When “Black Panther” became a Hollywood 2018 box-office sensation, it didn’t just entertain the world with an unusually smart and meaningful superhero movie that championed Black protagonists.
It introduced many to the look and ideas of Afrofuturism, a cultural and artistic movement coined in the 1990s that looks at Black lives and the African diaspora through the lens of fantasy and science fiction. In the Marvel film, T’Challa (the Black Panther) and a cadre of powerful women lead a fantasy African nation that’s socially enlightened, more technologically advanced than any on other earth and unencumbered by a history of colonialism, slavery, racism and sexism.
An upcoming exhibition at the recently reopened Oakland Museum of California should add to people’s understanding of a movement that has long thrived at the edges of popular culture while celebrating artists ranging from 20th-century icons Jean-Michel Basquiat and jazz legend Sun Ra to contemporary figures such as actor and singer/songwriter Janelle Monae.
With “Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism,” the museum celebrates its reopening, after more than a year characterized by a global pandemic and civil unrest over police violence — historic events that the exhibition’s curators say should make the concepts of its special exhibition more relevant than ever.
The exhibition, which opens Saturday, Aug. 7, pulls together an array of works by more than 50 artists, many from the Bay Area, who contemplate science, technology and progressive ideas about race and gender in a variety of media: painting, music, literature and film and immersive multimedia works. It will allow viewers to contemplate the dystopian worlds envisioned by the late science fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler and the otherworldly talents of funk and jazz musicians George Clinton and Sun Ra.
“After ‘Black Panther’ came out,’ a lot of people started to ask the question, ‘What is Afrofuturism?’” said OMCA curator Rhonda Pagnozzi. “When 2020 became about a pandemic and dismantling white supremacy, a lot of people started to think about Black science-fiction writers, like Octavia Butler, who predicted the landscape we’re in right now.”
The exhibition, in fact, features a female bodyguard’s costume from “Black Panther” — whose designer, Ruth E. Carter, won an Academy Award. The exhibition also devotes an entire section, “Dawn,” to Butler and her ideas on race, politics, morality and feminism. Visitors can enter a planetarium-like mural by San Francisco artist Sydney Cain, which was inspired by Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” series, while listening to a soundscape created by jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell.
“Mothership” was originally set to open last year, but was, of course, delayed by shelter-in-place orders. Following a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and the social inequities revealed by the pandemic, Pagnozzi and consulting curator Essence Harden questioned whether they needed to somehow update the exhibition.
They wanted to make sure its content would still be relevant for whenever the museum got the greenlight to reopen. But in the way that Afrofuturism also is known for manipulating time and collapsing “the past, present and figure” into “a singular experience,” Pagnozzi realized that many works in the show both predicted and illuminated what happened in 2020. Harden added that the events of 2020 are part of the “the long trajectory” of injustices that Black people face.
The original idea for “Mothership” emerged from research into an earlier exhibition on hip-hop, which Pognozzi said showed the extent to which contemporary artists of different genres are inspired by Afrofuturism, from “Black Panther” to the music and videos of Solange Knowles, Missy Elliot and Janelle Monae.
The exhibition’s title also pays homage to one of Afrofuturism’s pioneers: George Clinton. The musician’s Mothership, a flying-saucer-like space ship, was the main prop in his 1970s and 1980s stadium concerts when he performed with his Parliament Funkadelic ensemble. Clinton’s altar ego, Dr. Funkenstein, made his grand entrance after the Mothership whizzed over the screaming crowds and landed on stage.
OMCA had a replica of the Mothership built for visitors to walk in and around, while they can simultaneously listen to a Spotify playlist of about 165 Afrofuturistic songs curated by musician Paul Dennis Miller, aka DJ Spooky.
Aside from its P-Funk connection, Clinton’s Mothership resonated in other ways as a unifying theme for the exhibition. The word “mother” evokes what Harden said are the guiding Black feminist principles of Afrofuturism, while Pagnozzi said: “We’re thinking of the entire institution of OMCA, as a gathering place for Oakland, as itself a mothership for Oakland.”
Other cultural touchstones in the exhibition speak to the breadth of Afrofuturism’s applications. One display looks at the medical legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a Black cancer patient in the 1950s, whose cancer cells were used in groundbreaking research on viruses and the humane genome. Lacks’ life and her famously “immortal cells” became the stuff of “science fiction,” Pognozzi said.
“Earthseed,” another of the exhibition’s four sections, explores past and current events, such as the Black Panther Party’s Survival Programs and Black Lives Matters, to “rejoice in the simple pleasures” of people’s day-to-day lives and to highlight the recent impact of Black media on cultural conversations.
“I hope people come away from ‘Mothership,’ thinking about the lens history has traditionally been told through, how this shapes our perceptions of ourselves and others and influences our imaginations, which ultimately shapes our future,” Pognozzi said. “Last year, there was so much depth and mourning, I hope people will come out to celebrate Black life and think about it through the lens of Black joy.”
‘MOTHERSHIP: VOYAGE INTO AFROFUTURISM’
When: Aug. 7-Feb.27
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays
Admission: $5 in additional to general admission ($7-$16)
Contact: Go to museumca.org for tickets, more information and details about the museum’s COVID safety precautions.