Approximately Infinite Universe



Approximately Infinite Universe
Approximately Infinite Universe :: IRAAA
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Approximately Infinite Universe
Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (La Jolla) Through September 1, 2013
The Spring 2013 issue of the IRAAA on popular culture, digital technology, and mass
media spotlighted science fiction as a significant influence in contemporary African
American art. 1 So it is not surprising that the exhibition Approximately Infinite
Universe includes several artists of African American descent: Edgar Arceneaux,
Simone Leigh, Jacolby Satterwhite, Cauleen Smith, and Saya Woolfalk. Organizing the
exhibition, curator Jill Dawsey selected art works that employ sci fi tactics to critically
address contemporary issues. Many of the works cite the writings of Octavia Butler,
Samuel R. Delany, and Ursula K. Le Guin. While comic superheroes are scarce,
transmogrification and terrestrial appropriation are on display in the primarily
earthbound works.
(Enlarge Image)
Edgar Arceneaux, Detroit
Monolith, It's Full of Holes, 2011,
acrylic, graphite on paper, 72 x
129 inches. Courtesy the artist. ©
Edgar Arceneaux 2011. Courtesy
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles
Projects; Photo Credit: Robert
(Enlarge Image)
Drawing on science fiction in various ways,
the works of the African American artists
Edgar Arceneaux, The Slave Ship
display a range of field with respect to
Zong, 2011, acrylic, graphite on
racial identity. On this matter, the
paper, 80 x 130 inches. Courtesy the
exhibition refers to Mark Dery’s “Black to
artist. Edgar Arceneaux 2011.
the Future: Interviews with Samuel R.
Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los
Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose”. 2 In
Angeles Projects; Photo Credit:
the prologue to his interviews with these
Robert Wedemeyer.
writers, Dery posits the intrinsic appeal of
science fiction to African Americans: Didn’t the African American experience begin
with abductions by aliens to a strange land? 3 Edgar Arceneaux’s The Slave Ship Zong
(2011) seems to explore this history. Arceneaux creates an immense black and grey
wave below which disembodied eyes populate the water. However, the painting does
not show the drowned slaves of the overloaded, colonial ship; but their progeny,
wholly adapted to their ocean home. Fiction, after all, is an alternative to fact.
Cinqué Hicks has cited Dery’s “Black to the Future” as introducing the term “Afrofuturism” into print in the 1990s. Hicks defines Afro-futurism as use of “technology
and elements of science fiction to express African American experiences of alienation,
difference and cultural strangeness.” 4 Within the exhibition, Cauleen Smith’s AfroFuturism Tapes 1998-2008 most closely adheres to Hick’s characterization. In one
piece, technology, in the form of a video camera, serves as a somewhat inadequate tool for the black protagonist to overcome
temporal estrangement. Hicks explains this reliance upon technology to elaborate a modern identity to be of a particular
moment, now past.
According to Hicks, though conceptualized during “the multiculturalism of the 1990s, [Afro-futurism]
took notions of black identity more or less as they had been formulated in the
1970s and ‘80s and left them largely undisturbed.” 5 The disruption of these earlier
notions is apparent in works by Simone Leigh. Drawing from various icons
(including Uhura of Star Trek), Leigh offers nostalgia for these repositories of black
identity. Her Brooch #2 (2008), an assemblage of metal-plated ceramic bananas
set in a circular armature, could be a DIY rocket-launcher or shield. At the same
time, the work converts the traditional African food staple into a totem.
(Enlarge Image)
Saya Woolfalk,
Pages from the
Plant Alchemy':
In “Black to the Future”, Dery was in effect asking why there were not significant
numbers of African American fans and writers of science fiction. The interviews
suggest that Dery mistook invisibility for disinterest. Today, as noted in a recent
article in the Los Angeles Times, African Americans in the science fiction
community are more visible and vocal. 6 What does this recognition of the genre’s
appeal mean for artists? It not only validates science fiction as a creative mode but
also provides for common references. In Detroit Monolith, It’s Full of Holes (2011),
Arceneaux depicts a key site (indicated by the inclusion of an unofficial memorial
sculpture) of the 1969 Detroit Riots. Looking at the painting, one might wonder,
Saya Woolfalk,
Pages from the
Social and
Physical Effects
of Botanical
Thinking (Star
2011, gouache
on paper, 40 x
30 inches.
Collection of
Margo and
Frank Walter. ©
Saya Woolfalk.
Approximately Infinite Universe :: IRAAA
where are the black people? In this way, the painting suggests the riots as the
beginning of the dissolution of the entire city –its population, edifices, freedoms –
at a future time made clear by geologic and solar changes. 8 Far from an
exclusionary theme, black subjectivity offers entry into a grand narrative of Detroit.
In considering the trajectory of Afro-futurism in the article “Gallery Universe: a
multidimensional fantasy trip”, Toni Wynn makes clear that its characteristic
elements —masquerade, DIY, performance, and archeology— form links to African
traditions and have persisted in art made by African Americans. 9 Drawing on the
performative, Jacolby Satterwhite takes his own voguing as a departure point for a
meditation on creative expression. Subjected to 3-d modeling software, drawings
by his mother form a kind of fairground for dancers in bodysuits. While comprising
an unexpected allegory of corporate gluttony, the allure of Country Ball 1989-2012
comes from its more personal aspects. Saya Woolfalk takes a similarly personal and
fantastic approach to her work, though to very different ends from Satterwhite’s.
Plant Alchemy':
Pollinators and
Plants Used in
the Merger of
Plant and
Human DNA,
2011, gouache
on paper, 40 x
30 inches.
Collection of
Margo and
Frank Walter.
© Saya
Woolfalk, who is of African American, European American, and Japanese descent, gives attention to the
performative and handcrafted in her work. Rather than genetic technology, she uses an anthropological
lens to develop her project "The Empathics" which describes the evolution of a group of humans
metamorphosed by their incorporation of plant genes. The closest things to superheroes on display, the
Empathics, when completely transformed, are literally dual-minded. According to accompanying texts,
the displayed paintings, or “pages”, were completed by Empathics during a spiritual visioning ceremony.
With borders of clouds, palm trees, and rainbows, the paintings meld disparate scientific and cultural
imagery. The forms of Pollinators and Plants (2011) reference pollination, neurology, Aztec ceremonies,
and Japanese kawaii("cute")illustration.
In its entirety, Approximately Infinite Universe takes on a range of topics including corporate cooptation,
political disenfranchisement, and unseen forces relating to the housing mortgage crisis. The works also
articulate a range of identities through the vantage points of science, history, and culture. Foregoing a
unifying stylistic premise, the selection of works feels eclectic. Within this assortment, however, the
curator achieves her stated aim of presenting artists who employ science fiction as a means of critique. In
doing so, Approximately Infinite Universe demonstrates that science fiction remains a relevant platform
for conceptualizing a broad expanse of African American experience.
Elizabeth A. Watson writes about art and architecture in San Diego, CA.
(Enlarge Image)
Saya Woolfalk,
Pages from the
Plant Alchemy':
Balance of
Floral and
Human Energy,
2011, gouache
on paper, 40 x
30 inches.
Collection of
Margo and
Frank Walter. ©
Saya Woolfalk.
1 International Review of African American Art (IRAAA) 24:2.
2 Cited in a wall text by Kelly Gabron associated with Cauleen Smith’s work. Mark Dery, “Black to the
Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose”, reprinted in Flame Wars: The
Discourse of Cyberculture”, ed. Mark Dery (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 179222.
3 Dery, “Black to the Future”, 180.
4 Hicks, “Circuit Jamming: Artists doing digital media now”, IRAAA 23:3, 3.
5 Hicks, Ibid., 7.
6 Mindy Farabee, “As Diverse as the Realms Explored”, Los Angeles Times 14 June 2013, D14, D15. Online
as Mindy Farabee, “Beyond ‘Game of Thrones’: Exploring Diversity in Speculative Fiction”, Los Angeles
Times (June 9, 2013). (accessed July 24, 2013).
7 Arceneaux referenced the theme of the absence of blacks in much of science fiction in “An Artist’s
Perspective” panel at the MCASD, June 8, 2013. The representation of race in the future is a recurring
topic of contention within science fiction. It is discussed in both “Black to the Future” and “Beyond ‘Game of Thrones’”.
8 The city’s financial dissolution has occurred; Detroit filed for bankruptcy on July 18, 2013.
9 Toni Wynn, “Gallery Universe: a multidimensional fantasy trip”, IRAAA 24:2, 29-38.
©2014 International Review of African American Art. All Rights Reserved.
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