Editor's note: This story has been updated with regard to Friday's event at the Opalka Gallery.
“In Place of Now,” the latest exhibition to open at the Opalka Gallery, brings together artists both established and emerging, whose work focuses on Afrofuturism. Coined in 1994 by cultural critic Mark Dery, the term refers to the notion that black people are often treated as machines, rather than people. It also refers to this notion of re-envisioning the future and past of black people, often done through the lens of science fiction and historical fiction. With the popularity of Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther,” among other films and books, Afrofuturism has made its way into the mainstream. “In Place of Now,” which was curated by gallery director Judie Gilmore and scholar/writer Rone Shavers, proves that there’s much to explore within the genre.
Entering the exhibit, one of the first pieces that catches the eye is a large collage by Krista Franklin, called “. . . to take root among the stars.” Mixing quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre, lyrics from Rihanna, and other personal prose along with photos and artifacts that point to mysticism and voodoo, it can be read from any direction and either in its entirety or in pieces.
Much of the collage is created from handmade paper, which Franklin creates and combines with things like feathers and hair, as is seen in the exhibition in pieces like “What Lies Beneath.” Franklin weaves straightened synthetic hair into this dusty-colored paper. According to the artist, the piece, along with the two similar neighboring pieces, are relics that a shape-shifting girl leaves behind.
Other artists, like University at Albany graduate Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, use paper to create large-scale luminous paintings that focus on a mythology of resistance. In one piece, called “Return 2 Earth,” two figures stand with faces covered in intricately braided crowns and legs covered in what looks like glowing copper or gold stars.
Nearby, artist Wayne Hodge examines blackface and whitewashing using photographs from a performance piece he did in Germany. The first photograph shows an alabaster bust of Cleopatra with a “savage” mask, with large red and pink lips, stretched across its mouth and chin. In the ensuing photos, the artist coats the bust in black lipstick by kissing it. While the performance took place in 2011, with everything going on in Virginian politics it seems eerily more relevant than ever.
Renee Cox uses video and archival prints to focus on permutations of blackness, as well as identity and representation. The video starts off with an expansive voice saying “Good evening, this is the voice of the goddess. In the next ten minutes, we will take you with us into another world.” Set to music that sounds both futuristic and ancient, the video brings together black and white images of well-known artists in growing and shrinking kaleidoscope-like scenes. It certainly does feel like one is stepping into another world.
Although Shani Crowe’s works have been seen on many stages and on the pages of glossy magazines, they still amaze. Crowe creates unbelievably intricate and gravity-defying braids on her models who are photographed against stark white backgrounds. In one piece, two figures have tightly braided cornrows with one thicker braid along the center of their heads and joining together to create the shape of a heart.
In another, three figures stand close together, in profile to the viewer. Each figure’s hair is braided together, forming an erratic line that reminds one of a heart rate monitor. Crowe, who has worked with artists like Solange, is known for braiding African designs, like Adinkra symbols, into models’ hair, as seen in “CEREBRAL,” and other pieces in the exhibition. Her work makes one question beauty standards, which dictate that straight hair is beautiful and tends to ignore other hair types.
At first, it might sound like Afrofuturism is all about, well, the future. But it also encompasses the idea of creating a personal past, something which has often been denied to African Americans.
Take Sikelianos-Carter’s work or Willie Cole’s “Five Beauties Rising Suite,” a series of prints that echo the shape of slave ships. With names like “Savannah” “Queen” and others printed below each, they look like grave markers and there’s a sense of solemnity to them.
“In Place of Now,” proves that Afrofuturism is a growing philosophy, not only on the big screen but in visual arts.
On Friday starting at 5:30 p.m.,there will be a Sage student reception, and members of Youth FX will be playing curated videos. Then, on Feb. 21, Opalka joins with the New York State Writers Institute to bring author Samuel Delany to the gallery. Delany, the author of “Babel-17,” “Dhalgren,” “The Motion of Light in Water,” and others will be speaking at the gallery starting at 4:15 p.m., followed by a presentation at 7:30 p.m. at Page Hall at UAlbany’s downtown campus.
For more information about “In Place of Now” and related events, visit opalka.sage.edu.