John Akomfrah: The Last Angel of History, 1996, film, 45 minutes; in "The Shadows Took Shape" at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

 

 

John Akomfrah's 1996 documentary The Last Angel of History begins with a man standing in a flooded, sun-filled trailer park narrating the legendary tale of blues musician Robert Johnson's life. Johnson is said to have traded his soul for the spirit of music at a crossroads in Mississippi; he died in 1938 at age 27. From this myth, the narrator derives an image of Black redemption: "If you can find the crossroads . . . if you can make an archaeological dig into this crossroads, you'll find fragments, techno-fossils. And if you can put those elements, those fragments, together, you'll find a code. Crack that code and you'll have the keys to your future."

"The Shadows Took Shape," which borrows its title from a poem by the renowned jazz musician Sun Ra, is an exhibition about channeling technological visions not toward commodity culture—the standard beneficiary of scientific ingenuity—but toward a release from present constraints into a broadly self-determined future. Studio Museum assistant curator Naima J. Keith and independent curator Zoe Whitley have collected over 60 works by 29 international artists around the concept of "Afrofuturism," a term coined in 1994 by theorist Mark Dery to indicate an aesthetic mode that intermingles pan-African concerns with science fiction and fantasy imagery. Nodding to the reigning influence of Sun Ra's 1972 mytho-satirical sci-fi film, Space Is the Place, the show gives much attention to the moving image. As a whole, the film and video program, including works by Akomfrah, Wanuri Kahiu, Wangechi Mutu, the Otolith Group and Larissa Sansour being screened sequentially in the downstairs gallery, provides a useful, essayistic background to the show's theme.

In the main space are paintings, collages, photographs, sculptures (some with film and video elements) and installations. Some pieces have a technophilic slickness: for example, Derrick Adams's enormous wood-and-aluminum robot mask (WE>, 2013), Mehreen Murtaza's photo collage composed of Western consumer images and Pakistani religious iconography (Triptych, 2009/2013), and Saya Woolfalk's psychedelic video-and-sculpture installation with a soundtrack by DJ Spooky (Life Products by ChimaTEKTM, 2013). Elsewhere, the curatorial category is invoked more obliquely. Edgar Arceneaux's Slave Ship Zong (2013) includes acrylic renderings of frothy sea waves spliced with Detroit news clippings, all affixed to a gallery wall painted with an oceanic blue-gray wash. The installation indirectly alludes to the sci-fi myth, invented by Detroit-based techno group Drexciya, about an aquatic black race descended from castaways of the titular 18th-century slave ship. Kira Lynn Harris's minimalist cityscape, Prism, Mirror, Lens II (2013), comprising wood planks and reflective silver Mylar arranged against a wall, suggests the contours of an alien city via sharp angles and dappled light.

The prevailing implication one takes away from other works is that for people of color, resourcefulness lies in an aptitude for pageantry. Sun Ra utilized the signs and symbols of Egyptian mythology in order to tailor a new aesthetic identity for African Americans in the 20th century. His fantastical persona demonstrated the make-believe quality of racial identity while suggesting modes of creative self-determination for the advancement of the black race. Calling upon Sun Ra's theatrical legacy, Harold Offeh plays dress-up in his color photo series "Covers" (2008-13). The photos show Offeh imitating black recording artists (George Clinton, Grace Jones, Betty Davis) in poses from their album art. He thus inserts himself into various historic creations in the realm of black self-invention. Akomfrah's film Memory Room (1997), a darkly whimsical take on talking-head-style documentary filmmaking, examines the significance of the wig in black culture. The film narrates, via dramatic monologues performed by a variety of actors, personal acts of revolt against the social pressure to conceal or tame kinky hair-an example of enforced play-acting for the perpetuation of white norms. William Villalongo's photo collage, titled Sista Ancesta (E.Kelly/D.R. of Congo, Pende), 2012, fuses images of a Congolese mother-and-child figurine and Ellsworth Kelly's 1964 painting Orange Blue I. The painting obscures the upper part of the mother's face, except for two cutout eyeholes, which allow her to peer out of the Kelly piece like a mask. In these works, race is aligned with costumery. Is the disguise a tool of oppression or a means to redemptive self-transformation?

It is Cyrus Kabiru who most explicitly demonstrates the liberating function of racialized pageantry. His "C-STUNNER" series, a lifelong project consisting of masks made from detritus found in his native Nairobi, subverts the culturally enforced masquerade of stereotyping. Nairobian Baboon (2012) and Rat (2010), surrealistic animal masks assembled from tooled silverware, perforated scrap metal, glass beads and plastic bottle caps, present androidlike metallic curves and flourishes. He thus takes the racial signifier of the African mask and subjects it to scrutiny, disassembling and then creatively reconstructing it. His resourcefulness is a means of resistance: in fabricating an identity from the environmental stuff of his own singular experience, he rejects mass opinion of what he—as a black man—is.