Captain, O' My Captain

The phenomenon cultural critic Mark Dery tagged “Afro-Futurism” in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future” was born decades earlier, in the work of a variety of artists who used sci-fi tropes to express an African-American perspective. Think of the Mothership, the flying saucer that landed onstage during performances by George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Or the output of black sci-fi novelists like Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany. Or the weird cosmology of jazz artist and self-avowed extraterrestrial Sun Ra, who developed his musical style in Chicago during the 1950s.

What Ra brought to town, Hebru Brantley inherited. A former graffiti artist, Brantley combines pop culture, black history, street style, notes of Japanese anime, and a slew of other influences in his paintings to create an Afro-Futurist riot of color and cultural reference.

Brantley’s third solo show, “Brothers of the Robbing Hood,” updates a medieval English tale for the recession era. The concept is to contrast what the artist sees as Robin Hood’s “greed-free, self-sustaining” forest community with the unprecedented economic inequality currently rife in America. But within that rubric, Brantley is all over the place—casting his gaze, for instance, on the “Hottentot Venus,” Saartjie Baartman, an African slave whose unusual anatomy earned her a place in the freak shows of early 19th-century Europe.

A number of paintings present the subject’s head in profile against a busy background of drawings and slogans (e.g., “Berney made off”) referring to current events. In Captain, O’ My Captain, the effect of a Captain America costume worn by a black man is compromised by his other props: a bottle of liquor, a dangling cigarette, and an army helmet. He’s either a hero or just another fool in a costume.