Afronauts: An Afrocentric past for an Alternative Future

A critical review of Nuotama Frances Bodomo’s 2014 film

By Nicola Pilkington


“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”
Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)

 

In “Afro-mythology and African Futurism”, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum proposes the potential of the ‘African Futurism’ movement and the “subtle implication of imagining the future in the present tense, conjur(ing) real opportunities for re-seeing the everyday present” (2013). Nuotama Frances Bodomo’s 2014 short film, Afronauts, emblemizes these possibilities by reimagining the first moon landing from a Black African Feminist centered perspective. 

Afronauts is a speculative fiction short inspired by the story of Edward Makuka Nkoloso and the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, in Zambia 1964. Set on the night of the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, the film dreamily follows a space-cadet-in-training, the 17-year-old Matha Mwamba, who -along with two “specially trained” cats – is the chosen astronaut to be sent to the moon. In an interview with Hyperallergic in 2019, Bodomo explains how the film becomes a meditation on the implications of launching an African body into space, “against the backdrop of the independence movements taking place across the African continent in the 1960s” (Cassel, 2019).

Shot in faded black and white, a conscious echoing of the ethnographic footage of Africa in the 60’s (ibid), the camera dreamily floats around Matha (Diandra Forrest) in a high-frame rate replicating the slow-motion effects of weightlessness when in space. The film is punctuated with titles familiar to documentary titles from that era, and on occasion we jump to her POV: rolling down a sand dune in a barrel or staring up at the moon. The drifting sonic texture accentuates the contemplative atmosphere, drifting in an out of a radio broadcast of Apollo 11’s voyage. We are granted with the pleasure of imagining Matha’s first steps on the moon, certainly testing the emblematized images of Armstrong. Further, the “otherworldly and hypnotic” atmosphere (in Bodomo’s own words) induced by the black and white, slow motion and textured sonic aesthetic, offers an aftertaste of nostalgia. Of a past that never was and a future that can becomes possible.

In his essay, “Space is the (non)place,” Stevphen Shukaitis eloquently proposes that our imaginary of space and non-earth places become “other possible worlds creates a terrain where it becomes possible to work towards the creation of another world”, and especially a world where an Afro-centric existence can be prioritized, celebrated and protected (2009). Shukaitis continues by putting forward that the role of outer space within the frame of radical imagination, “as a mental mechanism for conjuring new worlds to occupy” (2009: 89). Shukaitis states “if utopia has ‘no place’ in this world, no spatiality on our maps, the dream to leave this earth can hold quite a seductive sway for those who desire to found a new earth upon escape from this one.” He refers to these new worlds as ‘terrain(s)of possibility’. Bodomo’s film can therefore be considered as conjuring up the possibility of African space travel, and a world where an African, albino, young women emblematizes innovation and modernization.

‘Afrofuturism’ is term coined by American critic Mark Dery in Black to the Future, defined as “science fiction and cyberculture of the XXth century in the service of an imaginary reappropriation of experience and black identity… in other words, to fuse together an engagement with historical themes and experiences and the ways that they play out within a contemporary racialized experience” (1993: 182). A literary, music and cultural movement (emerging in the late 1980’s in the US, extending into the late 90’s), based on “exploring the black experience through the relation between technology, science fiction, and racialization” in a speculative manner (Bristow, 2013). And so, fictionalizing a future or future’s past as Black; or an alternative world that is not only “out of the reach of racist stereotypes”, but also one that centre’s the Black experience can be argued as a revolutionary act. 

Tegan Bristow is clear to differentiate between ‘Afrofuturism’ and ‘African Futurism’, stating that “the origins of ‘Afrofuturism’ has very little to do with being or living in Africa and everything to do with early explorations of cyberculture in the West” (2013). ‘African Futurism’, as it is argued by Bristow, furthers this notion by placing an emphasis on the Black African experience (2013). While acknowledging the aesthetic and political influence of Afrofuturism, African Futurism investigates Africa’s relationship with technology and cyberculture; a subject, as Bristow notes at the time, that has not been researched much. She continues by refereeing to Delphi Carstens and Mer Roberts’ 2009 article on the “Protocols for Experiments in African Science Fiction”, and names several important factors when differentiating the movements: Particularly African Post-Colonial theory; Africa’s relationship to globalization, migration and digital technology; and the concept of “non-time”. “African philosopher and priest John Mbiti speaks of the ‘non-time’ in African culture: ‘The future in African thinking is virtually absent… actual time is therefore what is present and what is past… since what is in the future has not been experienced’. This grasp of a future/present is not the narrative of a futurist utopia found in Western culture, but rather a renegotiation and destabilization of the present” (Bristow, 2013; referring to Carstens and Roberts). It can therefore be argued that Afronauts and its reimagining of the past (and those implications of the future), not only demystifies Western grand narratives of our present; but invigorates possible African-centred histories or futures.

Bodomo argues the importance of speculation and “the liberty of fiction to sort of tell a story away from the balance of reality, or what we’re calling reality… (and that) using new methodologies and new forms that bend and break cinematic language… fiction offers the space to be more playful, and therefore attempt to be more truthful about African stories (Cassel, 2019). Bodomo states that the past ethnographic footage of Africa was ‘weaponizing’ and that filmmaking played “such a specific and successful colonizing tool that’s been used against (African) people… There’s this core work to do and undo at the same time… I resented the fact that so many of the earliest images, pictures, and videos of Africans are colonial images” (ibid). By reframing the black and white, desaturated aesthetic, the film leaves the audience questioning the validity of the referent news reel of Nkoloso and the space-cadets-in-training (Associated Press). Serpell points out the dramatic license in casting Diandra Forrest, an albino actress; setting the training camp in the desert (“Zambia has no deserts”) and complexifies whether “they actually followed through with the launch”, “weather they made it” and “did it even happen” (2017; ibid).

Bodomo’s play on authenticity, framing it as a “fictionalized film inspired by real events”, links to Afrofuturism’s critique of our current realities and through fiction, offers alternative possibilities. And further, drawing on Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia (2016), possibilities of framing the African Independences as central to the era, rather than sidelined in the context of the Space Race and Cold War context. One can therefore assert Bodomo’s use of the genre, not only in the filmic style, but through the reclamation of Edward Makuka Nkoloso’s story. 

In Afrotopia, Sarr argues for a kind of African renaissance. Or rather, ‘re-thinking afro-pessimism, clichés, stereotypes, and pseudo-certitudes’ that were born out of the numerous revolutions around the continent in the 1960’s (2016). And, he referrers to Fanon here, a continent that is currently healing from the deep psychological scars and still emancipating it’s self from an identify politic that is at odds with it’s past. Much of Sarr’s essay links intrinsically to the African Futurist movement. His encouragement of thinking-and-therefore actualizing a utopia that is African connects deeply into the larger Post-Colonial and Decolonial identity project. When considering his chapter, “The Revolution Will Be Intelligent”, referring both the digital revolution and the contemporary Black Consciousness movements embodied through the Fallist and BLM movements, we can start to link Bodomo’s film as a ‘revolutionary intellectual act’.

Sarr names our current moment as seminal in Africa’s ownership of how it portrays itself (referring to the ubiquity of camera phones and internet access); and that futurist fiction is as important as ‘authentic’ documentation. And further, personalize, multiply and complexify the African identity; opposed to the monolithic and ethnographic identity imposed by an outside, often Western, eye. Bodomo’s film actualizes this thesis by reframing and reclaiming the story of Edward Makuka Nkoloso, and therefore is deeply connected to radicalization and reformation.

Nkoloso was known as a science teacher and Zambian freedom fighter, namely a district president of the ANC in Luwingu during late 1950’s; a member of the United National Independence Party in the early 60’s; and later, served as the late President Kenneth Kaunda’s “Special Representative” at the African Liberation Center (Serpell, 2017). He founded Zambia’s unofficial Space Program on the eve of the country’s independence, to prepare the youth for “political readiness” (ibid) and to “beat the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the moon” while doing so (as per TIME magazine’s infamous article from October 30, 1964 titled “Zambia: Tomorrow the Moon”). Nkoloso and his program were ridiculed in the Western press, including an insert from the Associated Press in November of 1964 (one of the rare pieces of archival footage of Nkoloso), naming them ‘a bunch of crackpots’.

The footage portrays Nkoloso and his trainees at the “Zambia Space Academy” at an abandoned farmhouse near Lusaka. He is wearing a cape and a standard-issue World War II helmet, and points out their rocket made out of aluminium and copper. We then see the trainees rolling down hills in oil drums to prepare them for weightlessness. “He taught them to walk on their hands as he believed this to be the way to walk in space. He made them swing on a rope, before cutting the rope to allow them to experience freefall” (Serpell, 2017). He continues to state that they plan to launch the rocket from Independence Stadium to coincide with the very first hoisting of the Zambain flag. 

In her New Yorker article, “The Zambian “Afronaut” Who Wanted to Join the Space Race” (March 2017), Namwali Serpell not only excavates Nkoloso’s history, but unpacks the debate whether he was ‘serious’; or, if it was a guise for a radical evolutionary youth group. Or a satirizing US’s multi-billion-dollar space program. Moreover, in Acts of Transgression: Contemporary Live Art in South Africa (2019), Mwenya Kabwe reframes and reclaims the figure of Nkoloso as a “utopian visionary” and a seminal “Africa futurist, ahead of his time in his ability to see a Zambian mission to the moon as a metaphor for the expansive and deeply hopeful future of an independent Northern Rhodesia”. Kabwe succinctly sums up Nkoloso as a subversive figure:

He became not only an eccentric visionary, taking the metaphor of Zambia’s independence literally to new heights, but also a trickster and satirist. In this reading the cast imagined Nkoloso’s space programme as a front for underground revolutionary activity, his cape and helmet a disguise, and the antics of his training programme a successful distraction from his clear-headed leadership of an anticolonial student movement.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso and his ‘African cosmonauts’ have been emblemized and depicted in several projects. Beyond Bodomo’s film, Serpell’s novel and Kabwe’s production, Cristina de Middel’s surreal photographic and sculpture series, Afronauts (2012-2014), is recognized as an early reframing of Nkoloso as an African Futurist visionary. The myth securing an important place in the Afro- and African Futurist genre.

Nuotama Bodomo’s, Afronauts stands as an important part of the African futurism canon.  The short exemplifies poignant reframing of Western grand narratives; complexifies notions of a monolithic African utopic future; and proposes active meaning-making through the speculative fiction form. The film asks us to reframe our past, critique our present and propose that different futures are possible. 



Bibliography:

Afronauts. (2014). Directed by Frances Bodomo. New York: Powder Room Films

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Serpell, N. (March 2017). “The Zambian “Afronaut” Who Wanted to Join the Space Race” in The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-zambian-afronaut-who-wanted-to-join-the-space-race. Accessed 10 Oct 2020.

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