Imagine a world free of racism.

“In Their Own Form,” a photography meets Afrofuturism exhibition at Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, depicts such a fantastical future world. It “seeks to illuminate the myriad ways blackness might hope to exist without the imposition of oppression, racism and stereotypes ever-present in Western cultures, mediated through Afrofuturist themes including time-travel and escapism.”

We spoke to Sheridan Tucker Anderson, the curator behind this collection of 33 works from 13 artists, to learn about some of her favorite pieces, how Frederick Douglass inspired the exhibition, and why representation in the art world matters.

Q: Tell me about your role at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

A: I’m the Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts. Part of my fellowship is to diversify the collection, bring more artists of color in and more women artists in. The awesome thing about this museum is that they make it a point to support emerging artists. By the nature of someone being emerging, they tend to be younger and tend to be more ethnically represented. MoCP does also kind of go out of their way to try to bring in people who are not as represented.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for “In Their Own Form”?

A: I knew that I had to carry the show, but I didn’t know what that would be. There were no real parameters. It all started on a day in November 2016. Trump was on his way to happening or had happened, and a lot of people were in disbelief. I wasn’t one of those people, but I also didn’t know where to put what I felt into words.

All I knew was that this was going to incubate art production in a way that scary times often do. As I started to kind of situate myself, things like escapism and nostalgia and time travel kept coming up for me, and I knew that those were of course loosely related to Afrofuturism.

I always explain that this is not a Afrofuturism show. These are not Afrofuturist artists. They’re working in this vein and this is how the work has affected me.

Q: Explain the exhibition’s title. You’ve talked about Afrofuturism in the sense of people getting to represent themselves through their own lens.

A: I had been doing research. Henry Louis Gates has amazing research on Frederick Douglass and in that research early on, this was my first time finding out that Frederick Douglass was the most photographed American of his time. A person who was enslaved ended up being this force.

I found a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson from his “The Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies” from 1844. He says all these things about Toussaint and all of these “exceptional Negroes” and then gets to the part “Here is the Anti-Slave … now let them emerge clothed and in their own form.”

Representation is something that Frederick Douglass was doing. Representation is something that I’m doing every day working at this museum, diversifying the collection. That just struck a chord for me because representation is everything. It’s the reason why diversity initiatives exist. Representation is something that could be changed. Institutional racism — that’s bigger. But I can definitely put some brown people on these walls.

Q: Let’s say someone has only 30 minutes to check out the show. Can you highlight a few of your favorite pieces?

A: “Passage” from South African artist Mohau Modisakeng: It’s an immersive piece, and in it, Mohau is focusing on the reverberations of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade felt in Apartheid. What I appreciate so much outside of it being amazingly hypnotic in a wonderful way — it has all the elements of Afrofuturism in it. We think about water as life-giving, but also thinking about the forced migration of enslaved people, how that water was not life-affirming, it was the opposite. Africans were thrown overboard. Mohau’s thinking about it on the African side of it. So often when we talk about slavery, we automatically think black American.

“Purple Rain” series from Mary Sibande: Mary has large-scale sculptures that she makes in her likeness. Her alter ego is named Sophie, who is based on a domestic worker in South Africa. All of the women in her family labored as domestic workers, so she’s thinking about class, femininity, domesticity, race and how they unfold in South Africa. The series references the Purple March that happened in 1989 — anti-apartheid protesters were sprayed with purple dye for later recognition.

Alexis Peskine’s “Aljana Moons” series: He documented a group in Senegal called the talibé. The boys in the community are often poor and are given the opportunity to have older males to support them, but often those same people end up exploiting them. Alexis repurposed the cans that they would use to get money. These things that are considered detritus in a way — he repurposed them as astronaut costumes to think about what future looks like, what access looks like and collectively what the black male experience is expected to be and what definitely is not always the case.

Q-and-A’s are edited for length and clarity.

smcarpenter@redeyechicago.com | @SadeMichelle


“In Their Own Form”

Museum of Contemporary Photography

600 S. Michigan Ave., 312-663-5554

Open through July 8


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