The Afro – in Contemporary Black Art

By Shantay Robinson 


In “From Negro Art to Post-Black Art, Black Art Criticism is Essential,” a recent article about the importance of art criticism and theories for the Black Art in America website, I wrote, “Theories that have emerged, surrounding Afrofuturism and Afro-Surrealism, help us understand the works by contemporary black artists working in similar ways that have nothing to do with our realities but everything to do with possibility.” This was a very heavy-handed assessment of Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism and not altogether right. Firstly, Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism are two distinct aesthetics, and they are somewhat based in our lived experiences. I regret that I didn’t take the time to differentiate the two aesthetics and flesh them out for their unique nuances.


According to D. Scot Miller, author of The Afrosurreal Manifesto and Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), “Afrofuturism is a diaspora intellectual and artistic movement that turns to science, technology, and science fiction to speculate on black possibilities in the future” and “Afrosurrealism is about the present.” In The Afrosurreal Manifesto, he also writes that “Afrosurrealism sees that all ‘others’ who create from their actual, lived experience are surrealist, per Frida Kahlo.”


The term Afrofuturism was coined by Mark Dery in an essay, “Black to the Future,” in 1994. The essay, which is comprised of interviews with science fiction writer Samuel Delaney, cultural critic Greg Tate, and scholar and professor Tricia Rose, discusses black people’s interest or lack of interest in science fiction. Today, we can see that indeed black people are interested in science fiction with the success of the film Black Panther and by their attendance and participation at science fiction conferences.


As quoted in “Black to the Future,” at a talk at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Samuel Delany stated, “We need images of tomorrow, and our people need them more than most.” In the essay, Delany describes the lengths to which Africans were stripped of their culture, unlike any other oppressed group of people in America. He says, “No immigrant group – neither Irish, Italian, Germans, Jews, nor Scandinavians—for all the prejudices that all of them met when they got here, and which they all had to overcome, endured such massive cultural destruction.”


In the 1994 essay, Dery posed the question, “Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?” Throughout the essay, he asked questions about the parallels between being black in America to science fiction narratives where characters exist in the margins. Greg Tate responds with “One of the things I’ve been trying to say all along is that the condition of alienation that comes from being a black subject in American society parallels the kind of alienation that science fiction writers try to explore through various genre devices – transporting someone from the past into the future, thrusting someone into an alien culture, on another planet, where he has to confront alien ways of being. All of these devices reiterate the condition of being black in American culture. Black people live the estrangement that science fiction writers imagine.”


Artsy states, Afrofuturism is “not a style but an approach to intersections of race and technology.” While the term Afrofuturism was coined in 1994, we see evidence of these intersections of culture and technology in the black community dating back to the late 1950s. Sun Ra and his Arkestra, whose music doesn’t sound of the times and whose costuming alluded to the future, might be the most popular example from the earlier times. But today we see Afrofurturism working in the visual art of Nick Cave’s soundsuits – sculptural costumes made of human hair, plastic, buttons, beads, wire, sequins, and feather. Their ability to “telegraph” various concepts allows for some transmutability based on the choreography in performance. They can be seen as a futuristic African ceremonial costumes and masks. Interestingly, Sanford Biggers transports us back in time and back into the future, as he uses cosmological maps in his psychedelic quilts – quilts that were gifted to him from the families of former slaves.


Tate Modern defines Afrofuturism in these terms, “Today it is generally used to refer to literature, music and visual art that explores the African-American experience and in particular the role of slavery in that experience.” This definition is problematic because Afrofuturism does more than refer to enslavement of the past, but attempts to access alternative identities. If Afrofuturism does anything it looks beyond our lived experiences, and incorporates non-Western cosmologies to critique present-day predicaments of black people. And it reconsiders historical events like slavery.


The term “Afro-surreal” was coined by Amiri Baraka in 1974, and used with permission by D. Scot Miller to write The Afrosurrealist Manifesto in 2009. In The Afrosurrealist Manifesto, Miller asserts, Afrosurreal “presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest…,” that “Afrosurrealists restore the cult of the past,” that Afrosurrealists use excess as the only legitimate means of subversion, and hybridization as a form of disobedience,” that “Afrosurrealism rejects the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans…” While Afrosurrealist visual art can be many things, the thing that rings true about this particular aesthetic in artworks is that the artists who are creating art depicting their lived realities, are subverting and rejecting norms and creating alternative identities to participate in the present. In “The Electrical Scent of Damas: Negritude, The Harlem Renaissance, and the Afrosurreal,” Miller writes “For the Afrosurrealists, the focus has been set at the ‘here and now’ of contemporary Black arts and situations in the Americas, Antilles, and beyond, searching for the nuanced ‘scent’ of those current manifestations.”


Surrealism, as it has been known from the early 1920s, is a way to express the unconscious in relation to the conditions of realities and dreams through an almost photographic precision. The movement was heavily interested in Sigmund Freud’s writing The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). The most famous Surrealist painter from the time might be Salvador Dali, who had a special affinity for the work of Freud. Relying on Freud’s text gave the movement some grounding. But it is important to realize that placing the Afro- in front of Surrealism does not make Afrosurrealism a black version of Surrealism. A look at the differences makes the definitions clearer. Of Afrosurrealism, through the manifesto, Miller offers us The Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison as a text for us to use to come to an understanding of how one can present one’s self in a way that others don’t see them, essentially changing the representation of one’s self. And this is what Afrosurrealists do. While European Surrealist were interested in their unconscious and dreams, Afrosurrealists are manipulating their lived realities.


Miller cites visual artist, Kara Walker, as a surrealist artist, specifically her Marvelous Sugar Baby, in Afrosurreal: The Marvelous and the Invisible 2016. The ability to use her lived reality as a black woman and alter it with the use of absurd and unlikely imagery allows her to transcend her experience as a black woman and exert power over dominant structures. The Marvelous Sugar Baby, as an example, thrusts viewers from an old sugar factory that caused black bodies to be maimed and killed in the making of sugar to a space where the regaled black female body is exalted and dominating the space. Kara Walker could see black women as victims of racist and sexist exploitation, but instead she gives them sexual agency and varied kinds of aggressive power through the absurd imagery in her work.


According to Miller, as Afrofuturism has gone mainstream, there have been attempts to label the “Afrosurreal as a ‘grotesque’ and ‘mutant’ strain of Afrofuturism. While Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism are two distinct cultural aesthetics, they are often talked about in the same breath. Miller maintains Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism are not one and the same. Afrofuturism has gone mainstream in recent times, which shows that more people are interested in thinking about culture in new and exciting ways. For Afrosurrealism on the other hand, the distinctions of it are not altogether clear just yet. Granted, Afrofuturism has a decade plus lead on Afrosurrealism. Really thinking about The Afrosurrealism Manifesto, and thinking about the ways that artists are subverting dominance through their work will make clearer the understanding of this aesthetic. Of course, both Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism allow us to think of them in terms of identifying signifying traits in artworks, and with each artist that creates works with distinct traits of these aesthetics, we will continue to make meaning.  


There definitely needs to be more scholarship on both Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism in regard to the visual arts, but I’m hoping that my effort is a step in the right direction. If you have any thoughts about either of these aesthetics, please feel free to post them in the comments section.



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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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