Afrofuturism exhibit at Paper Mill Playhouse is also concerned with the past


“Rooted Vision: Future’s Echo” by Andre Nicolas is part of the “Afrofuturism” exhibit at The Paper Mill Playhouse.

Critical terms become woolly around the edges as they age. “Afrofuturism” is no exception.

Originally coined to describe artworks at the intersection of African diasporic history and speculative fiction, it lately has been applied to everything from Beyoncé’s sense of fashion to loose comic book adaptations of Octavia E. Butler’s fiction to blockbuster Hollywood movies like “Black Panther.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently opened an Afrofuturist period room set in a period of history that exists only in the imaginations of the designers. Just as Afrofuturism is having a mainstream moment, it seems to be slipping out of focus.

The latest curator to wrestle with the concept is Atim Annette Oton of the Calabar Gallery, a project-based arts organization headquartered in New York and devoted to showcasing African, African American and Caribbean art. Oton has been busy on both sides of the Hudson, hanging ambitious shows in Columbus Circle, Seton Hall University, The Beacon in Jersey City and other area galleries. With “Afrofuturism: 100 Years After the Harlem Renaissance,” she brings her vision to the second floor of the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

Oton’s understanding of Afrofuturism is a subtle one. It’s light on the flashy themes of science fiction, escapism, alternate history and transhumanity that have characterized past works in the evolving movement. Often, the 18 artists in this uneven but intense group show don’t seem to be looking toward the future at all. Instead, they grapple with the effects on past injustices on present identity. Many of these paintings and sculptures feel like records of perseverance through trauma. That certainly has implications for the future. But what that future will be remains fiercely unclear.

For instance, everything in “Rooted Vision: Future’s Echo” (see above), a beautifully ragged mixed-media work by the Newark-based Haitian American artist Andre Nicolas, is designed to transmit heritage and pride. He has painted an ancestral warrior in profile on planks of wood rescued from pallets and screwed together. A mannequin arm, affixed to the shoulder of the painting, points toward the floor; it’s a defensive gesture and an interposition between the subject and the viewer. Nothing about the warrior is particularly aggressive, but he is clearly no one to mess with. The super-heroic stance of the figure is underscored by Nicholas’ lines, which are thick, energetic and angular, like those that might be seen in a comic book. The wood, unfinished and pockmarked with holes and scrapes, is, quite literally, a rough background. The dignity in the face of adversity shown by this cultural guardian is a model for descendants to emulate: a reminder of a history of defiance too frequently erased.

“Generations” by Akil Roper.

Not dissimilar is “Generations” by Akil Roper, another visual storyteller from Newark. Four faces peer out from the frame. The first, in the foreground, is that of an elderly, self-possessed African American of indeterminate gender with gray hair, a deeply furrowed brow and a guarded expression. Two younger faces appear to be emerging out of the shadows as if they are coming into being and arriving at uncomfortable awareness of the difficulties they confront. Behind them hovers a face in cobalt blue — unnatural, unfamiliar, but clearly connected to the other people in the painting.

The blue face is bigger than the rest; it barely fits on the canvas. The others are emanating from it as light shines from a star. This is an ancestor spirit, the soul of a family, fragmented and pained but still coherent. It is not so much a promise of the future as it is a reassurance of the existence of something eternal, and noble, that exists at the root of every clan.

The shattered-mosaic forerunner of Roper’s painted family finds visual parallels all over this show. “Afrofuturism” is full of faces and bodies, each of which bear physical traces of inner states and signifiers that link these people to the culture and to the cosmos.

“Cayendo Profundamente en Ese Oleaje Cósmico de Mi Piel Negra” by Venezza Cruz.

The subject of “Cayendo Profundamente en Ese Oleaje Cósmico de Mi Piel Negra,” by New York painter Vanezza Cruz, is half-submerged in turbulent water, but her face, decorated with constellations and attuned to the heavens, is as unperturbed as a summer sky. The young woman in Yvonne Onque’s fetching “Red Bantu” wears her heritage: an African hairstyle and jewelry, bigger than her expectant eyes, fashioned from rings, shells, and feathers.

Reginald Rousseau, another Haitian American, presents us with “Black Royalties #2,” a portrait in acrylic and oil stick of the head of a man as impassive as a cyborg, but made of flowers. The painting doesn’t just subvert gender expectations. It also hints that a future stewarded by descendants of the African diaspora might be easier on the ecosystem than our insensitive present is.

Sometimes the faces are occluded by masks and headdresses. Ray Arcadio crowns his characters with black spikes, zigzags and horns made of shapes that resemble tower blocks. They look tough, blithe — sexy, even. They’re unbowed and armed with sharp edges. But the experience of urban living is springing forth from their heads, and even if they carry it gracefully, it’s no easy burden.

The Guyanese American collage artist Reva From Mercury — whose confrontational work feels indebted to than of the Afrofuturist-favorite photographer Renee Cox — gives us weeping eyes peering from rectangular cut-outs evoking balaclavas. She has glued the words “blackness” and “starving” to her piece, but the pain it radiates needs no discursive embellishment.

“The Embodiment of a Negro” by VILLAGER.

Even more provocative are a pair of acrylics by the Lagos-born, Baltimore-based VILLAGER, whose seashelled-eyed subjects are recognizably African, yet stripped of their particularity and given skin made of a network of parallel curved lines. In “The Embodiment of a Negro,” the subject is receding into invisibility, shrinking from scrutiny and judgment, and feeling sheepish about it all. It’s an expression of an indignity that too many immigrants feel, and it says less about the future than it does about the agonizing present we inhabit.

Like many works that fall under the ever-widening Afrofuturist umbrella, “Embodiment” is as much about absence as it is about presence. The painting is a portrait of sorts, but it is one that foregrounds the universality of the character’s struggle rather than the individuality of the sitter. Often the bodies in this show (and others like it) feel like icons — repositories of symbols — rather than depictions of actual human beings. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it may leave you feeling like the humanity in these works has been crowded out by expressions of Significance.

One remedy is “Go Tell It on the Mountain/James and William” by the painter Ricardo Osmondo Francis, a busy and somewhat old-fashioned painting and collage that juxtaposes James Baldwin, author of “Invisible Man,” with a marbled bust of Shakespeare. As a representation of the passing of the literary mantle, it speaks clearly. It is also a sympathetic and detailed portrayal of Baldwin, whose complexity, sensitivity, distrust of masculinity, and essential confidence are all captured. It feels like a dance with a real human being, which is always going to be more rewarding than an encounter with a symbol or a totem.

I’m not sure if the future is going to contain that kind of close observation and engagement with our neighbors. That might not be how things are trending. But a future like that would be well worth dreaming on.

“Afrofuturism: 100 Years After the Harlem Renaissance” will be on display at The Gallery at Paper Mill in Millburn through Feb. 26. Visit


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