September 20, 2019

Graphic Notes V19: September 2019 – December 2019

Presenting our Fall issue of Graphic Notes, featuring commentary from new Visual Arts Curatorial Resident Alyssa Brubaker on Jan Brugger‘s new show, “Devices to Stay Afloat.” This edition also features Executive Director Adam Zanolini’s tribute to Nicole Mitchell, who headlines the latest iteration of Afrofuturist Weekend. This edition of Graphic Notes was designed by Carol Genetti and printed by Spudnik Press.

Music Beyond Now: the visionary focus of Nicole Mitchell

Elastic Arts is very proud to present Nicole Mitchell’s Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler as part of our Afrofuturist Weekend in 2019. Professor Mitchell (newly appointed Chair in Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh) made some time to talk to me early one morning. She quickly explained some of the most important features of Butler’s work to her, and what that has to do with Afrofuturism now. Butler, she told me, was very concerned with humanity and our contradictions – that we have incredible creativity, but we’re very self-destructive. Specifically, we deliberately destroy human life, animal life, plant life, and the delicate balance upon which we depend absolutely. So, informed by Butler, Nicole Mitchell’s work is not so much concerned about visions of “the future” – not dreaming about what life will be like with flying cars or microchips implanted in our brains – but rather with those questions about humanity: (to paraphrase) how can we be so beautifully intelligent and so terrifyingly crazy at the same time? What are the possible consequences of these human contradictions?

She drew my attention to the fact that many artists and writers – herself included – were doing work that might be called Afrofuturist before that term was in widespread use. Individuals had their own ways of describing their work, and Mitchell’s formulation was visionary rather than reflective in focus. When she first came to Chicago, she had an internship with Haki Madhubuti’s Third World Press, where she read manuscripts by many Black writers. She noticed that most of them were either about the past – trying to regain lost history and understand where we’ve come from in order to move forward – or about the present – looking at current intolerable conditions with the idea that we can’t change what we can’t see. These had what she called a reflective focus.  She compared that to a visionary focus, in which a writer would undertake to create an image of a possible future state towards which we could aspire. She saw many fewer writers with a visionary focus, and it made her realize the significance of her own work’s visionary focus, which she told me she had inherited from her mother.  When you envision something, you can manifest it.  In our interview, Nicole was concerned with recent mass shootings and felt that their etiology lay not only in lax gun laws, but also in the fact that creative people have made so many movies, shows, and games depicting mass shooting, and now we see people manifesting those visions. She postulated that the mind doesn’t fully distinguish between dreams, movies, real experiences. It all goes into our subconscious, and our subconscious helps us to manifest our future. So she asks, what kind of work can we create that can help us manifest the kind of future we want to live in?

The other feature of Butler’s work that inspired Nicole, which I suppose is really the crux of the Afrofuturist paradigm, is simply the act of putting Black people at the center of conversations about the future, where we are too often absent. By embodying that principle through music, she seeks to create a space where we can ask those questions – what kind of future can we create together? – where Black people have full agency to fulfill our vision of the world we want. 

I also asked her if there was something special about Chicago that was key to the development of this kind of visionary work. She pointed to a number of crucial institutions growing out of the Black Arts Movement – the AACM, OBA-C, Third World Press – that have contributed to creating a critical mass of visionary artists that continues to thrive decades later. She said that compared to other places she’s lived, Chicago was the place where visionary work was most possible, where that tradition had been firmly established so that new visionary work could be created and accepted. Nevertheless, she said that today she sees a widespread growing movement towards visionary Black writing, art, and music, and the general development of the concept of Afrofuturism, particularly after the global acclaim of the movie Black Panther

Finally, I asked her about what’s next in her visionary or Afrofuturist work. Her third project inspired by Octavia Butler is set to come out in 2020 on FPE Records. Premiered in Chicago in 2017, the piece is called Earthseed, inspired by Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). In those books, Earthseed is a theology that was created by one of the characters in order to cope with a dystopian unraveling of American society that uncannily parallels many current events. Nicole Mitchell and Lisa Harris co-composed this piece, weaving an Earthseed text through the music that responds to the disturbing political, social, and environmental realities of recent years. 

As a flute player myself, I owe Nicole an enormous debt of gratitude. Without her inspiration, I would never have found the amazing creative community that Elastic serves. She showed me (and everyone else) not only that you can play flute in a jazz space, but also how you can do it in a way that fundamentally challenges dogmatic tradition and is also stunningly beautiful. Even more significantly, she showed me that music can have a purpose, and that its purpose should be envisioning positive Black identity and an ethics of justice, equality, compassion, peace and love. Bringing Nicole Mitchell and her ensemble to Chicago to present this incredible work is a dream come true for me, and for this organization. Thank you Nicole Mitchell!

Sessions from the Archive