Africa is a Science Fiction Superpower

A film series in London explores what it would mean imbuing Africa with extra-terrestrial powers. We speak to the curators, Al Cameron and Nav Haq.

A still from Neil Beloufa's film "Kempinski."

The exhibition ‘Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction‘ brings together various fictions. Science fiction becomes racial fictions become state fictions that fold into colonial fictions and back again. Science fiction becomes an umbrella for a range of discourses that, with the distance of futurity, are exposed in all their strange power. A startling and witty symmetry is revealed through the chosen works of the exhibition. We blogged about the exhibition speculatively here, and I wrote a review of the show in the UK magazine, The Wire. For AIAC, I asked the two curators of the exhibition – Al Cameron and Nav Haq – to explain a bit more about their interest in these ideas, and how the exhibition came about.

What sparked your interest in science fictions of (and in) the African continent?

The starting point was noticing a specific tendency that seemed to be emerging in contemporary art, cinema, and wider culture, and thinking about how we could approach this within the context of an exhibition. In some ways, we also felt that this work was different to Afro-futurism, at least in its applied sense. In fact, though parallels can be made, we feel it is something that to some extent had emerged independently.

To us, Afro-futurism seemed to be a discourse about the (usually African American) diaspora’s participation in a technological futurism, as opposed to being tied to a sense of roots and tradition with which the European imaginary has daubed African-originated culture for its own purposes. That was a kind of machine-theory or a post-humanism – as you pointed out in your review of the exhibition in the Wire there was also an attempt to bypass the association of African origins with orality, which was manifested in multiple attempts to subtract the pure voice from late-20th century dub and techno, for example. A lot of the works in this exhibition – Omer Fast’s for example – place speech at the centre of their stories. In Neïl Beloufa’s film Kempinski (2006), the Malian characters inhabit the future through interviews in the present tense. Here, a series of voices that would normally be excluded from discourses on the future are made audible.

We believe that the works in our exhibition do something different in the broadest terms. In general, they place human desires, rather than technological futures, at the centre of their speculations. Technology appears in the works mainly as an oppressor.

The word superpower in the exhibition’s title goes against what most people would associate with Africa. Why did you choose this word?

We actually borrowed the title from Mark Aerial Waller’s installation film, Superpower – Dakar Chapter (2004), but clearly it indicates a shifted perspective. The idea of superpowers obviously references the science fictional idea that humans might have extra-terrestrial abilities, and in Beloufa’s film, where Malians are asked to imagine the future as if it was present reality, they propose things like telepathic communication and teleportation. Then again, the title performs a reversal of narratives and expectations about the global order of things. Throughout modernity and subsequent epochs, Africa has been subjected to the almost continual interference of outside states with the ability to project dominance beyond their borders, whilst finding those borders difficult and dangerous to cross in the other direction.

Through the three chambers of Omer Fast’s installation, Nostalgia (2009), the usual narratives about patterns of migration are disrupted, and a story about a West African immigrant’s experiences in the West is collapsed into a claustrophobic fantasy about Europeans seeking a better world in a retro-futuristic Africa. Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Icarus 13 (2010) imagines an Angolan mission to the sun – a ridiculously ambitious project, but one which the Luandan monuments already prompt. The tomb of António Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president, was gifted by the USSR to Angola. Taking the form of a futurist spacecraft, ready on the launchpad for blast off, it promises an ambitious technological future for the fledgling Angolan state: the first mission to the sun, beyond the reach of our present superpowers. Yet, perhaps in its implausibility it cements the real historical dynamic of this future, one unevenly bequeathed by a superpower to its vassal state.

Of course, this fantastical scenario didn’t actually emerge – Neto’s socialist ambitions were dissolved in a quarter-century of civil war, while the USSR would over-extend its global reach and collapse its visions of collective prosperity. Both utopias burned up like Icarus who got too close to the sun. Only in Kia Henda’s speculative fiction does the improbable feat succeed. To extend this thinking, the sun itself has been mythologized throughout history as a supreme entity, or a superpower, with the power to burn up humans who come too close. Nevertheless, in Icarus 13, the attempt to make a claim on the future on behalf of an African state reverses the usual scenario wherein outside bodies, whether through global military power, politico-financial constraints like the “structural adjustment programmes”, or indeed through culture and media hegemonies, appropriate the right to describe the future.

What, in the context of the collected artworks that form Superpower, is your understanding of science fiction?

Science fiction takes on many forms – it has offered experimental timespaces for testing alternative ideas and speculating on possible and probable trajectories, but equally, it describes, for example,  a steady stream of mindless blockbusters which continue to trade on ossified expectations and lazy assumptions. We don’t profess to be experts in the genre, but in the context of this exhibition and the works shown, it seemed to offer a number of possibilities, especially in terms of how re-orientations of tense and folded notions of time might reconfigure our view of the present.

Perhaps the key activating principle it has in the context of this show is in the way it can produce complex diagrams of time. In general, although not exclusively, the genre is concerned with the intervention of possible futures into the present, like the light from distant stars on which Mark Aerial Waller’s film relies in a structural and narrative sense. Whether or not it imagines distant times or galaxies, SF is essentially always concerned with the present.

What seems particularly striking about the assembled works is their collective comment and critique on contemporary discourses about the African content, often accessed via the future… they critique colonialism, paternalism and the ‘white saviour complex’. Do you see this as the role of science fiction, as an important way of thinking about social realities?

In its most intriguing moment, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s anti-colonial film of 1953, Les Statues Meurient Aussi, introduced a science fictional element, when they state that “we are the Martians of Africa”. Although for them this reversed the typical Western ethnographic gaze at the Other, in a sense it also stated the obvious about colonial encounters. The West’s command that Africa submit to its rationalized, modernizing perspective already has something of science fiction about it – visitors from another world whose technologies coerce the submission of the visited. So, science fiction doesn’t necessarily offer a different view of reality – it also participates in that reality. To give another example from the show, we mention in the guide that Neill Blomkamp’s mock-advert for a Soweto robot law-enforcer doesn’t so much posit a worrying future trajectory as it documents a present reality. As Mike Davis notes in his book Planet of Slums, Pentagon MOUT strategists – convinced that future wars will be conducted in the slums against the marginalized, informal populations of megacities – are already planning for the extension into Kinshasa and Lagos of recent high-technology incursions into Sadr City (just one example). By pointing this out, we hope to suggest various entanglements between science fiction and documentary – the present as only apprehensible through SF; SF as a means of securing a global trajectory, and more fundamentally, how most of the artists in this exhibition use science fiction to complicate the usual documentarian or ethnographic representations of Africa.

In other words, the ideas and methodologies of science fiction must be considered critically, and we hope this comes across from the show. In some ways a lot of the works in the exhibition – Neil Beloufa’s Kempinski for example – seek to produce a different form of science fiction from that of dominant cinema. Not only by using African scenarios – reasonably unfamiliar territory for SF cinema before District 9.  At some level, the big-budget CGI blockbusters turned out by Hollywood are guilty of extending and gilding global relations of dominion and submission. Not only do their narratives simply allegorize problematic current viewpoints within a (semi-)fictional setting, at an infrastructural level the imaging technologies that are essential to their commercial credibility directly descend from imperial military applications, as some of Harun Farocki’s works consider, for example. It is not enough simply to posit SF as a critique, as it takes on so many forms that support those typical expectations – although we wanted to investigate how it might offer space to resist the usual formulations of global discourse.

Do you see futurism and science fiction in contemporary art from and of Africa as a form of defiance?

Yes, in the sense that the dominant images and narratives about Africa portray a continent “mired in the present” – unable to escape recurring crises born of its unresolved histories. The future tense – which foregrounds desire and possibility – avoids these representations, which are mainly reproduced in the interests of global hegemonies. Equally perhaps, these works defy the dominant forms of SF itself, in their avoidance of the big studio system, in their attempt to produce a future that does not simply extend the present, and arguably in their African settings.

In these ways, I think they seek to disrupt the borders of Rancière’s “regime of the sensible” – producing new visibilities, and subjectivizing those who have been excluded from global discourses except, at best, as victims. Then again, we don’t see Wanrui Kahiu’s film, Pumzi (2009) as necessarily defiant, or at least only in the sense that she is a young African filmmaker producing fantasy SF to rival Hollywood, with all of the attendant geographical and budgetary disadvantages. The film itself reworks many familiar tropes of SF – the post-apocalyptic location, the totalitarian control of limited resources, and the desire to escape a futuristic state and return to a natural state, are all well-explored narratives. Perhaps it is the African setting itself which adds the extra traction to this film.

In a sense, there is a defiance of the science fiction genre too. Historically, SF has been used as a means to create allegories that consolidate difference and fear of the Other or the invader. This was very clear in the allegorical science fiction during the Cold War era for example, which aimed to represent the West’s battle with communism and generate collective fear of the unknown. The science fiction aspects in many of these works reconsider the idea of oppositions and threats.

On the ground floor, Luis Dourado’s map [above] and later, Omer Fast’s video installation have been arranged into a kind of labyrinthine maze. It felt to be a very physical way of inaugurating the viewer into the complexities of science fiction and its ideas. Do you agree?

Not really in the sense of the physical experience – this is more or less how Fast’s installation is always intended to be presented. But in conceptual terms, the cut-up map was certainly intended to produce an immediate re-orientation of certain given blueprints – aiming to chart a different reality. We saw its diamond formation more like a portal, or stargate, and for us, this suggested a shift from space into time. This reflects a sense running through our research that, with global space already mapped and conquered (of course, a map is a device of conquest), it is the temporal axis that has become a contested site, as hegemonic forces seek to secure the future for more of the same, whilst others claim it as the possibility of alternative realities. In terms of the art world, the map plots a shift away from the regional representation towards a more complex, refracted viewpoint on Africa. The exhibition is not about African artists. Rather, it seeks to critically approach questions about (regional) representation by bringing together the subject of Africa and SF.

In science fiction itself, as a result of the possibility of reachable life-bearing worlds being unlikely, and in the way that the genre itself has exhausted long-ago the imaginative landscape of other worlds, time also becomes the active principle. So, this map is not so much about making a familiar continent extra-terrestrial, with all the old associations of the Other. Instead, it elevates time over space, disturbing the familiar image-regimes. In another way, and thinking about Omer Fast’s installation, the idea of the cinematic apparatus comes into it. We hadn’t really thought about it as a labyrinth, wondering if it perhaps resembled the sequential waiting-rooms of an immigration office, with flat-screens giving out information (of course, this could have a labyrinthine aspect!) It also, like the MDF viewing structure for Beloufa’s work, seems to disrupt the expected architectural space of cinema, just as it wants to complicate the expected cinematic narratives.


Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction runs at the Arnolfini, Bristol (@arnolfiniarts) until  Sunday 1st July.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.