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Reimagining comic book superheroes through an Afrofuturist lens

Black Kirby exhibition logo. Image courtesy of Zora Festival
Black Kirby exhibition logo. Image courtesy of Zora Festival

What if instead of the Silver Surfer, there was a comic book character named the Electric Slider? He’s one of a cast of characters created by the art collaborative Black Kirby which reimagines comic book superheroes through the lenses of Afrofuturism, social justice and hip-hop.

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The Electric Slider, by Black Kirby.[/caption]

'Afrofuturism in the Visual Realm' was curated by Julian Chambliss, professor of English at Michigan State University and Val Berryman Curator of History at the MSU museum.  The exhibition is part of Zora Festival and will be on display at the Hurston museum in Eatonville through 2022. 

Chambliss joined intersection to discuss the exhibition along with Central Florida painter and Seminole State University humanities professor Trent Tomengo, who helped assemble the exhibition.

Tomengo says visitors to the gallery should expect to be there a while.

"Not only are they going to see these wonderfully beautiful graphic images, but they're going to see a lot of references to black history, hip hop, futuristic ideas, fantasy, in addition to hip hop culture. So it's a wider range of ideas that emanates from the walls, and you really can't take it all in quickly."

[caption id="attachment_195421" align="alignright" width="261"]

Major Sankofa, by Black Kirby[/caption]

Chambliss says the Black Kirby collaboration between John Jennings and Stacey Robinson is now in it's tenth anniversary year.

"These are artists that are really deeply influenced by futurism, even by their sort of consideration of the origins of American visual culture, and really pursuing ideology that's informed by something they refer to as critical race design theory. All this comes through in the context of the work that you're seeing on the walls."

"Since about 2018, if you say Afrofuturism, to a lot of people, they think Black Panther," adds Chambliss.

"And that's perfectly reasonable: Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, is a phenomenon, arguably a global phenomenon."

Chambliss says there's an accessibility to comic books, but also "some complexity there where people have to, sort of, stretch."

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Julian Chambliss. Photo: supplied[/caption]

He says Jennings and Robinson re-imagine the characters that Jack Kirby in the context of "Black experience, Black culture, Black history. Well, with this, what would they do? Well, they would they wouldn't do the Silver Surfer, They'd do an Electric Slider."

"One of the things we think about the original Silver Surfer is that, you know, that character tapped into a kind of 1960s sort of existential reflection on cosmic things. And so, what does it mean to rethink that through a Black lens, right? Like, what are the sort of existential concerns, what are the questions of identity, cosmos that that character might like trigger you to contemplate?

Tomengo says one of the images that he comes back to is 'Major Sankofa', which references Captain America.

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Trent Tomengo. Photo: supplied[/caption]

"There's so much in that piece from what he's wearing to the symbol that is on his chest, which is an Adinkra symbol called Sankofa," says Tomengo.

He says the idea of Sankofa is "to go back and get something that you left, that you've dropped."

"When you think in that particular way, then you start to ask yourself about the character that is there, the need for that character. Why is there a need for Major Sankofa? Why is there a need to look back? And, you know, that has been a question that black people have been asking, since the advent of slavery, and especially in the ideas of Henry Highland Garnet, Marcus Garvey, Alain Locke, you know, even when you get to the people in the Black Arts Movement, people in the 70s."

Tomengo says the images are open to interpretation.

"That's the beauty of not having a backstory," he says.

"And those pieces continue to feed the mind simply because they are so open ended."