A Brief History of Afrofuturism

3 ways to look at the trailblazing movement

By Google Arts & Culture


Afrofuturism is an expansive term encompassing a whole movement of art, philosophy, activism, and more from across the African diaspora.

Installation shot of work by Tau Lewis at The Hepworth Wakefield (2019) by Tau LewisThe Hepworth Wakefield

Afrofuturism asks questions like, what if the souls lost in the Trans-Atlantic Passage in fact survived and developed into a thriving underwater metropolis? (see Tau Lewis' fabric sculptures)...

Earthseed (2019) by Kimberly Marie AshbyNew York Live Arts

...or, as in Octavia E. Butler's fantastical sci-fi novels, what can we learn about oppression, violence, sexuality, gender, and selfhood by imagining alternative versions of Earth?

Afrofuturism No.5

Keep clicking for an introductory history of Afrofuturism and its interpretations, from its beginnings as a fringe literary genre to its current form as a mass, multidisciplinary, global movement.

Sun Ra Arkestra (2018-08-04)Pioneer Works

1. Astral Jazz
Retroactively, cultural thinkers and critics have traced the beginnings of the Afrofuturist aesthetic back to the exploratory themes of later jazz movements in the 1970s.

Sun Ra Arkestra at Press Play (2018-08-04)Pioneer Works

Musicians such as Sun Ra began to draw links between ancient African traditions and the developing Space Age of the mid-20th century, exploring ideas of being 'alien' and 'other' through jazz with an 'astral' feel.

Parable of the Sower (2020) by Motherboxx Studios, Damian Duffy, and John JenningsNew York Live Arts

2. Literary Origins
This image is taken from an upcoming graphic novel by Damian Duffy and John Jennings which reimagines Octavia E. Butler's seminal 1993 novel, The Parable of the Sower, one of the founding works of the Afrofuturist movement. 

Sci-Fi Lit (1996-06) by Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

Butler and other black writers of the 1990s such as Robert R. Delaney turned to science fiction to explore themes of racial and social injustice. Sci-fi allowed for artistic liberation, but was also a critical space to explore structures of oppression in the real world.

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower (2018-06-21) by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson ReagonHolland Festival

The Parable of the Sower, for example (which has also been adapted into a contemporary music piece), is a post-apocalyptic novel following Lauren Olamina's struggle to lead a group of separatists to freedom in the face of inequality and racial oppression. 

Afrofuturism Number 1

The critic Mark Dery, in a 1993 interview with Delaney, Butler, musician Greg Tate, and writer Tricia Rose, coined the term 'Afrofuturism' to describe a growing crossover between "African-American themes" and "technoculture". The label was rejected by some, but adopted by others.

Basquiat in the apartment II (circa. 1981) by Alexis AdlerCaribBeing

3. Visual Art
In the world of visual art, as well as in the world of music, the origins of Afrofuturism can be read back into artists working before the term was coined. Many see the beginnings of 21st century Afrofuturist art in the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Portrait (1985) by Jean-Michel BasquiatUCCA Center for Contemporary Art

Basquiat's fusion of Yoruban folk traditions, jazz influences, graffiti, and 'high art' paved the way for the multimedia Afrofuturist movement in the visual arts.

C-Stunners (2013) by Cyrus KabiruOriginal Source: African Artists Foundation

Cyrus Kabiru's 'C-Stunners' tell a story of reclamation that looks towards the future, re-purposing trash to create futuristic, steampunk spectacles.

Forbidden Fruit picker and She’s got the whole world in her hands (2015) by Wangechi Mutula Biennale di Venezia - Biennale Arte 2015

And Wangechi Mutu's sculpture and painting merges fantasy, horror, and surrealism to tell new stories about black bodies.

AstroSankofa References_Web Article Graphic_V3 (2021) by Quentin VerCettyCarnegie Hall

These are just a few examples of Afrofuturism's commitment to reclaiming stories that have been erased, using tech and sci-fi to restore a fractured past and imagine a different future.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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