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Inside the fantastical world of Afrofuturism, from P-Funk’s Mothership to ‘Black Panther’

‘Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism,’ a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, is a multisensory ode to Black voices.

Inside the fantastical world of Afrofuturism, from P-Funk’s Mothership to ‘Black Panther’
Works on view in Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism include, from left: Alun Be’s Potentiality, Chelle Barbour’s The Bluest Eye, and Alton Abraham’s Sun Ra on set of Space Is the Place.
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In 1976, a sparkling silver spaceship landed on a stage in Houston to the sound of George Clinton and his musical ensemble Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership Connection. Since then, the mothership has become one the most iconic stage props in African American musical history—and a monument to Black culture so powerful that a replica of it was acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2011.

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This year, another replica has landed in the Oakland Museum of California—and its significance is equally momentous.

Named after the spaceship, Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism is a new exhibition organized by OMCA curator Rhonda Pagnozzi and consulting curator Essence Harden, who pulled together an array of works by more than 50 Black artists, historians, and musicians. Their work examines Afrofuturism and Black culture.

Patti Perret, Photograph of Octavia E. Butler seated by her bookcase, circa 1980; reproduction. [Image: courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California/© Patti Perret]
Coined in the 1990s by cultural critic Mark Dery, Afrofuturism has come to define a cultural aesthetic, philosophy, and social movement that evaluates the past and future to create better conditions for the present generation of Black people. Drawing on the multiple facets of the movement, the multidisciplinary exhibition brings together art, music, literature, film, and stage props to portray the world through a Black cultural lens.

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While celebrating some of the Afrofuturism movement’s pioneers, including author Octavia E. Butler and avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra, the exhibit also pays homage to contemporary creatives like Los Angeles filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. In the process, it paints Afrofuturism as a strategy for Black community building, in which every Black voice, from Black-owned businesses to the Black Twitter community, is given a place to thrive. The exhibition comes a year after a summer of racial reckoning in the U.S., and offers a new way of framing a world that has long been seen through a white lens.

Alton Abraham, Sun Ra on set of Space Is the Place, 1972; reproduction. [Image: courtesy of John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis/© Adam Abraham]
“One of the most fascinating parts about Afrofuturism is how difficult it is for people to describe,” Pagnozzi says. “It’s about time travel but also about serious themes and slavery, and trauma, and the legacy of this country. There is always serious commentary underneath the fantasy.”

The idea behind Mothership was born in 2019, but shelter-in-place measures in California delayed the exhibition by more than a year. That delay was punctuated by Black Lives Matter protests, a nationwide racial reckoning, and a pandemic that brought social and racial injustices to the forefront of public health. “The thing with racial injustice and anti-Blackness is that it’s happened before this time and it’s likely going to happen after this time,” Harden says. “What Afrofuturism is attempting is to collapse time so that the past and the future are very much about the present.”

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Alun Be, Potentiality, Edification Series, 2017; reproduction [Image: courtesy of the artist. © Alun Be]
The notion of collapsed time is apparent throughout the exhibition, which is organized into four sections. The first, titled “Dawn,” opens with an immersive, planetarium-like mural by Bay Area artist Sydney Caine coupled with an original soundscape composed by jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell. The music provides an experience akin to time travel, “and does a great job at collapsing space and time in an ethereal way,” Pagnozzi says.

Together with Caine’s mural, the music also kicks off the exhibition on a joyful note. “Institutions that are inherently built on white supremacy will often start a story about Black culture with suffering and slavery, and that is a horrible, incorrect way to talk about diaspora because it doesn’t start there,” Pagnozzi explains. Instead, the experience starts with the art mural and soundscape, both of which are inspired by American science fiction author Octavia E. Butler— a central figure in the show.

Chelle Barbour, The Bluest Eye, 2018; 35-by-25-inch work on paper [Image: courtesy of the artist/© Chelle Barbour]
From then, the second section, “Rebirth,” delves into Afro-surrealism—an art movement that focuses on what is happening in the present moment. From Chelle Barbour’s The Bluest Eye, which reimagines the body of a Black female through the lens of Afro-surrealism, to Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu’s Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies, this part of the exhibition highlights artworks that confront anti-Black racism by presenting Black-centered visions of beauty.

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Olalekan Jeyifous, Shanty Mega-Structures: Makoko Canal, 2015; reproduction, 34 by 54 inches [Image: courtesy of the artist/© Olalekan Jeyifous]
The next section, “Sonic Freedom,” focuses on world-building and celebration. This is where a replica of P-Funk’s Mothership can be experienced in sync with a 165-song playlist curated by DJ Spooky, who explores the plethora of music genres that Afrofuturism falls into, including jazz, funk, hip-hop, and classical. In the same space, visitors can discover photographs and videos from the 1972 science fiction film Space Is the Place, written by Afrofuturism pioneer Sun Ra, as well as Ruth E. Carter’s Dora Milaje warrior costume from the popular 2018 film Black Panther.

Rashaad Newsome, Thirst Trap, 2020; photo collage on paper [Image: courtesy of Rashaad Newsome Studio]
The final section, “Earthseed,” pulls visitors back to the present. The curatorial team worked with the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative—a partnership of more than 20 local nonprofits—to create resource posters that encourage visitors to support Black-owned businesses and artist spaces in Oakland. “Much of [Afrofuturism] is fantastical but as a counterpoint we wanted to highlight the mundane where Black people live and love and create,” Pagnozzi says.

A multisensory ode to Black voices, the show speaks to the breadth of Afrofuturism’s applications. “Afrofuturism is bombastic, loud, playful, and there’s a real emphasis upon Black freedom and liberation,” Harden explains. But ultimately, the movement provides a “visual landscape” for people to imagine themselves in. “To some degree, I can think of my grandmother as an Afrofuturist, a person who moved throughout the U.S. and decided to ground herself in Berkeley,” Harden adds. “I hope that we could think of cityscapes as once-chocolate cities that pioneered Afrofuturism—spaces that Black people believed in and made a life in.”

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Mothership is on view until February 27, 2022. For tickets, more information, and details about the museum’s COVID-19 safety precautions, go to museumca.org.