January 26, 2017
“Pedagogy. Place. Liberation.”
Salon Session, Ethical Redevelopment
Place Lab Chicago Salon Member Article
I was asked to join Place Lab as a Chicago-based Salon Member and recently submitted this article for the “Ethical Redevelopment” principle, one of nine core areas of focus. I wrote about the connections between Afro-Futurism and pedagogy, highlighting many of my favorite works including recent presentations by SAIC students in the first “Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation” course I offered there in Fall 2016.
A partnership between Arts + Public Life, an initiative of UChicago Arts, and the Harris School of Public Policy, Place Lab is a catalyst for mindful urban transformation and creative redevelopment led by renowned artist and University of Chicago faculty member Theaster Gates.
December 2016 Chicago Contribution
Ethical Redevelopment Principle #3 "Pedagogical Moments"
D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem
As a scholar and practitioner, I utilize the teaching of Afro-Futurism as a methodology of (Black) liberation. The foundation of this is exercising the visionary and imagination muscles in sculpting new futures that affirm the present and are rooted in the past. Afro-Futurism is more than a desire to take a ride on a spaceship—though, of course, I would welcome the chance for an orbiting spa vacation or a lunar exploration—rather, it is about possibility and learning to activate that in a concrete, effective ways. In this, the connections with Place Lab and the “Pedagogical Moments” principle are in concert.
In my courses on Afro-Futurism, we cover a range of texts and practitioners to gain the broadest vision of this genre, beginning with Sun Ra’s iconic film Space Is The Place. Other works which address issues of place and space and of community and individual agency include W.E.B. DuBois’ The Comet, Paul Miller’s Rhythm Nation and Book of Ice, and Wanuri Kahiu’s award-winning film Pumzi which presents a post-water wars settlement in what is present-day Kenya and merges environmental consciousness with representations of science, technology, archiving, and costume beyond the usual Euro-Western frame.
By centering and studying in earnest the creative representations of place and community in African Diasporic and Indigenous works, we move past ingrained Eurocentric notions of how things “should” be or how things are, and open space to imagine ourselves in the future which brings students back to the present, to their own agency as they see themselves reflected. I emphasize through the curation of the syllabus students’ ability to shape experience and movement through the world. Space becomes malleable; time can be spiral; and underground digital pathways are sites of radical re-envisioning of self and community.
It is about exercising that visionary muscle. I watch the development of students over the course of four months, entering the study of Afro-Futurism with careful interest, excitement, curiosity, wondering how the concepts may apply to their work. As Stevie Wonder sings in “A Seed’s A Star/Tree Medley” from the iconic Secret Life of Plants in reference to Po Tolo in Dogon cosmology, the seeds grow to sturdy young plants over the course of the semester. Students who may not have found space to express their voices or who have never been centered before find fertile ground here. I present Afro-Futurism through a lens of liberatory practice, an Africanist foundation that honors infinite ways of being; through art historical study and embodied ritual—recognizing the body as a space also that can be activated through location with location and sculptural objects—students find their own power and radiate the outward into their relationships, their communities, and their work as artists and conscious cultural producers. This year, the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, in collaboration with Radio Imagination has hosted a monthly series of events, film screenings, and commissioned works by practitioners such as Mendi + Keith Obadike whose sound works reconfigure how we understand memory, history, space, and time. As Butler wrote her future into being, we learn to manifest our own futures, declaring as she did “So be it! See to it!”
A hopeful and inspiring development in this vision of Afro-Futurism as a pathway and methodology of liberation was last week’s final Afro-Futurism course media presentations at SAIC. Of particular interest to the Place Lab discussions, one student chose to contextualize newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx as an example of Afro-Futurism in action through her commitment to seeking justice for the disenfranchised and to use her position to fight the prison industrial complex. Additionally, students also presented on the intersectional art of Juliana Huxtable as representative of Afro-Futurism’s shape-shifting qualities; on Henrietta Lacks and the ethical and scientific issues surrounding her HeLa cells; and on Theaster Gates’ projects that seek to reshape space and our understanding of community engagement. We had a lively discussion of Place Lab and its role in Chicago and beyond.
In addition to the references provided in this text, the following essays--among many, many others--have been of particular foundation and inspiration in the study and teaching of Afro-Futurism. For further information, please see my articles and interviews here, and visit the Afrofuturist blog.
Rockeymoore, Mark “What is Afrofuturism?”
Hairston, Andrea. “Octavia Butler—Praise Song for a Prophetic Artist”
Nelson, Alondra. “Afrofuturism: Past-Future Visions”
“Sculpting Space as Methodology of Liberation: An Interview with D. Denenge Akpem” Florence Okoye of Afrofutures UK, Afro-Futurism series for How We Get To Next. (Written and edited responses to questions)
“Black to the Future Series: An Interview with D. Denenge Akpem.” Interview with curator Tempestt Hazel for series on Afro-Futurism and Afro-Surrealism, Sixty Inches From Center. (Written and edited responses to quesitons)
Visit Chicago Art Magazine to read Part 1 of my article "Constructing Future Forms: Afro-Futurism and Fashion: Part I” at Chicago Art Magazine, published February 1, 2012 which formed the foundation of "Constructing Future Forms" performance-installation on the intersections of fashion and Afro-Futurism for Black Gossamer exhibition curated by Camille Morgan, Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago.
Visit Chicago Art Magazine to read Part 2 of my article “Constructing Future Forms: Afro-Futurism and Fashion: Part II” at Chicago Art Magazine, published February 8, 2012 which formed the foundation of "Constructing Future Forms" performance-installation on the intersections of fashion and Afro-Futurism for Black Gossamer exhibition curated by Camille Morgan, Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago.
Edited by Greg Tate and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs
Featured faculty interview. Harambee magazine, Columbia College Chicago.
Xtreme Studio, A + D Gallery, Chicago
I asked for a message and was given the gift of a dream...Read more in my featured post for Studio Chicago "Burning Bridges and Dream States."
"Sweetest Day: Fiscal Flop or Secret Success?" essay for The Business of Holidays
Maud Lavin, ed. (2004-10-04). The Business of Holidays. Monacelli.