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Upon entering the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), visitors are greeted with the prominent and powerful installation of Alisha B. Wormley’s original billboard and reminder that “There are Black people in the future.” Created in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2017, the billboard serves as a declaration that Black people have survived so much in the past and current day “and continues to survive in the modern-day apocalypse.”
In the present day, OMCA presents the exhibit Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism, an audio-visual experience melding historical and current works of art into a tapestry of color and sound.
Afrofuturism is a search for humanity and Black joy, combining African diasporic imagery and philosophy presented through technology and science. The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by scholar Mark Dery, describing Afrocentric media, including science fiction that links technology and futuristic themes while exploring humanity.
Wormley’s billboard can be read as addressing the criticisms of pop culture themes where Black people either don’t exist or are replaced with tropes of oppression that many BIPOC communities experience, through the eyes of science fiction characters meant to represent them (see the movie Bright).
Prominently featured is renowned science fiction writer Octavia Butler. In her essay “Positive Obsession” from Butler’s book of essays Bloodchild and Other Stories, she explains “aiming high” was something she learned from her archery lessons to aim above the target and from the lessons she learned from her mother as a child during the 1950s. The future for a Black child was dimmer and reserved; to dream out loud, in unimaginable colors, was unheard of. Butler sought out to create worlds of her own through tales envisioning worlds not yet imagined of Black intersectional, multispecies, gender non-conforming characters, much to the dismay of critics early in her career.
The worldbuilding and shapeshifting through sound come from both jazz musician Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, and the exhibit’s namesake, The Mothership, a replica from George Clinton’s band Parliament—each sound vastly different from the other but giving the range of futuristic warbles, beeps, and pings.
Complementing Sun Ra’s frenetic jazz album “Space is the Place” is a video loop reel from Clinton’s P-Funk Earth Tour Mothership landing in 1975. The Mothership, also referred to as The Holy Mothership, as imagined by band leader Clinton’s alter ego Dr. Funkenstein, combines the imagery of space travel, psychedelics, and Egyptian symbolism for a surreal musical experience. Clinton’s two bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, later commingled and toured as a 16-member collective, the P-Funk All-Stars. P-Funk created its own socio-political messaging throughout the music, clothes, and storytelling that became synonymous with the band’s reputation.
Oakland Museum of California Curator Rhonda Pagnozzi explained the mission of the exhibit in a press statement as being for visitors to envision “a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities.” Mothership is an original exhibit, which had been in development for OMCA since 2019.
“As a strategy, Afrofuturism fosters an infinite course of actions,” notes consulting Curator Essence Harden in the same release. ”Mothership offers not the whole but certainly an evocative and sincere gesture within the multidimensional world that Afrofuturism dares to create.”
Somewhere on my second lap of the exhibit, I realized I was coming back to contemplate Olalekan Jeyifous’ print, Shanty Mega-structures: Makoko Canal—the sharpness of lime green bouncing against the brick, reddish-brown wall, the vision of the unflinching gaze of a weary man on a boat. The representation of a shanty water town and its towers kept me entranced and melancholy simultaneously. What I saw reminded me we were still living as survivalists in many versions of Afrofuturism.
Each piece represented from the past a fight and struggle that continues to persist in the present day. Standing in the center is the costume of the Dora Milaje, women warriors of Wakanda from Marvel studio’s 2018 blockbuster movie, Black Panther. Winning for best costume design in the Academy Awards made designer Ruth Carter the first Black woman to win in the category—a triumph for the designers to follow in her footsteps while serving as a reminder that there were so many “firsts” that needed to be accomplished and glass ceilings yet to be shattered.
Being immersed in Mothership gave me a sense of pride as a Black woman, seeing so many moments that touched on the nature and culture of Black people, but left me questioning who would be creating new versions of it. I was also left wondering what the next iteration of Afrofuturism would be. While I enjoyed meandering through the exhibit from video to tapestry to images of the Black Panther Party, I saw more versions of the past than a new vision for the future.
When I looked at these artifacts built in the past meant to represent our new future, I realized the fight for that future still exists for Black people. This doesn’t diminish being captivated by the BlackSpace Manifesto, a plan for preserving Black joy and growth in community partnerships created by the BlackSpace Urbanist Collective; nor does it lessen the impact of Black Twitter’s cultural influence and movements made through hashtags.
The future we have yet to create or envision, one where joy is not only the center but the priority, without a qualifier of suffering, is one that Black folx have yet to imagine. At each turn on every wall of the exhibit, there is a quote to remind us of the mission for this Afrofuturistic journey. But the one that rings most true comes from poet June Jordan (1980): “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”