Harold Offeh on Afrofuturism and the power of prophesy
With his Art Fund-supported commission – an intergalactic spaceship that broadcasts the public’s predictions for the future – coming to Bold Tendencies in Peckham this summer, the artist explains the project’s philosophical origins and political potential.
Who is Harold Offeh?
Ghana-born, Cambridge-based artist Harold Offeh’s work encompasses photography, video, performance and social practice. For his project Hail the New Prophets (supported by Art Fund), commissioned by Bold Tendencies for 2021 – for its multistorey-car-park exhibition space in Peckham, London – Offeh launched an open call inviting the public’s visions for the future. They will be broadcast from a sculpture of an intergalactic spaceship, inspired by Afrofuturism philosophy and its pioneer, experimental jazz musician Sun Ra.
Q: What is the importance of Afrofuturism to you?
Bold Tendencies approached me [in 2019] about a commission for [the following] summer. I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to draw on my previous projects’ – which often involved communities and thinking about the dynamics of a space through the lens of Afrofuturism and speculative fictions. The Mothership Collective (2006) was a commission to take over the South London Gallery and fed into a line of research into Sun Ra but also looked at alternative futures. Futurama (2010) involved working with a leadership programme for young Black people to rethink public space in Peckham.
My work is often about re-enactments of histories, of performances, so my idea was to recreate Sun Ra’s Mothership from the 1974 cult film Space is the Place. It’s a lo-fi sci-fi featuring Sun Ra and his Arkestra [ensemble] landing in Oakland, near San Francisco, and preaching to the African American community about the virtues of space and alternative planets. It’s a philosophy-manifesto movie, extended music video and also, bizarrely, like a 1970s blaxploitation film.
The Mothership is an important symbolic reference within Afrofuturism. For Sun Ra, it’s about this myth narrative that claims Ancient Egypt as an advanced, even alien, African civilisation and the African American experience, which has been shaped by slavery and the loss of biography and identity. It’s a funky narrative, but Sun Ra was totally invested in that in terms of self-actualisation and autopoiesis. Giving up his name, Herman P Blount, is a strategy of reclaiming autonomy and agency. For me, the ship as an object represents some key ideas: it refers to figures such as [pioneering Black nationalist] Marcus Garvey, the Middle Passage of the slave trade and the idea of reclaiming the ship as a vessel that might transport the diaspora home.
“The call and title are about this process of calling forth and giving permission to be soothsayers and fantasists. I’m concerned about who is able to speak to the future.”
The basic premise of the commission is a scale model recreation of that ship. It’s going to be slightly hovering on stilts and will probably be made of fibreglass and coated with shiny yellow resin. We’ve drawn a lot from sci-fi aesthetics. The whole ship looks like two flaming eyeballs with these long tails – a nod to that idea of envisioning futures. We’ve been thinking about a landing pad so people can congregate around it. It will be lit up, and I’m clinging to the idea of some dry ice, although that might not happen.
The car park has this unbelievable panorama of London, so it speaks to the urban landscape. The project isn’t about a weird object folly; it is a catalyst for audiences to engage in their own myth making and prophesying. It invites people to assume the methodology of Sun Ra as a visionary. The call and title are about this process of calling forth and giving permission to be soothsayers and fantasists. I’m concerned about who is able to speak to the future. Culturally, there’s been a squeezing-out of people’s engagement with the imaginative or the speculative. Everything has been about getting a job. In workshops people say, ‘Oh, I guess I never really think’ or, ‘No one’s really asked me.’
While I don’t want to dictate what people might run with, it’s not necessarily all going to be optimistic. That’s really important for actual change to happen. If one looks at big cultural and social changes, you’ve always needed people to think the unthinkable, whether that’s the abolitionists or [women’s rights advocate] Mary Wollstonecraft.
With the pandemic, the sculpture has been postponed to 2021, but it has led to questions about the project’s relevance to this new period. It’s brought reflection, speculation and fear. Obviously, with George Floyd’s death, in the US, there’s a re-examination of history, and cultural and national identities are being challenged. The project has taken on a deeper resonance, and it has given us the opportunity to launch this call.
People can write manifestos or poetry, make music and images, whether that’s video, drawing or photography. The ship will broadcast all of this. We’ll make a soundtrack of samplings of submitted material and screen videos that people have produced. The ship will be a backdrop to readings, conversations and performances, and I’m hoping to build a website to showcase all the contributions.
We’ve had quite a few responses already – predictions, compositions, postcards. There’s concern about the environment, Black Lives Matter, structural/political things such as universal basic income and everything in between like future foods, clothes and alternative technologies. For me, just the opportunity to engage in any wild, crazy, imaginative ideas and a speculative process has a lot of political agency.
Interview by Elizabeth Fullerton.
A version of this article first appeared in the autumn 2020 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
Hail the New Prophets will be one of six new visual-art commissions exhibited on the rooftop of Bold Tendencies, in Peckham, London, from 14 May to 18 September 2021.