Towards an Afrofuturist Narrative: Tech, Mythology and the Africas

Behind-the-scenes with stealth startup Curatoric, and conversations with creators, historians and curators of African and Diasporic African art.

This is part of a two article series about technology, African and Diasporic African art and Curatoric, an early stage start-up currently in stealth mode.

An article in Contemporary And posited the question: “Is contemporary African art the next big thing?”

Chika Okeke-Agulu, an artist, art historian, curator and blogger, responded: “The question supposes that the time for contemporary African art is in the future. Consider this: in 2004, ArtNews magazine asked if contemporary African art is the ‘Newest Avant-garde?’ That is nearly ten years ago. And a few years later, a New York Times critic wondered what would happen when the ‘novelty’ of Anatsui’s work wears off – never mind that his career spanned more than forty years. Folks can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that African artists have now taken and secured their seat at the dinner table, invited or not! Besides, there is no question that African artists are doing some of the most important and engaging work in the global scene today.”

A woman dressed in a beautiful, yellow flowing dress with jewelry at the edges of the fabric and wearing shiny silver-blue gloves with a large ring is pictured between two trees, looking up. A blue sky and more trees are seen behind her. Alice in Wonderland. 2010. Model and Stylist: Tanekeya Word

Walk through an open-air market in any major city in the United States and you’ll find an assortment of Caribbean and African vendors selling a plethora of “African” art goods including “traditional” masks, sculptures, and tiny figurines. To the average Western consumer and museum goer, African art is encompassed by ancient artifacts from archaeological excavations. Before studying anthropology in undergrad, I too thought the entirety of African art was comprised of this “traditional” work and the Eritrean Orthodox Christian iconography depicted in paintings hung high in the churches of my youth.

Years later, I’d rediscover my passion for photography during a period of intense self-interrogation in my early twenties. Unable to manage the expenses of photography classes in high school, despite juggling part-time work on the evenings and weekends along with a full load of AP courses, it had long been a dream deferred.

Discovering photography was an intense and passionate affair. A year after picking up my first DSLR, I had my work featured in a group show curated by Deborah Willis, prominent African American curator, photographer and historian - an honor for any photographer, burgeoning or established. My years as a human rights activist heavily informed my work as a photographer. The same lens which informed my creative work also informed my understanding of the challenges that lay ahead of me because of my class background, immigrant background, ethnicity and gender.

I recall the winter evening in early 2010 when I realized that going into debt for a masters in visual art might essentially translate to a vow of poverty. Despite my deep devotion to the craft, I understood the potential consequences as a female African immigrant from a working class background. More specifically, my upbringing by a devoted single mother who worked tirelessly to send me to the elite “public ivy” university where I was awarded a full scholarship made the act of going into the arts seem even more traitorous.

Later that year I went on to co-found an art and holistic wellness collective/start-up with two Diasporic African friends in Washington, DC. There, one of my primary responsibilities as a co-founder was to serve as the community manager, a role that ultimately led to my interactions with the DC technology community and culminated in my move to San Francisco in June of 2013 to formally study full-stack web development and build and launch my start-up.

Curatoric is currently in stealth mode. It is a selectively curated, immersive virtual experience of high-end and middle market contemporary African and Diasporic African art. Inspired by my desire to amplify the works of often marginalized African descended artists with amazing skills and great potential but limited access to Western, African, Asian and Latin American consumer markets and accompanying opportunities - as well as the desire to amplify the works of established African descended artists - I recognized the possibilities of utilizing technology to bridge these gaps. Amongst many of its features, the site will also offer an opportunity to educate the general public about the process of collecting African art.

Ethnography & the Africas

Over a two-week period in early January, I spoke with curators, artists, archivists and art historians of Continental African and African Diasporic art. We discussed many of the experiences and ethnographic research that led to the founding of Curatoric, which I have collected for this series.

We connected via social media and web platforms, including via a call posted to Afrolicious.com’s “The Africas” project. In late 2013, Ann Daramola launched the project to challenge and complicate the mythologies of a single African continent, stating:

“Complicating the myth of Africa is simple. There is not one Africa; there are many Africas. That’s all. Where ever you see the word Africa, simply replace it with the term ‘The Africas’ and watch how the myth unravels. ‘The Africas’ preserves the continental identity while also critiquing the monolith myth by producing in the readers’ and writers’ minds an image of multiples: multiple countries, multiple languages, multiple peoples, multiple problems, multiple solutions. When we identify as Africans from The Africas, we are immediately asking the audience to ask the question, ‘Which Africa?’ And that is the goal: to force the reader and the hearer to lean in and to check their myths.”

Daramola’s view on the mythology of the Continent complements mine and reaffirms my approach to Curatoric as a platform for artists from the multiple Africas.

A black-and-white photo shows open, cupped hands cradling delicate flowers. "Oshun, Mariam, Erzulie Dantor." (2009) This piece was included in an exhibition at Gris Gris Lab in New Orleans, Louisiana entitled, "I Put a Spell on You: Women & Magic, Reclaimed & Redefined." The women depicted here, from places as disparate as Asmara, Eritrea and Havana, Cuba, bow their heads in prayer, as their hair gently cascades over their outstretched arms. The title of the piece illustrates a Holy Trinity of three powerful African and Diasporic African goddesses: Oshun, Mariam (or Mary) and Erzulie Dantor as juxtaposed to the mainstream European, Christian male conceptualization of God and spirituality.

Becoming an Artist

My first conversation for this series took place with Tewodross Melchishua, an African American video and installation artist and curator based in Washington, DC. Mr. Melchishua received his Master’s in Digital Media and Art at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and currently teaches at Bowie State University. We quickly dove into a dialogue about the challenges Mr. Melchisua faces as a full-time artist, teacher and father/husband, and what he believes are the benefits that a web platform like Curatoric could offer.

He explained that artists are not promoters or marketing people and often don’t know how to maximize the use of social media to generate traffic and revenue. Melchisua also explained the necessity of building community and opportunities for grants and funding globally across the African Diaspora. Ultimately, he is inspired by “ways to create an experience and have people be moved, physically, spiritually, and create further dialogue.”

Ama Bentsi-Enchill is a Ghanaian-American mixed-media artist based in New York City. In our session, Ama discussed the barriers to being a practicing artist of Continental African descent, including internal and external factors. She described her desire to recontextualize African art away from traditional ideas of African art as artifacts or archaeological finds banished to the past; as relics that have no contemporary context other than to teach history or an anthropology class. She also described the hurdles of being a Continental African artist, and overcoming cultural barriers to identifying as an artist. Bentschill explained the process of legitimizing yourself to your community and family as a creative force when they don’t necessarily see art as a legitimate career path.

In a recent Art 21 article, prominent Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu echoes Bentsi-Enchill’s sentiments about the decision to become a African contemporary artist:

“To leave Kenya to study art, while being unable to explain why or to describe what I was going to do, wasn’t considered proper. People in Kenya would ask me, ‘How are you going to support yourself?’ or ‘Where has this thing you’re doing ever taken anyone you know?’ I didn’t have answers to these questions! At the time, I didn’t know of any black female contemporary artists. I didn’t know of any African contemporary artists who had come from Kenya and gone on to do amazing things. I knew there were some painters in Kenya making modest livings, mostly men. As far as anyone was concerned, I was jumping into an abyss of failures. So for me the idea of failure began with being an artist.”

Bentschi-Enchill also addressed the ineptitude of many in the larger art world in comprehending the scope of the Continent’s art. “African art is about coloring outside of the lines. African art and cosmology is often about fantasy and giving life to that which is not there.” She also talked about the challenges of selling her work as an African-influenced visual artist in a market dominated by values that determine what is commonly agreed upon as realistic, beautiful, “real art.” She went on to explain that the mainstream often considers “real African art” to be anthropomorphic humanoid animals, patterns & symbols. However, Bentsi-Enchill sees herself as part of an ongoing movement that is pushing back and redefining the boundaries of “authentic African art.”

Beyond Transactions

My final interview for part one of the series was conducted with artist, activist, and curator Liz Andrews. Liz received her B.A. in American Studies from Wesleyan University and her M.A. in Arts Politics from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Ms. Andrews is currently a doctoral student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University where she also serves as the Graduate Assistant for the Mason Diversity Research Group. Andrews and I chatted about Curatoric and the possibilities offered by a digital archive of African and Diasporic African art. She explained her perspective that, “an archive isn’t just about facilitating transactions, maybe even more so because what we’re battling in all this is the idea that the only thing from Africa that is worth putting on display is an artifact.”

Liz expressed her enthusiasm for web-based platforms focused on African art, affirming that “creating intellectual value around these objects, pieces, artists could be a really powerful thing.” Ms. Andrews sees Curatoric as part of a long tradition of curators, historians, archivists, and artists demonstrating the value of African and Diasporic African art as something “worth being studied, viewed and seen as part of a larger conversation.” She explained, “people have good intentions; they want to diversify their collection and repertoire but don’t know where to go.” Our work is about “creating value and creating knowledge to shift the way people think about Black art.”

The door of a large brick building is shown, a stained glass window in the archway and wreaths hung above the door handles. A man and a woman stand in front of the door, each wearing hats, backs to each other and facing outward. "Towards A New Spirituality." (2009) It was exhibited at the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery in an exhibition curated by esteemed curator, historian, and professor Deborah Willis. Models & Stylists: Allison Way & Tosin Abasi

In conclusion, though the economic tides have been shifting quietly on the African continent for decades, the opportunities for African artists are massive in 2014. Similarly, a creative renaissance is transpiring in the United States, where the mainstream success of alternative artists who might be described as Afrofuturist like Janelle Monae demonstrates the possibilities of alternative expressions reaping the financial rewards of wider acknowledgement.

Likewise, the growth of the African middle class and the subsequent growth of the creative class in the Africas are all contributing to the explosion of the arts scenes in cities like Johannesburg and Lagos. Though problems persist, there are many burgeoning, innovative solutions in our digital age. Curatoric could not be more timely.

In my next article in this series, I expound on my interviews with curators, artists and historians of African and Diasporic African art.