I come from a family of retired
sorcerers/active houngans & pennyante fortune tellers
wit 41 million spirits critturs & celestial bodies
on our side
– from My Father is a Retired Magician by African-American playwright and poet Ntozake Shange
Curator, creative anthropologist and writer Niama Safia Sandy is connecting dots. From Bridgetown to Brooklyn, Brixton to Bamako, what ties bind people of the African diaspora?
The answer, among others, is a fluid relationship with the magical – the seamless, everyday co-mingling of the supernatural with the secular. That phenomenon is the focus of Sandy’s curatorial debut, Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures, which opens on April 24 at the Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.
The show is an enchanting, multimedia odyssey that is dedicated – not unlike the Brooklyn-based Sandy – to contemplation, beauty, and the resilience of black and brown people. In the hectic days before the opening, I caught up with her to discuss Black Magic, pop culture and her path to curating.
Talk about the title of the show. How does it describe the work you chose to include?
Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures refers to the common cultural references, beliefs and aesthetics in the global black experience – in the past, present and future. I also wanted to invoke the concept of ‘magical realism.’ It is typically applied to literature of ‘the other’ – African, Latin American, Caribbean, etc. But for most of the world’s population, ‘magical realism’ is not merely a style of writing but also the prism through which we see and understand the world.
Part of our collective purpose is to use what our ancestors gave us to improve the lives of those who come after us.
We may have been dispersed across the globe but the essence of our ancestors’ spirits, lessons, and aesthetic remains within us. The artworks I selected use that iconography, that rhythm, that swagger.
If Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures is ‘the answer’, what is ‘the question’?
What would it look (and sound) like – across time, space, oceans, trauma – if we could fuse the experiences of people of the black diaspora together?
What’s the common thread between the artists and works that you feature?
All of the work I chose speaks to the rich shared histories and traditions across the diaspora. These works are proof positive that we still stand triumphant and inspired to use everything that has happened to us to make so many beautiful, relevant and powerful things.
You’ve described Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures as celebrating how black and brown people everywhere ‘smuggle spirituality’ into every detail of their lives. Talk about the force of black magic in your life personally but also as an anthropologist, curator and writer.
I’m only here because the Universe has cleared this path for me. Part of our collective purpose is to use what our ancestors gave us to improve the lives of those who come after us. That is a mandate of humanity, period.
Popular culture is a particularly good example of our unique ability to turn straw into gold.
My role as an anthropologist, curator and writer, and even in my personal life, seems to be that of an agitator – to question, observe, record and understand modern life, and find ways to help others to do the same.
By its very nature ‘magical blackness’ is rich, spiritual, substantive – the opposite of what we expect from popular culture. But are there examples of magical blackness in popular culture?
Popular culture is a particularly good example of our unique ability to turn straw into gold. If we look at popular music, the vast majority has its roots in traditional African rhythmic structures. Yes, the bubblegum pop, and even the trap music! Look at dances like the Nae Nae, the Quan, etc. I look at that movement and I see African dance. There is a lot more to that so we could be here all day on this one!
How did the idea for Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures come to you?
I was thinking about whether there were emotional and visual currents that flowed through the creative output that was being produced by artists around the diaspora. And when I discovered that the answer was yes, I wanted to juxtapose those images against each other to tell a story.
What was your path to curating? Were you inspired by anyone or called by anything in particular?
I have always been a curator and convener. On a macro level, I am fascinated by the ways in which history, economics, migration and other social forces and constructs have shaped culture. I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and it inspired me to take a deeper look at stories of migration, and the cultural moments and phenomena that have been born of that.
I went to London to study anthropology through the lens of migration and diasporas at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Ultimately, my goal was to use what I learned there as a framework to tell fundamentally human and transformative stories that have gone untold for too long.
I don’t want you to play favorites, but what are some of the standout pieces in the show?
Everything in the show is great but to pick one, I would choose Roger Bonair-Agard’s video recitation of his poem How the World Was Made – A Super Crown. It encapsulates perfectly what this exhibition is about, weaving together many elements that I wanted to show, from folklore to the spiritual awakenings that I see happening all over the globe. It’s a profoundly powerful piece of work.
What’s next for you?
I have a pop-up exhibition debuting at the Brooklyn Historical Society here in New York on May 13 in collaboration with b. Girl Movement’s Boundless: The Experience – A Celebration of Black Women. I’m so excited about the work in that show! It features images from five exceptionally gifted black women photographers. I’m also in the throes of writing a collection of personal essays.
Additionally, without going into too much detail, I’m in the beginning stages of an anthropological research project that analyses a specific segment of contemporary black art.
Check Niama’s writing here
Black Magic: AfroPasts/AfroFutures will run from Sunday, April 24 through Sunday May 22 at the Corridor Gallery, 334 Grand Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238. There will be an artist talk and other programming on Sunday, May 15. RSVP for the opening reception on April 24 at 3pm through the site. Find out more afropastsafrofutures.splashthat.com