Perspectives #03/2018: Through the Looking Glass: Images of African Futures
The Hollywood action movie Black Panther captured the imagination of audiences around the globe. In several African countries, it quickly became the highest grossing film of all time. The tale is set in Wakanda, a technologically advanced African kingdom that avoided the shackles of colonialism and slavery by isolating itself behind a guise of poverty and deprivation. Although what it presents as “African”, in terms of narrative and images, is far from uncontested, the film catapulted Afrofuturism – a discipline or aesthetic that enlists science fiction and technology to imagine black identities and futures unconstrained by past and present circumstances – from the avant-garde circles of artists and intellectuals into the mainstream.
The movie was released into a particularly fraught political moment, as the world witnesses a surge in right-wing extremism in the so-called “democratic” and “developed” North, notably the United States and Europe. This cuts deep to the core of these societies, raising questions about the norms and values that were thought to underpin their democratic order. At the same time, the globally influential entertainment industry faces mounting criticism from within their societies and across the world about the narrow representation of diversity in their productions. Growing numbers of voices protest the distorting effects of racism that people of colour experience in their daily lives, as well as the role of racist narratives and depictions in delineating the realm of imagination. As American screenwriter Ytasha Womack argues, “We have been duped into only believing one narrative about ourselves. And this creates a co-constitutive process in which we imagine a limited sense of possibility and create limited lives in this image.” From the 1950s onwards, Afrofuturist ideas have been brought to life, particularly by African-American intellectuals and artists, to break away from these limitations.
In their own context, African intellectuals like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Achille Mbembe call for the “decolonisation” of language and knowledge in order to challenge the single narrative of a continent that languishes on the periphery of cultural production and lags behind global progress in technology. In a similar vein, the Rhodes Must Fall student movement in South Africa demanded the decolonisation of cultural and social spheres along with education and the economy.
Against this background of political and cultural disruption, Perspectives approached writers to inquire, speculatively or not so speculatively, into an African future. What inspires our fascination for the future and the futuristic? Is there a convergence or divergence between the futures imagined in Africa and the Afrofuturism emerging from the United States? Can we imagine futures that go beyond redressing past injustices? Is Africa prepared for the technological advancements that are central to both Afrofuturism and the much-touted Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The result is an eclectic mix of contributions and conversations across the arts, culture, philosophy and politics. They offer glimpses of African futures – fantastic, idealistic, or sober, but always self-confident – that place the continent at the centre of a world to come.