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Regional Interests

OMCA’s Afrofuturism ‘Mothership’ Voyages into the Future of Blackness

In Oakland, a city that is historically Black and grounded in the experiences of Black people, a future without Black people seems hard to believe. Yet often, when visions of the future are presented in media, Black people seem to have suddenly disappeared from that existence. So the very insistence that there are Black people in the future, as Alisha Wormsley proclaimed in a 2017 artwork, becomes radical, and a perfect departure point for the Oakland Museum of California’s newest exhibition, Mothership: Voyage into Afrofuturism.

Initially meant to open in October of 2020, Mothership was organized by OMCA assistant curator Rhonda Pagnozzi in consultation with local independent curator Essence Harden and former OMCA senior curator of art René De Guzman. Throughout, the exhibition stresses the importance of centering the voices of Black creators illustrating Black experiences.

Alisha B. Wormsley, ‘There Are Black People In The Future,’ installed on The Last Billboard, Pittsburg, PA, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

Walking into the exhibit, visitors first enter a room entitled “Dawn,” dedicated to Black feminism and showing how Afrofuturism, science, magic and the divine feminine are all connected. There, Sydney Cain’s mural Radio Imagination depicts concepts of Black ancestral healing techniques through images of astronomy and Black femininity. It’s accompanied by Nicole Mitchell’s soundscape Mothership Calling, which mimics the voyage enslaved people took to this land through the sounds of trains and a conductor saying, “All aboard! Come on down.” Together, the works are mesmerizing; visitors hear the sounds of a harp while looking at images depicting the creation of life.

“Afrofuturism can be a great vehicle to envision Black liberation and hope,” Mitchell says in the nearby wall text. “Mothership Calling collides joyful sounds with mystery in a sonic expression of gentleness, representing fragments of Black life, in an effort to bring healing and wonder.”

Further into the concept of “Dawn,” best-selling science fiction author Octavia Butler’s books and handwritten notes demonstrate the intersectionality between Afrofuturism and feminism. (“Dawn” is not only the start of the Mothership, it is also the title of one of Butler’s novels—one that depicts a Black woman in a post-apocalyptic world.)

Patti Perret, ‘Photograph of Octavia E. Butler seated by her bookcase,’ circa 1980. (Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

On the opposing wall, visitors can see how science plays a role in Afrofuturism with the mere existence of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge or consent, and were found to reproduce indefinitely. Since 1951, HeLa cells (as they are called) have been incredibly important to medical research, including the development of the polio vaccine. They have even been used to help understand COVID-19.

Deeper into the journey of Afrofuturism, the theme of “Rebirth” explores the topic of self-determination, best seen in the collage work of Wayne Hodge and Chelle Barbour. Barbour’s astonishing depictions of Black women defy archetypes. She describes her subjects in ways that are both radical and beautiful, imagining Black women as warriors and protagonists.

“My work combines both Afrosurreal and Afrofuturist aesthetics to transform and re-imagine notions of gender and identity in the most fantastical way,” Barbour says in the wall text. “They hold the codes of what is most sacrosanct to beauty, Blackness, and personhood—challenging the viewer to read references from the Black diasporic imaginary to construct their own narrative.”

Pagnozzi made a point to incorporate the artists in every step of making the exhibition. Throughout Mothership, quotes like Barbour’s relay exactly what the artists want to get across in their work; the voices of the creators help shape the exhibition.

“I just trusted it, that was my technique,” she says. “I just got out of the way and let them lead.”

Wayne Hodge, ‘Android/Negroid #13,’ 2012. (Courtesy of the artist)

Continuing through the exhibit, the “Sonic Freedom” gallery focuses on Black joy and greets visitors with an actual mothership—the stage prop that toured with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1970s. In the same room is a Dora Milaje costume from the 2018 film Black Panther. Representing different mediums and eras, the mothership and costume represent two points in history when Afrofuturism was visible in mainstream media.

Consulting curator Essence Harden explains that while many objects and artworks in Mothership might be new to visitors, the Black Panther costume helps connect to something viewers have already seen but may not identify as a manifestation of Afrofuturism.

And while so many depictions of Afrofuturism are exceptional, the final section of Mothership, “Earthseed” (another Butler title), is about the beauty of everyday, mundane lives, especially those rooted in the city of Oakland. A selection of 1960s photos by Ruth Marion Baruch shows members of the Black Panther Party engaged in their ordinary, day-to-day activities of community-building.

Just because something is not widely seen does’t mean it does not exist. Mothership shows visitors that Black people have imagined themselves in the future throughout history, and will continue to do so.

‘Mothership: Voyage into Afrofuturism’ is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through Feb. 27, 2022. Details here.

Copyright 2021 KQED