Art, Futurism, and the Black Imagination

By Candice Frederick
September 29, 2015
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
“Mind of My Mind” by John Jude Palencar, oil on canvas.

“Mind of My Mind” by John Jude Palencar, acrylic on board.

As we launch our brand new exhibition, Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination, scholar and art historian Tiffany E. Barber reflects on the influence of Afrofuturism and the inspiration of the show's fantastic duo: Curators John Jennings and Reynaldo Anderson.

The more than 100 works of art by 87 artists in Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination might seem like just another exhibition on Afrofuturism, an aesthetic and political concept that has gained global popularity in recent years. It describes an emergent strand of black cultural production that combines science fiction elements to imagine alternative visions—sometimes reparative, sometimes not—of the black experience in the past, present, and future. Indeed, recent group exhibitions confirm that Afrofuturism is part and parcel of the zeitgeist. Add current trends concerning human and technological obsolescence, time, futurity, and economic and ecological forecasting and you have a full picture of what plagues our collective consciousness. What makes Unveiling Visions unique is its foregrounding of the relation between design, material culture, and the centrality of black radicalism to contemporary conversations about racial politics.

Afrofuturism short circuits Eurocentric conceptions of identity, time, and space, ideas John Jennings and Reynaldo Anderson, the curators of Unveiling Visions, first began to explore in 2011. At this time, news reports, television sitcoms, and party politics in the U.S. were dominated by claims of a nation beyond race, claims catalyzed by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election. Then, in February 2012, the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of the gunman George Zimmerman forcefully shattered post-racial illusions. Amidst a swarm of contestations and waning urgency with regard to the efficacy of visual communication and black resistance, Jennings and Anderson set out to reinvigorate the black political imagination.


In July 2012, Jennings and Anderson presented a new approach to sequential art at the Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference co-sponsored by UNESCO at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Based on what Jennings calls critical making and fed up with the status quo, the pair sought to activate a place for a certain type of black discourse that was political. Black Twitter hadn’t happened yet, but Jennings and Anderson were confident digital and social media technologies would change the landscape of political possibility. This impulse is evident in Unveiling Visions and what Anderson calls Afrofuturism 2.0.


Jennings and Anderson aren’t the only ones investigating these issues. The notion of a black speculative imagination has become the focus of numerous listservs and websites, academic conferences, black comic book conventions (like the Schomburg's annual Black Comic Book Festival), books, museum exhibitions, and protest movements. All these events have contributed to Jennings and Anderson’s curatorial vision for Unveiling Visions, part of their longtime dedication to imagining black political possibility in the art of our time.


Visit the Unveiling Visions exhibition (running October 1–December 31, 2015) to learn more.