Familiar to some, exotic to others, the term refers loosely to an unlikely fusion of parts: Egyptian and other non-Western mythologies, mysticism and magical realism with Afrocentricity, modern technology and science fiction. A freighted concept in more ways than one, it gained traction this year, muscling its way into the pop cultural mainstream via the intertwined worlds of entertainment, art and style.
In part, Afrofuturism, an aesthetic dating roughly from the 1970s, has taken on a new public face through a new generation of recording artists — Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe among them — who have given it not only a voice, but also a look. You will likely know it when you see it: a high-shine mash-up of cyborg themes, loosely tribal motifs, android imagery and gleaming metallics that might be appropriate for a voyage to Pluto’s outer reaches.
Its latest incarnation seems timely, if not downright inevitable. “With the diversity of the nation and world increasingly standing in stark contrast to the diversity in futuristic works, it’s no surprise that Afrofuturism emerged,” writes Ytasha L. Womack, who chronicled and popularized the evolution of the genre in her 2013 book, “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.”
“But when, even in the imaginary future,” she goes on, “people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years into the future, a cosmic foot has to be put down.”
The internet has lent the movement a force unknown in previous incarnations. A visual metaphor for empowerment on sites like the Afrofuturist Affair and influential Instagram accounts like Inkrayable_girafe, it permits black men and women to take charge of their image. Today, Ms. Womack writes, “a fledgling filmmaker can shoot his sci-fi web series on a $500 DV cam, post it on YouTube, and promote it on Instagram and Twitter.”
Lina Iris Viktor, a British-Liberian artist in New York who paints queenly self-portraits with a futuristic edge, picked up the thread. “The internet democratized the playing field,” she said. “Now the voices you hear are authentically ours. Instead of everybody else telling you stories, explaining to you what our work is about, we are telling you what it’s about.”
An Afrofuturist narrative is embedded as well in a recent flurry of museum shows. On view through November at El Museo del Barrio were the fashion illustrations of Antonio Lopez, a pioneer in the genre whose works of the ’70s and ’80s featured a multiracial cast of robotlike figures and astronauts propelled into a far-off Tomorrowland. It is a brave new world, as a review in The New York Times noted in June, “in which race and gender were fluid, and existing social inequities corrected or transcended.”
Afrofuturism is a current in the multimedia installations of the artist Saya Woolfalk, whose utopian universes and Empathics, a future race fusing — and all but erasing — racial and ethnic boundaries, were featured this year in shows at the Brooklyn Museum, a light show in Times Square and, just this month, an installation at Art Basel Miami Beach.
Afrofuturist allusions crop up less overtly in the sprawling canvases of Kerry James Marshall, whose exhibition at the Met Breuer, through Jan. 29, includes idealized portraits of African-American Boy and Girl Scouts wreathed in halos of the kind often seen on comic-book heroes.
This summer, the movement flexed its muscle at the megaplex, where “Captain America: Civil War” featured the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), a superhero who in 2018 will star in “Black Panther” as the king and protector of the imaginary nation of Wakanda.
Afrofuturism’s resurgence could not be more timely, arriving as it does in a climate perceived as indifferent, if not downright inimical, to racial and ethnic minorities. In her book, Ms. Womack recalls a time when black or brown sci-fi characters were all but invisible in the culture at large. As a girl, she would fantasize that she was Princess Leia of “Star Wars.”
“While it was fun to be the chick from outer space in my imagination,” Ms. Womack writes, “the quest to see myself or browner people in this space age, galactic epic was important to me.” It was in the absence of minorities from pop lore, she goes on, “that seeds were planted in the imaginations of countless black kids who yearned to see themselves in warp-speed spaceship too.”
Count among them Tim Fielder, a New York graphic artist and animator whose sci-fi illustrations, produced over a 30-year span, drew visitors last spring to “Black Metropolis,” at the Gallatin Galleries at New York University. Mr. Fielder’s pioneering cartoon narratives — notably those of “Matty’s Rocket,” his spirited black female cosmonaut, who will lift off next year in graphic novel form — are particularly relevant now, he maintained: “They let young artists know that they’re not on dangerous turf, that someone has gone there before them.”
Afrofuturism’s epic imagery offers youth a mirror, Mr. Fielder said. “These kids are able now to see themselves in environments that are expansive, both technologically and in terms of social mores and gender,” he said.
They also see themselves newly reflected in the comic books that remain a potent form of Afrofuturist expression. Last spring, the Black Panther, lately of “Captain America,” was resurrected by Marvel as the noble protagonist of his own comic book series, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of “Between the World and Me.” And this year, Riri Williams, an Afro-coiffured teenage superheroine with an M.I.T. degree, will slip into the fabled power suit in the “Iron Man” comic series.
Such vanguard characters can trace their genesis to early champions of Afrofuturism, paramount among them Sun Ra, the jazz composer, poet and philosopher who incorporated sci-fi themes into his music and his seminal film, “Space Is the Place,” a mid-1970s tale of interplanetary time travel.
Afrofuturism owes as important a debt to the writer Octavia Butler, whose 1979 best-seller, “Kindred,” posits an alternate reality in which an African-American heroine is transported from mid-70s Los Angeles to early 19th-century Maryland. It owes a debt as well to the music of George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, with their prophetic lyrics in “Mothership Connection”:
Time to move on
Light years in time
Ahead of our time.
Afrofuturist themes were revisited in the ’90s, but still as a genre without a name until the cultural critic Mark Dery formally christened it in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” after which it flourished for a time before retreating to the shadows.
Now the movement has returned in force, beamed down to the concert stage. Last month, the ’70s disco diva Grace Jones, Afrofuturism’s flat-topped mascot, toured in the British Isles, her stage persona, covered head-to-toe in tribal paint and feathers, a reprise of her hula-hoop-twirling performance at the Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn last year.
On a broadcast of “The Tonight Show” in February, the singer FKA Twigs seemed to alight from the clouds swathed in a incandescent white. Her costume, a-shimmer in crystals, was created with Grace Wales Bonner, a London designer whose work in the past has been rife with Afrofuturist allusions.
In her “Lemonade” album, released in April, Beyoncé reigns in an all-female utopia, leading a phalanx of women in ethereal white dresses that simultaneously conjure ancient and space-age societies.
The style world, too, has now embraced the movement, if only, perhaps, to reinforce its stature as an arbiter of cool. For the W September cover and 18-page editorial feature shot by Steven Klein, Rihanna’s over-the-top costumes were cobbled from scratch.
“She’s a one-off, a queen,” said Edward Enninful, the magazine’s fashion and style director. “A queen does not wear clothes off the runways.” Instead she wears an otherworldly pastiche of vanguard creations by Gareth Pugh, Prada, Proenza Schouler and others, clothes conceived, Mr. Enninful said, to emphasize Rihanna’s majestic persona.
“It’s a look that many young black females out there haven’t seen before,” he said.
Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy was among the first to integrate Afrofuturist imagery into his runway shows. Two years earlier, he signed Ms. Badu as the fierce-looking face of the brand. Mr. Tisci followed up repeatedly, most recently with a fall 2016 line replete with cosmological symbols, including that familiar Afrofuturist talisman, the Egyptian Eye of Horus.
Calvin Klein released a fall advertising campaign starring the rapper Young Thug, dressed in flares and a fitted pinstripe chasuble, its neckline embellished with an astral-looking orb. A recent campaign from Chanel featured Willow Smith festooned in Afrofuturistic jewels.
Others are advancing this high-concept aesthetic in more subtle ways, thrusting aside clichés as they go. “Afrofuturism has to become something more than just an idea of black people in shiny metallic clothing,” said Michelle Busayo Olupona, the Nigerian-American designer behind Busayo NYC, a label incorporating Afrofuturist themes in a stripped-down, abstract way. “In my own work, I try to create an aesthetic and style evocative of the past but very much grounded in the now.”
Ms. Olupona said her abstract, Afrocentric designs, some incorporating fantasy fauna and futurist imagery, “suggest ways in which we can differentiate ourselves.”
“What they say about the future,” she continued, “is that we’re always going to be here.”
Another showcase for contemporary, less literal interpretations of Afrofuturism is 9J, a boutique and gallery recently sprung up on Bruckner Boulevard in the South Bronx. It aims to usher in the movement’s next wave, with items like a ribbed trunk-neck sweater worthy of “Star Wars,” created by a local designer Jesenia Lopez; gravity-defying Birkenstock platforms covered in feathers and Swarovski “gems”; and an outsize headdress of spiraling silver wire. These pieces mingle technology, fantasy and Afrocentric themes with a streamlined progressive-looking opulence.
The shop’s owner, Jerome LaMaar, whose line, 5:31 Jérôme, has drawn high-visibility clients like Beyoncé and the model Hailey Baldwin, wore fur-rimmed virtual-reality goggles the other week while presiding at the opening of Africollision, an installation at 9J that eschewed the space-is-the-place hallmarks of old school Afrofuturism.
“We want to play with the idea of what is tribe, what is Africa, what is the future, and mix it all up without being predictable.” Mr. LaMaar insisted. “Who wants to see what’s already been done?”
An earlier version of this article misstated Lina Iris Viktor’s nationality. She is British-Liberian, not Liberian-born.
An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misstated the name of a boutique. It is 9J, not J9.