements. “It’s like being in London in 1977 and witnessing the beginnings of punk.”

Still, Afrofuturists are slim on the ground in Europe when compared to the US and Africa. However, as the neoconservative hatches come down in response to terrorism, there has never been a better time: what we know from punk is that fascism fuels counterculture. The time is now to make #Blackfuturesmatter.

 

Grunge gives way to design in Woodstock

Woodstock is the go-to place for creatives who don’t have money to set up shop in the City Bowl.

Finding parking in Woodstock has become almost impossible and an increase in crime has been reported as a wave of creative types floods the area. “Residents can’t leave their houses because if they lose their parking spaces they’ll never get them back,” says Elan Kirschenbaum, chairperson of the Woodstock Improvement District.

This high-pressure system is the result of the completion of the Woodstock Exchange, previously known as the Woodstock Industrial Centre. The Indigo Group, also responsible for the redevelopment of the ­nearby Old Biscuit Mill, bought the building, and the evicted artists were squealing ­gentrification.

Having reached its first stage of completion, the Woodstock Exchange has been converted from grungy authentic to slick industrial. Street-level windows invite passers-by to the newly relocated and expanded Superette diner and an alluring interior retail experience with tenants including Honest Chocolate, Pedersen+Lennard, Dark Horse, Lady Bonin’s Tea Parlour and more. The stairs are not easy to find, but designer-retailers such as Wolf & Maiden continue on the first floor. Further up in the building are the offices of Google and the Bandwidth Barn.

Immediately obvious is that this is a whole new crew of young creative brands compared with the tenants of the original building. Only 10 of the original tenants have stayed, down from the 50 reported last year.

Nick Ferguson of Indigo Group is unapologetic: “Our priority has been to find people who want to be here and to finish the building.”

Although rental rates have remained cheap at R45 a metre, with most tenants having signed long leases, ­tenants were also required to change their business models: retail front end and workshop back end. In cobbler Grant Mason’s case, he has also installed a retail window looking in on his workshop, giving customers an insider view into the process.

This is in line with global design trends that emphasise the handmade and the ethical, artisanal production process. The Woodstock Exchange development also resonates with global design trends: go-to design retail destinations being reinvented as lifestyle experiences.

Organic flourishing

On January 18 the Financial Times reported on this phenomenon — the “living showrooms” of Tom Dixon in London, Marcel Wanders in ­Amsterdam and Piet Hein Eek in Eindhoven.

“There’s no right or wrong; it’s capitalism,” says Kirschenbaum. If one looks at how quickly the character of the building has changed and how the entire Woodstock strip is just one long design indaba, capitalism’s power really is something. Compare this overnight organic flourishing of Woodstock as design district with the three-years-coming hobbling-along government-endorsed official attempt at turning the Fringe district in east Cape Town into the city’s design district.

Kirschenbaum doesn’t have anything nice to say about Woodstock Exchange, but as one of the original owners of the Woodstock Industrial Centre he is arguably not the most objective commentator.

Since the change of ownership, he has bought the building next to the Woodstock Exchange and converted it into small studio spaces for creatives, largely those who decided to leave the Woodstock Industrial Centre. Although the price a square metre is about four times more expensive, the smaller size still makes the overall rental cheaper.

Kirschenbaum claims to be doing it differently — none of his tenants are basing their businesses on on-site retail, and he’s provided them with parking. Having built up the Woodstock Industrial Centre for two years before it was sold, he says he’s crunched the numbers and there’s not enough retail foot traffic in the area to sustain the sale of high-end designer goods. This is his primary criticism of the Woodstock Exchange — that not only is it importing the businesses and creatives, it will also need to import the market.

And where will they park? To add to the traffic congestion, bicycle lanes are being added to Prince Albert Road, further reducing space for parking. Woodstock Exchange has built on-site showers to encourage cycling to work. However, the whole of Cape Town will no doubt be in transport flux this year as bicycle lanes, Myciti buses, trains and other public transport systems recalibrate and synchronise.

The benefits of improved city mobility will hopefully extend across the City Bowl, but what are Woodstock residents getting out of the imported designers and consumers? The increased crime has resulted in increased street patrolling, homeowners might see an increase in property values and renters might not appreciate the increased rentals.

“It’s still a rough neighbourhood, but it will change,” says Ferguson. But for whom?

Woodstock: A work in progress?

Artist uproar as gentrification in the Woodstock Industrial Centre has threatened the suburb’s ‘run-down’ factory atmosphere.

An evening of misty rain is not typical of the otherwise oven-like month of February in Cape Town, but it matched the mood of A Word of Art’s last blast in the Woodstock Industrial Centre as it is now configured. The trademark flash mob bursting the building at its seams and the youthful elixir of invincibility had evaporated.

Established in 2009, A Word of Art has transformed itself under the leadership of Ricky Lee Gordon from an artist management outfit to an agency for art activism with live-in studios and a gallery. The gallery and most of the studios are being ­relocated during renovations. The gallery will be reopened in April and the studios in a different part of the building in July.

Although, strictly speaking, it was not the last blast—the party was even called “It’s not over”—the graffiti-lined corridors, already showing the licks of whitewash, and the guests, including a who’s who of the local creative class, gave it the feeling of a memorial service. Everyone knew it would never be the same again. Some of the resident artists had been evicted and the word was out that the entire tenant list was being reviewed.

The building was bought in December by Indigo Properties, which is redeveloping it. The company was behind the well-known Biscuit Mill development, also in Woodstock’s Albert Road. The change in ownership of the Woodstock Industrial Centre has already led to evictions from what had become probably the largest conglomerate of artist and designer studios in Cape Town—more than 75 at its peak.

Tenants told to vacate their live-in studios

Kathryn Smith, Christian Nerf, Love and Hate Studio, Senyol, Justin Southey and Gordon himself were given a month’s notice to vacate their live-in studios. Most of the other tenants who rented studios have been given the option of staying on with a 10% increase in rent.

Senyol, an illustrator widely recognised for his abstract street-art style, said he could not understand how the tenant list could be reviewed without prior notice, or even why the owners did not let the tenants know that the front of the building would be repainted.

There has been a widespread uproar on Facebook about the eviction of the Golden Plate Take Aways, a corner café that has been there for more than 50 years. More than 50 people voiced their outrage in response to a post on January 27 by Kent Lingevelt, a custom skateboard designer, who until last month had been a tenant there for seven years.

Responding on behalf of the Indigo Group, Nick Ferguson said: “Golden Plate has been in the property for a long period of time but, from my point of view, has become lethargic and don’t add any value to the building or the area.”

He added that Golden Plate did not contribute to the “face” of the building, had a large outstanding debt with the previous landlords and had a major kitchen-hygiene problem. Furthermore, contrary to the rumours, the owners of Golden Plate were offered an alternative venue in the building for a kiosk.

“If it [Woodstock] is being gentrified now, it’s all normal. It’s not a clandestine plot against poorer people, just natural economics that value can be created from neglected properties in good areas. It’s a positive thing that there is investment and improvements, or else we would spiral into a slum,” Ferguson said.

Gentrification is a ‘natural market response’

Independent researcher Andrew Fleming agreed that gentrification was a “natural market response” and said house prices had been increasing in Woodstock since the late 1980s. He said the proper definition of gentrification was linked to property prices and not the trendy coffee shops that many liked to associate with the word.

Fleming’s master’s degree at the London School of Economics in 2011, on the changes in the suburb, was titled “Making a place for the rich? Urban poor, evictions and gentrification in Woodstock, South Africa”. The African centre for cities at the University of Cape Town will publish it later this year.

“At what point does intervention need to happen to ensure that lower-income people can still live there?” he asked. Fleming said the historical significance of Woodstock was that it was the only inner-city suburb that was not developed after the forced evictions during apartheid.

He said informal renting contracts and a lack of awareness of how the Constitution protected residents made them vulnerable and President Jacob Zuma’s new housing policy needed to take the special circumstances of suburbs such as Woodstock into consideration.

“Making places like Woodstock affordable can undo the apartheid geography that divides Cape Town,” Fleming said.

However, with regard to commercial cases such as the Woodstock Industrial Centre and other “fortress-like” commercial and office developments that were being built in Woodstock, they drew in people who did not participate in the surrounding community. “Look at the way the Biscuit Mill has been designed. It’s very exclusionary with a huge fence around it and access control. The businesses are not owned by people from Woodstock and the goods that are sold are rarely from Woodstock. It’s certainly not a ‘neighbourhood’ goods market,” he said.

“If you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find that most high-end shoppers don’t want an integrated market. They just like the idea of shopping in Woodstock and being leftie-liberal.”

Ferguson was also sceptical about how far Capetonians’ liberalism went: “This Facebook protest is a handful of people who have probably never been to the Golden Plate.”

What about the creative gentrification? And what will happen to the artists? Many are angry and leaving, but some are regrouping in the nearby Side Street Studios, owned by Elad Kirschenbaum, who sold the Woodstock Industrial Centre.

But the majority, about 50 of the tenants, are staying.

However, the greatest loss will be the run-down factory atmosphere that invited an anarchistic mood of infinite possibility—the winding, maze-like corridors that were, for a moment, below the radar of the arts establishment.

Mail&Guardian, 19 March 2012