Afrofuturism – Interview with artist Lillian Gray

CITIZEN lifestyle: 

“AFROFUTURISM” collection by local contemporary artist, Lillian Gray 

April 2020, Johannesburg 

Lillian Gray is a renowned South African fine artist. She is best known for her large, bold and expressive portraits.  Her colourful work attracts the attention of connoisseurs and novices alike and leaves an indelible impression on those who appreciate beauty. We interviewed her about her latest series that focuses on Afrofuturism. 

What is Afrofuturism? Why is it so important?

Afrofuturism can be defined as a movement in literature, music and art featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture. But this definition does not capture the beautiful inclusiveness of Afrofuturism nor its application in South African art.

Perhaps a more inclusive definition would be that from Greg Tate who suggests that Afrofuturism is “an art form, practice, and methodology that allows black people to see themselves in the future despite a distressing past and present”

What is the importance of the black consciousness movement?

Certain people have been born into an institutionalised disadvantaged situation.  This situation had to be changed. People like Steve Biko started talking to black people about their state in the world. That created a black consciousness which led to a revolution because the inherent situation wasn’t fair. Without black consciousness, they would have never questioned their situation. 

Currently, the Born-Frees are questioning if the fall of Apartheid has in fact, in Biko’s words “rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude”? Increasingly research has shown they think not.  Especially those in the lowest strata of society, unable to afford tertiary education, facing a bleak future and feeling alienated. They question the very concept of freedom and being born free as an oxymoron. These concepts have failed to instil a sense of pride in their blackness.

As long as this situation exists, Biko’s philosophy of black pride continues to be relevant. As Biko said:

It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life.

How does it relate to South Africa currently? As the current generation may not even remember apartheid.

Even though many of the new generations do not recall Apartheid they do see the remnants of it. But we also need to recognise there are places in the world where people have turned the situation around. And that starts with reimagining a better future. Then taking action to make that future a reality. Afrofuturism is a vehicle to imagine that future. 

The world only ever gets changed through the actions of people. Those who work hard can change their world, change other’s lives and eventually start a movement and impact the masses. 

The difference is that you are free today to change it. All the support exists to change your stars. The key is to imagine that better future. That is what is different today. The younger generation needs to be a part of this because ultimately this future is theirs. 

Whose responsibility is it to change negative stereotypes or incorrect representations? 

Representation theory covers literally everything but there are 3 important areas you need to be aware of, gender, ethnicity and age. The representation can be either positive or negative. We need to avoid stereotypes 

 It’s much more fun to take these stereotypes and turn them on their head. You can’t please everyone. What we represent is powerful. It might be the only way some people gather information. 

Media representations arent reflections of things that already have meaning. They rather make meaning of reality. Stewart Hall – It has no fixed meaning. It Narrows society’s perceptions. The representation becomes naturalised. It depends on the agenda on the person that made that representation. Stewart Hall – the audience should interrogate a text, really understand who made it and why and how it furthers the producer’s age

Tell us why you keenly focus on global citizenship in your work? 

I have always had a keen interest in anthropology, the scientific study of humans, human behaviour and societies in the past and present, I love to apply my attention to human and societal behaviour. Understanding the past aids us to build a better future. I believe we all need to become global citizens dedicated to protecting the wellbeing of our beautiful planet. When I paint a human in blue, green or pink it transcends race. We can finally look past the colour and see the human. I love this ambiguity in my work. It provokes so many questions and quickly exposes people’s biases. It allows us to delve deeper into what it means to be human beings. 

It’s been said that Afrofuturism is the new pop art? If so why?

Pop Art is short for POPULAR ART. Pop art is filled with current trends and commenting on consumer behaviour of various popular culture. 

One of the more popular examples of current Afrofuturism is Marvel’s Black Panther which creates a futuristic African civilisation (who reside in Wakanda) which is incredibly advanced with their technology and has a superhero called Black Panther. This movie caused ripples through black and African consciousness all over the globe and highlighted the importance of representation in a modern expression.

Black history all over the globe is riddled with marginalisation and a part of Afrofuturism’s aim is to create a space for the acceptance and celebration of black consciousness and human

experience. Although Afrofuturism was once a niche genre, it has gained popularity globally thanks to visibility and representation in the media and has become a pop culture movement that inspires and empowers young people everywhere.

 

It is popular because it hits a nerve. It sends a message that is needed. The current Zeitgeist is that Black Consciousness has grown over the last century. There is utility in defining yourself into opposition to things. In opposition to Colonialism, opposition in Nationalism. Afrofuturism does not define itself against Apartheid or against Colonialism, it rather says Let’s create heroes, and then lest normalise those heroes

It normalises previously marginalised people as heroes, rulers, protagonists, contributors and the world needs to see that. 

What is your opinion on the global appropriation of black people in art? – it’s a very sensitive topic as it also pertains to décor and fashion

I wanted to study pure art and my father would allow me. I had to study business and art. I wasn’t allowed to study only art. I am so grateful for this because early on I realised business is art, and art is business. This realisation has led me to think about appropriation in a completely different way. 

Often people are offended by appropriation, but I honestly don’t think we should be. Yes, someone will use Ndebele beads and patterns out of context and yes it would change the meaning and the initial cultural intent. However, it also gives us an opportunity to share, educate and discuss. I honestly believe we only copy something because we find it beautiful, we are drawn to it and it is worth copying. Nobody would be appropriating African Culture if it wasn’t cool. People are drawn to it and using it because they are celebrating it. 

African is raw, loud, beautiful and authentic. And people want some of that. They want to tap into it. I often imagine it as Africa’s drumbeat that vibrates through the earth. People want to respond and start dancing. 

The marketing opportunity this Zeitgeist gives Africa is huge. We should focus our energy not on how the World is drawing inspiration from African, but rather on how Africa is inspiring the world. What are the movies we should be making, what are the books we should be writing, which Wakanda style resorts are we not building? Why is Marvel not building a theme park in Africa yet?  All of these things have a far greater chance of success because the world is interested and ready to listen. 

Are you not guilty of reappropriating black art? 

You know I get asked this a lot and my response is always “Can a man be a feminist?” And the answer is yes.  When I teach my tween class Feminism I always start by telling them about the history of feminism. In short, we had 1st Wave feminism which stated women can do all things men can do and are in fact even better than men.  As feminine grew and developed over the years we eventually reached the 3rd Wave Feminism where it believed women and men are different but equal.  When the Harvey Weinstein Scandal broke it kickstarted the #metoo movement.  Which lead to the #meforher movement. This movement is about men standing up for women’s rights. It is when Antonio Banderas defends and supports Salma Hayek against Weinstein.  It’s when Bradley Cooper refuses to play in a film if the female lead doesn’t earn the same as him. It’s when someone stands up and says this is wrong. We need to change this. 

I believe the same goes for racial equality. For it to work and for us all to achieve this ideal we all need to stand up and say “this is wrong, we need to change this.”

How do go from artists work being duplicated to it being appreciated and showcased? So that the artist can receive a substantial income to survive on esp in Africa?

Difference between craft and art? Production Labour Problem vs and Art Problem. 

We should think about this in two categories one is the control of the factors of productions (raw input materials, labour, logistic channels) and the other is the problem pertaining to art.  

The exploitation of workers has always been a problem, socialism, communism When you think about 50 women producing the same piece of beadwork over and over that is a production question. The question there is are they getting a fair portion of the sales. That is not art. Art is about ideas and sending a message. And when it comes to art, saying something, commenting on society every piece you create is unique and a once-off. Some messages are stronger than others. In art, we ask how do I make it visible, how do I make people listen to my message, how do we make people notice. So you can actually only be copied once you are famous. Once people have noticed you. When you create something unique you pave a way for new products. Fuel the Zeitgeist with real original art. That creates a market for consumer products. Then we need to make sure that at an executive level we need to make sure we take advantage our that Zeitgeist.  Products will then flow from it. When we then have communities where people are producing authentic things we shouldn’t be selling that next to the road on your way to the Kruger. We need a platform to sell those products wholesale to a global market and then ensure fair labour practices.   

The same way Champagne is a registered trademark of a region in France we need to be able to register Äuthentic African Design. Don’t attack people that create the market. Attack the people that are failing the constituencies. The problem with getting board based benefit is the politicians failing to take advantage of it.

People around the world can produce Champagne but they cannot call it Champagne. We need to use institutions like the World Trade organisation to create a market for products that are Authentically Registered to Africa. 

Tell us about your efforts to drive social change through art?

I drive social change through art by empowering my students with art. At my art school, we make art accessible and easy to understand. We break down barriers and the stereotypes of art as this elitist world. At our school, we have 5 bursary students that we support. Because we simply cannot attend to all the requests from students who cannot afford art classes we have now decided to make our lessons free online. Our entire drawing course is free on our Channel and we are filming more and more lessons as we speak. 

As an artist, my artwork has a voice and a message. I wish to combine Afrofuturism with Feminism and imagine a global future for all. 

It is up to us, as artists, to represent each other, to support each other, and to celebrate our differences through shared humanity, and what better way to do this than to create imagined spaces in the future where we can unpack our shared and individual humanity together?

What is your most powerful piece that makes a bold statement about Afrofuturism?

For me personally it is the painting Raina. She is part of my current Afrofuturism series that I am working on. In the series, I turn the black stereotype on its head by giving black people halos and adding European Catholic elements.  This series was initially intended for Barcelona Exhibition in May 2020, however, due to COVID-19, this has been postponed to 2021. I wanted to give the Spanish people a taste of the familiar, by using Catholic Symbols and Architecture but then also challenge their perception by creating this fusion with Africa. I want to shatter the stereotype of the African child, sitting emancipated, begging with flies in its eyes. I want to show us as bold, fearless leaders that carry and shine our own light, hence the halos. In the series, there is this progression in the way I depict the heroins and the halos. It starts with Audacia the first woman in the series. She is done in this grungy style with a lot of rough edges. Her halo is only vaguely in the background. The entire series culminates into Raina.  She exudes confidence and not only has a halo but rather wears it like a crown.  Raina’s light is undeniable, it hovers around her and into the viewer. With the founded confidence and pride of Audacia, and the undeniable light of Alba she shines brightly for all to see. Her colours are a combination of cool and warm giving the feeling of her fullness and completeness of character. Her expression is that of strength and nobility with the beauty and power fit for a queen. She is bathed in the patterns of Africa and looks to the viewer for nothing more than praise and appreciation. She is the queen of our time, the culmination of a past filled with hardship, and a future filled with promise.

How do we grow Afrofuturism through-out the world and give more artists opportunities, esp with an artist who never studied fine arts and are considered informal artists?

Austin Kleon, author of “Show your Work” and “Steal like an Artist” says “Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him.” I fully agree with Kleon. If you have never studied art and you wish you could, find someone that did to guide you. Or find a talented artist in the field and stand next to them. So I would recommend collaboration, mentorship and seeking out platforms that showcase artists. We have various in SA such as the Maboneng Art Centre and the V&A Waterfront selling unique African Designs in their upper-class market the Red Shed. 

 

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