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

D. Denenge Akpem

Adornment and Accessory

Sun Ra in concert

Hats and Headdresses

In Space is the Place, John Szwed features a quote from Sun Ra about an important part of his costume: the hat.

“I had a special space hat with alight on top and people said to me, “Why you got to have a blue light on the top of your head?” if I’m playin’ space music, why can’t I wear my celestial hats and things like that…A costume is music.”[i]


The Queens of Fela Anikulapo Kuti created a style as unique as his music fusion. Camerounian-French sisters Les Nubians featured a similar style for their 2003 album One Step Forward.  Philadelphia’s spectacular Afrofuturist Affair: A Charity Costume & Ball in October 2011, this same style of face-painting and other accoutrements are used to beautiful effect by revelers.

Reclamation: African Traditions

In Afro-Futurism, the garment is an active part of the creative/transformative process; the garment or costume is an activator.  In West Africa, for those Egungun priests who invoke the departed spirits, the self disappears in the wearing of the sacred garment; one becomes a vessel for spirit.

The “spectacle” of the masquerade is a ceremony that confirms indigenous belief systems, bringing individuals together as community to celebrate and venerate the dead.  The fashion runway transports the viewer with avant garde visuals and forms that speak to greater themes whether sacred mystery or political issue.

Fela Kuti in concert and portrait of Fela Queen. Fela!, the Tony Award-winning musical directed by Bill T. Jones, comes to Chicago's Oriental Theatre in March 2012.

Last November, Ugandan fashion designer Samson “Xenson” Ssenkaaba debuted whimsical and architectural garments made of bark cloth and gourds at Kampala Serena Hotel’s Victoria Hall as part of his new collection “Futuristic Past” runway show.

One of the most famous of Chicago artists, Nick Cave continues to break barriers with his ever-expanding soundsuit empire.  A former dancer with Alvin Ailey, Cave is faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Meticulously constructed by teams with Cave at the helm in his South Loop workshop, each work is unique and meant to be worn and to create sound through movement.  Audiences become participants at various exhibition locales, and Cave conducted “invasions” in Puget Sound, expanding outside of the museum framework.  “My Soundsuits allow identity to be lost or hidden and new ones to be claimed.”

"Xenson" fashions, "Futuristic Past" collection, Fall 2011, Kampala, Uganda

His website soundsuits.com sells his wares, and in a beautiful coup, his soundsuits were featured in the holy grail of fashion: Vogue September 2010 issue for which the magazine commissioned eight new works.  His two simultaneous exhibitions at Mary Boone and Jack Shainman coincided with the New York ready-to-wear shows in September 2011.

Phyllis Galembo has photographed masquerades and indigenous religious portraits for many years and is one of the most respected photographers in the field.  In 2010 she and Nick Cave exhibited together at the Halsey Institute in Chaleston, SC.

Missoni’s 1960s and ’70s knit bodysuits featured at the Estorick Collection are eerily similar to traditional Cross River State masquerade costuming.[ii]

Xenobia Bailey’s fiber artworks in crochet and paper are extraordinary artworks that bridge craft and fine art, function and form in the most hypnotic fashion.  Her men’s orisha hats reflect Yoruba deities and West African carvings; her garments are a riot of swirling color that rivals even the splendor of traditional Zulu women’s beaded garments.

Soundsuits by Nick Cave, feature in Vogue Magazine, September 2010

A peek into Chicago Afro-Futurism and fashion would not be complete without a nod to Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark tour, his surreal Runaway music video/film, and foray into fashion with Louis Vuitton and Air Yeezy Nike’s.

Reuse: Rural Sensibility

My practice is rooted in a rural sensibility of my upbringing.  The costumes have a rawness contrasted with the preciousness of beading, but solidly built to withstand the throes of transcendent ritual action.

In 2010 students in Columbia College’s Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation course presented a multi-media performance at the Hyde Park Art Center.  Bicycle tire rubber was used to create tasseled alien-esque headdresses. Students created a range of costumes in true bricolage tradition.

Inspired by studies of Afro-Futurism as an artistic methodology of liberation, the audience-interactive work featured “runaway” Aliens and Overseers who patrolled entrances.  Renowned flutist Nicole Mitchell participated as a nymph drawing the audience from room to room with the power of music.

Ngar Ball Traditional Masquerade Dancers, Cross River State, Nigeria, Phyllis Galembo, 2004

Hybridity, Zoomorphism and Shapeshifters

Constructing implies building–putting pieces together with intention for the purpose of creating a new form, a structure.  Garments act as architectural forms like a crab wears its “space.”  The framework of hybridity allows exploration of identity, states of alienation, gender, and race.

In the Yinka Shonibare Bemuse exhibition catalog, Shonibare states:

“Excess is the only legitimate means of subversion.[…] Hybridization is a form of disobedience, a parasitic disobedience on the host species, an excessive form of libido, it’s joyful sex.[…]I wish to produce the fantastic, I strive to reach ecstasy, I crave jouissance, my desire for the radical beautiful induces the kind of pain which strikes at the very center of my soul.”[iii]

This shapeshifting art uses the “fashion”/costume as a portal, turning the body into a vehicle of transport, an activate-able site.

Tyler Andere and Nicole Mitchell, Afro-Futurism: Pathways to Black Liberation, Class Performance at Hyde Park Art Center, April, 2010

Afro-Futurism has no tense: it is spiral, past-present-future tense, manifesting alternate realities and spaces for the true realization of self, destiny, freedom.  Afro-Futurism is within and without; in our vessel traveling to new realities/spaces/time, it is the core capacitor.

[i] Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra.  De Capo Press (1998): 174.

[ii] Suzy Menkes,  “Fashion and Futurism: Colorful History Entwined.”  New York Times (July 20, 2009).

[iii] Quoted from Yinka Shonibare: Bemuse: Yinka Shonibare, statement published in the brochure for the exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, June-September 2001, p. 19.