On September 10, 2020, a billboard proclaiming “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE” was unveiled in the Crossroads Arts District at Broadway Boulevard and Pershing Road. The signage, presented by Goethe Pop Up Kansas City, a branch of Germany’s federal cultural institute, the Goethe-Institut, is part of a project by the same name produced by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based artist Alisha B. Wormsley.
Wormsley, who has worked in various media, created the billboard in Pittsburgh in 2018; it was taken down due to public objections. But as more people spoke out against the censorship, and the decision to remove her message was reversed, Wormsley chose not to re-install her text. She wanted instead to move forward, but also to focus on making sure that Black voices were heard.
As she explained the inspiration for the billboard, “It started out as a black nerd sci-fi joke. A response to the absence of non-white faces in science fiction films and TV. Very much a response to many Afrofuturist writings, like Florence Oyeke’s: ‘ Afrofuturism dares to suggest that not only will black people exist in the future, but that we will be makers and shapers of it, too.’”
The term Afrofuturism was coined in an essay “Black to the Future” by Mark Dery in 1994. It is the re-imagining of a future replete with art, science and technology drawn from ancient African traditions and Black identity. (The film “Black Panther” succeeded in introducing Afrofuturism to millions in 2018.)
In addition to the billboard, Goethe Pop Up is presenting a small pandemic-perfect exhibition on its windows at 1914 Main Street, opening October 8. It will feature responses — visual, spoken word or poetic — from nine Kansas City artists inspired by Wormsley’s message. Selected by Jada Patterson, the exhibition’s curator, they are Izsys Archer, Jessica Ayala, Arianna Bonner, Mona Cliff, Jose Faus, Sheri Purpose Hall, Glyneisha Johnson and Harold Smith. Patterson, an interdisciplinary artist who explores issues of race, gender, history and the environment, will also show work on the windows.
Each artist will have two windows on which to display their creations, Patterson said. Wormsley and a graphic designer will consult with each other and the artists about the final arrangement and design of the overall presentation.
One of the participating artists, Jessica Ayala, immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at age three and published her first series of poems five years later. She is also a member of Arquesta Del SolSoul, a band whose version of Afrofuturistic music combines African percussion and synthesized elements. Her contribution to the project “was my love letter to the Black community from a Brown person,” Ayala said. “I just wanted to remind them how beautiful and how bright they are and all of the magic and joy they bring to the universe.”
Patterson believes the “There Are Black People in the Future” project “will bring a much-needed space to breathe to Kansas City.
“With the continuous focus of the media on black pain and trauma, I hope this project will change the focus to Black futures imagined by an intergenerational group of Black and Brown folk,” she said.
The billboard presentation is exclusive to Kansas City. Wormsley is working to have the text, which has been shown in Detroit, New York City and London, displayed around the world.
“There Are Black People in the Future” is part of the Shaping the Past project, a partnership between the Goethe-Institut, Monument Lab and the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education). Its stated goal is to bring “artists and activists together to highlight ongoing critical memory interventions in sites and spaces in North America and Germany.”
Goethe Pop Up Kansas City’s window exhibit, “There Are Black People in the Future,” opens October 8 and continues through December 5 at 1914 Main St. The Alisha B. Wormsley billboard is currently on view at Broadway and Pershing.
Above: “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE,” a billboard by artist Alisha B. Wormsley, was installed September 10 at Broadway Boulevard and Pershing Road (Goethe Pop Up Kansas City)