New Center for Afrofuturist Studies brings Iowa City to the intersection of art, race and technology

Interstellar Dance Party: A Fundraiser for the Center for Afrofuturist Studies

The Mill — Thursday, Jan. 28 at 9 p.m.

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Raidcal Abacus
A drawing by Anaïs Duplan at Radical Abacus in Santa Fe, New Mexico, titled “Morphologies.”

Octavia Butler. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Nicki Minaj. You don’t often see these disparate names in the same context — but when you do, recent transplant to Iowa City, poet, performer and artist Anaïs Duplan is right there with them. Duplan, in conjunction with Public Space One, is founding a Center for Afrofuturist Studies in Iowa City. Structured as an artist residency program, the CAS will bring in some of the most exciting current voices in future-focused black art, to engage with the community.

According to the project’s Kickstarter page, its “public programming seeks to engage both local Iowans and people across the world in a building conversation about the intersections of race, technology and the diaspora.” This is evident in the amazing donation-level perks, which are representative of the wide-ranging support and influences that Duplan has for this project. In addition to the Kickstarter, the Center for Afrofuturist Studies will be holding a kickoff event and fundraiser at The Mill. This Interstellar Dance Party on Thursday, Jan. 28 starts at 9 p.m. and promises “a DJ, lush tunes, dancing, stars.” Cinquepalmi, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, will be the evening’s DJ, and admission is $10. Little Village is a sponsor of the event, and tickets are available at

Artists in Residence

Alexandria Eregbu

Photo by Chuck Olu-Alabi
Photo by Chuck Olu-Alabi

Alexandria Eregbu is a Chicago-based visual and performance artist. A 2013 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she was named one of Chicago’s Breakout Artists 2015 by NewCityArt. She is also known for her curatorial work.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed

Photo courtesy of Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Photo courtesy of Kameelah Janan Rasheed

Kameelah Janan Rasheed, a former Social Studies teacher, is perfectly poised to enact CAS’ mission to engage youth in the community. Artistically, she has an interest in archiving “the outer fringes of culture such as new religious movements, street proselytizers, and other footnotes of history,” according to her website.

Terence Nance

Photo courtesy of Terence Nance
Photo courtesy of Terence Nance

A Texas native, Rance (now based in Brooklyn) works mostly in film. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, his first feature-length film, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2012, and was subsequently released in the U.S., the U.K., France and South Africa. He is also a performance artist and musician.

We spoke to Duplan about this exciting new project, the importance of engaging youth and the future of Afrofuturism:

Little Village: How did you come to collaborate with PS1? What are your goals for the CAS after that two-year initiative closes?

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Anaïs Duplan: I’d been in contact with John Engelbrecht and Kalmia Strong since before I moved to Iowa (which was August of 2015). I’d found Public Space One while checking Iowa City out on the Internet and it seemed to me then, and still now, that they’re the only organization in the area doing what they do. I mean, really. So I feel quite lucky that we made that connection early on. I think we began talking the CAS project since March or April of last year. I was in east Iceland at the time and was just in the beginnings of The Spacesuits project.

I talk about CAS as a “two-year initiative” now because that’s the length of time I can see it existing in a kind of prototypical form. After those two years are up, we’ll only expand further. We’ll have learned a lot by then and perhaps will be just at the perfect moment to re-launch the entire thing, in a fuller and even more imaginative way. In my meetings with PS1 or with Chris Merrill and Hugh Ferrer at the IWP [International Writing Program], I think we’re all in agreement that CAS is an extremely long-term project.

Why Afrofuturism? How will broader exposure to Afrofuturism broaden the people of Iowa City?

There are so many reasons why Afrofuturism has become one of the most relevant frameworks today for thinking about America’s future(s). I’m sure everyone is quite aware by now of the influx of talk about the end of our world and the Anthropocene. It’s all in popular culture and on the news. As a culture, we think about the future almost constantly, these days especially. I use “Afrofuturism” to refer to a particular way of thinking about the future – namely, with Black and POC lives in mind (and in heart). Within the sphere of art-making, this can mean quite a lot of things. The artists we’re bringing this year are practitioners who I think have really de- and re-constructed the Afrofuture, with so much tenacity. We’ll announce this year’s full season soon, but I’ll say now that Iowa City can look forward to filmmakers, authors, visual artists, new media artists. It will be a really exciting time to be here.

… What I’m hoping to serve is an atmosphere of comfort about discussing the future in deliberate, if unorthodox, ways. If by the end of 2016, fewer people feel intimidated or turned off by the idea of talking about the future of race and class in America, then I’m happy. Then I think we’d have done something really special. It’s not about forcing people into conversations they don’t want to have. It’s about making it safe to feel uncomfortable and then trying to make it better.

Tell me a little bit about your performance collective, The Spacesuits. Will the group or any of its members (besides yourself) have any collaboration with the CAS initiative?

The Spacesuits is a beautiful project that started early 2015. I say beautiful because it is such a massive collaboration, whose structure at any given moment in a state of total flux. It’s difficult to say who our members are because it depends. For example, since last year, I believe I’ve worked with over 50 musicians (from the US, the UK, Canada, Iceland and elsewhere). They are all, in one sense, Spacesuits members. In another sense, we may not see each other or work together again for years to come. So, The Spacesuits is always sort of growing and shrinking. If I meet an artist I really admire, or a group of artists, I’ll often try to incorporate them into a show, but perhaps this only happens once or twice, or perhaps it continues. Usually our shows are a combination of live performances and gallery work. Sometimes it’s gallery work that I’ve prompted someone to make and other times it’s simply the artists’ latest work. So the answer to your question is yes, there are Spacesuits members involved in CAS, and at many different levels simultaneously.

The Spacesuits
Drawings by The Spacesuits at Distillery Gallery in Boston

You said that each of your artists-in-residence will be expected to create a youth workshop (of their design). What are your feelings on youth engagement with the arts, and with Afrofuturism in particular? What led you to request youth involvement, particularly, from your visiting artists?

It’s so important to include children when talking about the future. Not only in a way that is determinative – “What future ought children to have?” for example – but also, in a way that includes youth in the setting of the future’s course. They, after all, will be the ones living in our future of now. I think a great number Black and POC children grow up without a wealth of options laid out before them. And perhaps they’ve had dreams that don’t yet know they’ve had. How wonderful to put a filmmaker in a room full of children and let them find some common ground. I’ve worked with many youth in my life and the arts have always been there, as a sort of portal that we can use together to talk and think about the future. So I think it would represent a huge flaw in a program like the Center for Afrofuturist Studies to not have youth engagement. The Dream Center has been a great ally for this.

Duplan with a Spacesuits collaborator, Winston Scarlett.

What kinds of specific workshops can we be starting to get excited about? Will you be leading any yourself?

I talked recently with one of our 2016 residents about hosting a weekend-long conference on Afrosurrealism in late Fall. We’re also planning film screenings, readings, artist talks and performances. We’d like to really make use of the variety of venues around Iowa City, so that the Center actually becomes a very decentralized thing, happening throughout the city as opposed to in one distinct locale. And sure, I might lead a workshop or two myself but for now, I’m focused on making sure our visiting artists have as much freedom [as possible] to design the kinds of public events that excite them.

Genevieve Heinrich is a writer, an editor, a malcontent and a ne’er-do-well. Occasionally, she acts and sings. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 191.