Alun Be, Potentiality, 2017 Credit: courtesy of the artist

n the third floor of the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s current
13-artist, 33-piece exhibition exhibition “In Their Own Form,” are two sets
of work that depict the dreamscapes of Senegalese children. On the right
side of the exhibition space is Senegalese photographer Alun Be’s series
“Edification” (2017), well-composed snapshots of young boys engaged in
common activities, such as assisting each other onto the back of a bus or
bathing in the sea while peering through virtual reality masks. At the back
of the room, French photographer Alexis Peskine’s “Aljana Moons” (2015)
presents posed portraits of young people dressed in handmade astronaut
suits, designed by Peskine from food packaging detritus: old tomato cans
and discarded rice bags.

Peskine’s photographs are metaphorical representations of talibé
children, Senegalese youth who often collect money on the streets for their
religious teachers. “I used talibé children because I wanted to create a
visual oxymoron,” Peskine says. “Tomato cans represent a precariousness.
There is not a future in begging, even if you learn a couple of useful
tricks. When you are a kid you dream that the sky is the limit, which is I
why decided to incorporate the astronaut suit into the series.”

Both series address notions of escapism subtly wrapped in youthful
daydreams. They are also examples of Afrofuturism, a wide-ranging cultural
and aesthetic philosophy specifically tied to people of the African
diaspora that combines elements of history, science fiction, magical
realism, and futurism to imagine an existence beyond the present reality.

Afrofuturism and its themes of nostalgia, escapism, and speculative futures
permeate the photographs and films presented in the exhibition curated by
Sheridan Tucker Anderson, the MoCP’s curatorial fellow for diversity in the
arts. Anderson specifically chose works that underpin this movement, long
represented by musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton and writers such
as Octavia E. Butler and recently popularized by the blockbuster hit Black Panther, Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” video, and
Janelle Monáe’s music-centered short film Dirty Computer. But
Anderson wants to emphasize that the movement existed long before author
and culture critic Mark Dery gave it a name in the early 1990s.

“I didn’t exactly want [Afrofuturism] connected to the title of the
exhibition because it has been dressed up as this very new, trendy thing,”
she says. “There are a number of reasons why that is the case, and I think
that is both good and bad. It gets people talking, and gets people
interested, but I wanted to focus on Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois
in my [exhibition] essay because they had been working toward an
Afrofuturist-styled thought very early on. I want to highlight Afrofuturism
as much more historical and consider their important contributions. I
wanted readers to realize that alternative realities [like those imagined
by Douglass and DuBois] have always been something that marginalized
people, people of color, have kind of accessed to buffer experiences here
in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

Although photography is the focus of the exhibition, Anderson weaves in
other media. American artist and writer Teju Cole frames his diaristic
images—such as the photo Brazzaville (2013) which features a young
boy grasping a railing above a body of rushing water—with short poetry and
texts that examine memory. Belgian-Beninese documentary and fashion
photographer Fabrice Monteiro explores the world as it might be after
humans in The Prophecy (2014), dressing models as postapocalyptic
monsters thriving at the edge of human-designed disasters such as oil
spills and forest fires. South African photographer and filmmaker Mohau
Modisakeng’s film Passage (2017), an exploration of the
still-apparent effects of the transatlantic slave trade, presents three
subjects who are each confronting the rising water in their own slowly
sinking rowboat. A deeply engaging soundtrack connects the three channel
work, which, alongside the captivating visuals, compel the viewer to stay
seated for the full length of the 19-minute film.

During his lifetime, Frederick Douglass posed for hundreds of photos to
spread a subjective view of himself and other African Americans, a tactic
which Ralph Waldo Emerson explored in his 1844 antislavery essay
“Emancipation of the Negroes in the West Indies.” Anderson pulled the
title, “In Their Own Form,” from Emerson’s text which imagined the
opportunities that people of color, specifically enslaved people in the
West Indies, might have had without the horrific imposition of slavery.
This theme is represented through the figural image in the bulk of the
exhibition’s works, which aim to present subjective views of the black
experience from a wide-reaching global perspective.

“Representation is having an opportunity or agency to present yourself as
you see fit,” says Anderson, “regardless of what someone might want to
impose or attach onto your experience or existence.”   v