Constructing Future Forms: Afro-Futurism and Fashion in Chicago, Part I

D. Denenge Akpem

Mae Jemison, official NASA portrait	“We’re living in the space age… No matter where you are…” Longtime Arkestra member June Tyson sings in a haunting chant, clad in the silver-ringed cap seen also on Sun Ra’s drummers.

As Chicagoan, NASA astronaut and the first black woman in space challenged the audience in her keynote at DuSable Museum last summer, “The future didn’t just happen; it was created.”

This article focuses on Afro-Futurism and its fashion intersections with Chicago, also referencing how my Afro-Futurist performance art utilizes the garment as second skin and metaphor.

Artists have many reasons for utilizing the trappings of futurism. I focus on ritual to create meditative, immersive works investigating the artist’s ability to effect transformation through vibrational, intentional action.  Alter-Destiny 888-from Sun Ra’s  “I am the alter destiny”–considered the epidemic of fibroids among women of color and the use of healing sonic force.  The cloak became heavy with clumps of clay figures that were then dragged hanging off the back with increasing weight day by day.

Rapunzel Revisited: An Afri-sci-fi Space Sea Siren Taleis a zoomorphic hybridization of human and jellyfish “skirt” investigating trappings of “classic beauty” and notions of black femininity, remixing fairy tales.

Color: Shaping Experience

Photo courtesy Matt "Motep" Woods

In 1958 the United States launched the first satellite and the space age officially began.  Sun Ra dressed his band members in colors based on chakras, explaining, “costumes are music. Colors throw out musical sounds. Every color throws out vibrations of life.”[i] Trumpeter Lucious Randolph recalls that Sun Ra was so affected by color that “sometimes you’d have to change to a different color just to be able to talk to him.”[ii]  Ra designed the band’s costumes which became “so common…that some began to wear parts of them on the streets.”

In April 2010, Nicole Mitchell and Black Earth Ensemble’s Xenogenesis II performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art featured ethereal costumes made of white plastic bags with stage lighting that turned the band and stage into an ethereal dreamscape.[iii]

Chicago’s trailblazing Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians members are well-known for their painted visages and costuming that adds a mystical level to their multi-generational jazz performances.

Futurism Embodied

Sun Ra, scene from Space is the Place, 1974

Along with space travel and the approaching Millennium came new fashions shaped by these future visions.  Asking “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” Labelle stripped away the old persona and inspired legions of fans with seamless melodies, masterful lyrics, and silvery costumes that were at once space uniforms and sexy alien suits.  Pushing past notions of what black female musicians could do, they claimed their rightful place in rock music history.  A May 1976 Ebony magazine feature describes the scene:

“A masquerading groupie, prancing down the center of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago like a pony freshly dipped in silver paint, is about to witness a great American rock show[…]The former doowah ladies…are in the forefront of outrageous unisexual futurism in rock music show biz…”[iv]

1978’s The Wiz introduced audiences to a black-centric version of The Wizard of Oz with Nipsey Russell as Tinman.  On most days on Michigan Avenue in front of any high-end shopping destination, you can find Chicago’s own Tinman Leroy Midyette who has been performing his signature dance moves to a Michael Jackson soundtrack on the Magnificent Mile since 1998.  Contrary to the Tin Woodsman, he is described as “full of heart.”[v]


From Gary, Indiana to Thriller, Moonwalker to Neverland, Michael Jackson’s iconic style translated directly into mass market for desperately in love fans for whom the accessories and accoutrements brought them closer their hero and his tortured path with which they identified so deeply.

Outfitting the New Nation

At 1974’s Wattstax, Jesse Jackson led the 110,000-plus attendees in recitation of a national black litany.  At the end with fist raised, he roars, “What time is it?” and in unison they reply, “NATION TIME!”

“[I]n the early days in every nation, everyone had their costume.  ‘Cause they identified the nation….If you’re out fighting a battle, they say, “Fly your colors…every night I’m fighting a different kind of battle, so I have to change according to that night…”  -Sun Ra

“Sun Ra used to compare the Arkestra to a disciplined army,” James Jacson said.  “Soldiers can only win the war if they believe in what they do.”

Chakaia Booker, courtesy Nelson Tejada

“We’re like space warriors.  Music can be used as a weapon, as energy.  The right note or chord can transport you into space using music and energy flow.  And the listeners can travel along with you.[vi]

Jae Jarrell of Chicago’s AfriCOBRA created Revolutionary Suit in 1970.  Her tweed A-line suit with delicate scalloped “bullet” border translates fluidly as “ready to wear.”

Parallels to Afro-Futurism’s core tenets are found in the work of sculptor Chakaia Booker.  Always pictured in her headdress of African textiles, wrapped one on top of the other with panels hanging to shoulder and sometimes waist-length, she is Amazonian with eyes so direct they seem to strip away all pretense.  Her presence is awesome and beautiful.  Her monumental works of discarded tire rubber speak to reclamation and reuse; she pushes the material into forms that are alive, organic.

“To this day, [Booker] follows a family tradition and makes her own clothes, transforming them into wearable art, like the turbans that make her seem twice as tall as she is. Her eccentric appearance can shock people and still draws catcalls on the Lower East Side, where she has lived, in the same tiny apartment near Tompkins Square Park, for nearly 30 years.”

Joseph Jarman of AACM

Booker is represented in Chicago by G.R. N’Namdi Gallery.

George Clinton and P-Funk enact the cosmic drama with the mythological Dr. Funkenstein and Sir Nose where funk is rescued while “guitarist Gary Shider sail[s] over the audience, dressed as a diapered angel.”[vii]  Work “uniforms” in the Afro-Futurist style extend to all band members including his muse who enthralled the crowd in 2002 Washington Park by floating down the extended runway into the audience wearing a gigantic pair of butterfly wings, wild-colored Clinton-esque hair, and glittering gown.

To be continued in Part II on Wednesday, February 8…

D. Denenge Akpem presents a performance-lecture on the intersections of Afro-Futurism and fashion on Wednesday, February 1 at 7:00 p.m. as part of the Black Gossamer exhibition closing reception.  Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago, 1104 S. Wabash.  For more information, contact curator Camille Morgan at 312-369-7663.


[i] Damon Locks, “Costuming the Super Anti-hero: Sun Ra & Moondog.”  (online)
[ii] Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra.  De Capo Press (1998): 172-173.
[iii] Photo courtesy Nicole Legette.  (online)  http://www.blushingpoppy.org
[iv] Martin Weston,  “Labelle.” Ebony Magazine.  Chicago: Johnson Publications (May 1976): 100, 102.
[v] Inggrid Yonata,  “Chicago’s own Tin Man “full of heart.”  Columbia Chronicle (Summer 2004).
[vi] Szwed, 175.
[vii] Szwed, 264.