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Exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem examines Afrofuturism from a global perspective
Mehreen Murtaza, Triptych, 2009/2013. Archival inkjet print mounted on dibond, 42 × 84 in. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

HARLEM, NY.- This fall, The Studio Museum in Harlem presents The Shadows Took Shape, a dynamic interdisciplinary exhibition exploring contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics. Coined in 1994 by writer Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future,” the term “Afrofuturism” refers to a creative and intellectual genre that emerged as a strategy to explore science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and pan-Africanism. With roots in the avant-garde musical stylings of sonic innovator Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, 1914–1993), Afrofuturism has been used by artists, writers and theorists as a way to prophesize the future, redefine the present and reconceptualize the past. The Shadows Took Shape is one of the few major museum exhibitions to explore the ways in which this form of creative expression has been adopted internationally and highlight the range of work made over the past twenty-five years.

On view at The Studio Museum in Harlem from November 14, 2013 to March 9, 2014, the exhibition draws its title from an obscure Sun Ra poem and a posthumously released series of recordings. Providing an apt metaphor for the long shadow cast by Sun Ra and others, the exhibition features more than sixty works of art, including ten new commissions, charting the evolution of Afrofuturist tendencies by an international selection of established and emerging practitioners. These works span not only personal themes of identity and self-determination in the African-American community, but also persistent concerns of techno-culture, geographies, utopias and dystopias, as well as universal preoccupations with time and space.

The twenty-nine artists featured in The Shadows Took Shape work in a wide variety of media, including photography, video, painting, drawing, sculpture and multimedia installation. In her new video created for The Shadows Took Shape, Wangechi Mutu explores female figures in legend or lore portrayed to conflate sexuality and danger. The video explores the East African myth of nguva, which shares similarities to the Drexciya myth of a black Atlantis and the Western myths of sirens or mermaids. Exhibiting in New York for the first time, Nairobi-based artist Cyrus Kabiru debuts wearable works of art called C-STUNNERS. Operating within the realms of eyewear, fashion and sculpture, each armature oscillates between steampunk aesthetics and the fantastical inventions of postapocalyptic science fiction. Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour presents the politics of displacement through the lens of science fiction. Sansour is interested in a subject’s sense of place and the potential erosion of identity in occupied or divided territories. Lima-, Miami- and New York–based artist William Cordova collaborated with Nyeema Morgan and Otabenga Jones & Associates to construct a new work inspired by his recent monumental sculpture lando, landu (yawar mallku) (2011). The structure exemplifies Cordova’s interest in architecture specific to a particular context and the act of translation via displacement. Also on view in The Shadows Took Shape are British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History (1995) and Memory Room 451 (1997). The former examines the legacy of black speculative fiction through interviews and the latter employs an experimental, expressionistic visual approach, positing time travel and dream logic as gateways to other worlds and temporalities.

Organized by Studio Museum Assistant Curator Naima J. Keith and London-based independent curator Zoe Whitley, The Shadows Took Shape reflects the collaborative vision and individual voices of two curators and continues the Studio Museum’s commitment to reimagining and redefining exhibitions of contemporary art.

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