Pedagogy. Place. Liberation.

  D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem, S uper Space Riff: An Ode to Octavia Butler and Mae Jamison in VIII Stanzas . Photo: Matt "Motep" Woods

D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem, Super Space Riff: An Ode to Octavia Butler and Mae Jamison in VIII Stanzas. Photo: Matt "Motep" Woods

D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem is an Afro-Futurist space sculptor, performance artist, designer, writer, and educator. For the last 15 years, her award-winning work has bridged the disciplines of interior design, site-specific sculpture, public art practice, and science fiction. Duyst-Akpem is the founder of Denenge Design+Studio Verto which offers specialized, holistic design services and site-specific sculpture for residential and commercial clients. 

In this guest blog, Duyst-Akpem reflects on the methodology of liberation.


As a scholar and practitioner, I utilize the teaching of Afro-Futurism as a methodology of (Black) liberation. The foundation of this is exercising the visionary and imagination muscles in sculpting new futures that affirm the present and are rooted in the past.

Afro-Futurism is more than a desire to take a ride on a spaceship—though, of course, I would welcome the chance for an orbiting spa vacation or a lunar exploration—rather, it is about possibility and learning to activate that in a concrete, effective ways. In this, the connections with Place Lab and Principle #3: Pedagogical Moments are in concert.

In my courses on Afro-Futurism, we cover a range of texts and practitioners to gain the broadest vision of this genre, beginning with Sun Ra’s iconic film Space Is The Place. Other works which address issues of place and space, of community and individual agency, include: W.E.B. DuBois’s The Comet; Paul Miller’s Rhythm Nation and Book of Ice; and Wanuri Kahiu’s award-winning short film Pumzi which presents a post-water wars settlement in what is present-day Kenya and merges environmental consciousness with representations of science, technology, archiving, and costume beyond the usual Euro-Western frame.

By centering and studying in earnest the creative representations of place and community in African Diasporic and Indigenous works, we move past ingrained Eurocentric notions of how things “should” be or how things are, and open space to imagine ourselves in the future which brings students back to the present, to their own agency as they see themselves reflected. I emphasize through the curation of the syllabus students’ ability to shape experience and movement through the world. Space becomes malleable; time can be spiral; and underground digital pathways are sites of radical re-envisioning of self and community.

 Still from  Pumzi  (Wanuri Kahiu, South Africa, 2009, 23 min)

Still from Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, South Africa, 2009, 23 min)

It is about exercising that visionary muscle. I watch the development of students over the course of four months, entering the study of Afro-Futurism with careful interest, excitement, curiosity, wondering how the concepts may apply to their work. As Stevie Wonder sings in “A Seed’s A Star/Tree Medley” from the iconic Secret Life of Plants in reference to Po Tolo in Dogon cosmology, the seeds grow to sturdy young plants over the course of the semester. Students who may not have found space to express their voices or who have never been centered before find fertile ground here. I present Afro-Futurism through a lens of liberatory practice, an Africanist foundation that honors infinite ways of being; through art historical study and embodied ritual—recognizing the body as a space also that can be activated through location with location and sculptural objects—students find their own power and radiate the outward into their relationships, their communities, and their work as artists and conscious cultural producers.

This year, the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, in collaboration with Radio Imagination has hosted a monthly series of events, film screenings, and commissioned works by practitioners such as Mendi + Keith Obadike whose sound works reconfigure how we understand memory, history, space, and time. As Butler wrote her future into being, we learn to manifest our own futures, declaring as she did “So be it!  See to it!”

A hopeful and inspiring development in this vision of Afro-Futurism as a pathway and methodology of liberation was last week’s final Afro-Futurism course media presentations at School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC). Of particular interest to the Place Lab discussions, one student chose to contextualize newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx as an example of Afro-Futurism in action through her commitment to seeking justice for the disenfranchised and using her position to fight the prison industrial complex. Additionally, students also presented on the intersectional art of Juliana Huxtable as representative of Afro-Futurism’s shape-shifting qualities and on Theaster Gates’s projects that seek to reshape space and our understanding of community engagement. We had a lively discussion of Place Lab and its role in Chicago and beyond.


Recommended Reading

Rockeymoore, Mark. What is Afrofuturism?

Hairston, Andrea. Octavia Butler—Praise Song for a Prophetic Artist

Nelson, Alondra. Afrofuturism: Past-Future Visions


For further information, and please feel free to contact me at denenge@denenge.net or dakpem@saic.edu. Visit denenge.net and theAfrofuturist.tumblr.com. I’d be happy to discuss this topic and its relationship to Ethical Redevelopment further at any of our future Salons.