a series of glowing archways in an Afrofuturism exhibit

This Must-See Exhibit Explores Narratives Around Black Liberation

Design in all its forms, from furnishings to fashion, offers a rich narrative of people and place, as evident in “Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures,” on view through August 18, 2024 at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, which opened last spring, offers an immersive exploration of Afrofuturist expression over the last century, displaying more than 100 objects across mediums, including music, film, comic books, and more, that reflect pressing ideas around Black liberation, identity, and agency.

“Afrofuturism continues to evolve as a concept, an aesthetic, and as a cultural platform with a deep intellectual tradition and history,” Kevin M. Strait, curator of the exhibition, tells Interior Design. “The term was originally coined in scholarly circles to explore how Black writers and artists have utilized themes of technology, science fiction, fantasy, and heroism to envision stories and futures of Black liberation and convey a more genuine and empowered image of the Black experience.” Afrofuturism offers what Strait calls “a powerful lens to view and interpret the Black experience in an increasingly technological world, and an identity for the multitude of activists, intellectuals, and creatives who envision new futures through their cultural output.”

Exploring Afrofuturism Through Design

a large installation in the center of a gallery with series of golden squares above

In the realm of design, the term takes on many forms. “Design is one of the places in which Afrofuturism has its fullest visual expression,” shares Michelle Joan Wilkinson, the museum’s curator of architecture and design. “As we saw with the elaborate production design, set design, and costume design for the 2018 Black Panther film, opportunities to represent Black futures benefit from expertise across design fields. Even furniture design can be employed to convey Afrofuturist aesthetics.” The set for the film’s sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, includes a stool and chair by designer Jomo Tariku, she adds.

As for a unifying thread among Afrofuturist aesthetics, Wilkinson says expression is often individualized, noting that it’s difficult to to define characteristics or palettes across fashion, graphic design, and interiors. “I’m usually interested in what the creator identifies as Afrofuturist elements in their work—and often this has to do with their own research into African diaspora cultures, into Afrofuturist literature, and the knowledge of predecessors in the genre across creative disciplines,” she continues. “That said, references to space or the cosmos are often part of Afrofuturist imaginings.”

The cosmos play a prominent role throughout the 4,300-square-foot exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is designed to take attendees on a journey through time and beyond guided by Afrofuturism pioneers. Glimpse Octavia Butler’s typewriter, Nichelle Nichols’ Star Trek uniform, and Nona Hendryx’s spacesuit-inspired costume worn while performing with LaBelle. And take a peek at Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther costume. “I’m certain that as new audiences encounter and learn from the history of Black futures, the scope of what Afrofuturism is will continue to evolve,” says Wilkinson, noting that such imaginative world-building will likely encourage generations to come to discover new frontiers of architecture and design.

Walk Through ‘Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures’ Ongoing in Washington, D.C.

a dark room with blue lighting exploring narratives around Black futures
a red installation wall with images imposed onto it
a wall with glowing stars exploring Afrofuturism and space
a series of glowing archways in an Afrofuturism exhibit

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