Speculative Art: Healing Through Radical Imagination

Nneka Sobers
Sep 15, 2020 · 5 min read

“Working on and against [the dominant ideology] is a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance.” — Munoz, Disidentification

In a world plagued by systemic oppression, climate change, and a pandemic, daydreaming of a better future may seem like a playful way to escape everyday stress. Instead of thinking of daydreaming as a petty distraction from the present, speculating on a future free from stress and oppression is actually an essential art that helps us find new ways of coping with the trauma of living in these challenging times. Exercising foresight may include daydreaming, but also includes other speculative art forms, such as literature, visual media, technical documents (ie. urban plans, industrial design), etc. Speculative art derives various stories of the future from present struggles, while telling alternative stories about how the world came to be. This form of radical imagination provokes a wider conversation and critical reflection on the future we are constructing. It is a mechanism that forces us to examine, process, and build past our societal trauma.

As part of our collaborative Afrotectopia syllabus, the Afrotectopia Imagineers, myself included, selected weekly readings that were related to various topics related to visioning vibrant Black futures. In addition to the readings, the Imagineer fellowship also included weekly Imaginariums and Fellowships guests. A new skill that I built during the fellowship was using speculative art and worldbuilding as a language to help me critically examine our present world and escape into a creative alternative. Out of the range of ideas, forms, and people I engaged with throughout the Fellowship, speculative art was a common thread that took many forms. From Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” to Olalekan Jeyifous’ Imaginarium discussion and Rafael Smith’s “Saturday Sketches”, each artist’s particularly crafted fictions uncovers and translates societal frustrations, fears, trauma, and hopes into empathetic emergent strategies. Imagining radical futures surfaces possibilities from the future, and inspires present action and new forms of solidarity.

Healing our societal pain

“The only form of fiction that I know of that is truly revolutionary is science fiction and speculative fiction…not only is it revolutionary to mean to say it overthrows a way of thinking; it also puts pressure on you to figure out what are you going to do now that you’re here.” — Walter Mosley

In “Solar Powered Reparations”, Rafael Smith developed a creative strategy of utilizing near future technologies to close the widening racial wealth gap. By merging the science of solar-power satellites, racial justice in climate change, and reparations, these seemingly disparate topics create a language that connects the dots between interconnected forms of oppression in our current society and develops possible tools to overcome these challenges. Rafael’s work provides a critical and optimistic space that acknowledges the trauma of race and inequality in America, while moving forward with a way with coping and moving past this pain. Speculative art, like Rafael’s work, makes my lived experience as a Caribbean-American woman of color feel seen, valued, and empowered. Since I live in a world where an existence like mine is constantly overlooked and undervalued, engraving my existence into an empathetic and hopeful future world helps me cope with the pain of my everyday oppression.

Art like Rafael’s illustration forces me to be deliberate about acknowledging how I live in a world that continues to exploit Brown and Black communities limiting our access to gain wealth and flourish in society. Although this is a pain that I feel and witness daily, this forced acknowledgment makes the invisible system of oppression tangible and provides me with potential actionable ways of overcoming that aspect of our lived experience. I believe radical imagination from marginalized communities is an essential form of healing from societal trauma by protecting space for emancipatory aspiration and critical optimism.

Although an artist may express their individual radical imagination through individual art, healing through speculative art can be a collective process. Creating a world for marginalized people built by marginalized people creates solidarity against the oppression we face. Without radical imagination, we are only left with the oppression’s vision of a world that continues to keep us at the margins. Without radical imagination, where is hope? Where is survival?

The Role of the Artist

In creating a vision of the future, visual representations of what our future could look like are incredibly powerful. From large-scale productions like Kehinde Wiley’s work to the architectural renderings of Olalekan Jeyifous and J. Max Bond Jr., make radical visions of the future seems less abstract and more real and attainable. For example, when J. Max Bond Jr. was co-designing a community-led master plan for Harlem in 1968, Bond Jr. created sketches of what a vision of Harlem would look like in the absence of urban renewal. In these historic sketches, there are people with Afros raising their fists in solidarity as they stroll past each other on a comfortable street lined with trees. Given that these sketches were made in a time where images of Black people were not included or honestly portrayed in art and media (even though we still have a long way to go in this present time), Bond Jr.’s celebration of Black identity and the Black aesthetic forced the mainstream to reckon with the existence and beauty of Blackness.

Olalekan Jeyifous’ work also uses architecture as a powerful medium of capturing the imagination of Afrofuturist cities. Jeyifous’ “Shanty Mega-Structures” are breathtaking renderings that reimage African cities and celebrates the aesthetic of informal marginalized communities. When Olalekan shared his work during an Afrotectopia Imaginarium, I was excited by how he carefully examined and celebrated ways that informal communities can survive in a future of resource scarcity and continued marginalization. In his reflection, Olalekan shared even though he is passionate about his ideas for the future of African cities, he’s not African. Therefore he has to be critical in the way he creates his art in a way that doesn’t fetishize “ruin porn” for the consumption of the Western gaze. Olalekan’s reflection highlights an important point about solidarity and the Black aesthetics. Although the power of speculative art is collective, the point of radical imagination is to inspire critical conversations, rather than being a prescriptive aesthetic. We must create polychromatic visions that celebrate our survival and build solidarity amongst the diaspora.

Before Afrotectopia I considered myself a daydreamer; I could only dream of what a just future could look like. By having my world be expanded by the amazing Syllabus readings and conversations with my fellow Imagineers, I will no longer discount my daydreams as pointless distractions. These dreams are seeds of my radical imagination planting vibrant and speculative visions, which provide me with tools that can help me heal and actualize a hopeful world that is for me, for us. My dreams are only the threads of a speculative tapestry that is in a continual state of curiosity, evolution, emergence, and revolution.

“The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible” — Toni Bambara

Afrotectopia Imagineer Fellowship 2020