CELIA C. PETERS Filmmaker Interview — Afrofuturism The Future is Now

Editor’s Note:  Read related interviews in the George Floyd: In Memoriam roundup.

Editor’s Note: Read the related article All Arts Presents AFROFUTURISM: BLACKNESS REVISUALIZED — Preview

Celia C Peters Artwork: COSMIC ICONIC - LADY DAY Photo courtesy of Celia C. Peters
Celia on set Photo courtesy of Artistic Freedom Ltd.
Celia C. Peters Artwork: Blue Lady in Space Photo Courtesy of Celia C. Peters

The artistic genre of Afrofuturism was recently showcased in the All Arts festival: Afrofuturism Blackness Revisualized curated by Celia C. Peters, a filmmaker, visual artist and screenwriter.

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement’s fight against oppression,Peters reflects on Afrofuturism as a liberation movement asserting, that “Having a futurist sensibility is the perfect antidote to the moronic, regressive, devolved phenomenon known as racism and its insidious, unimaginative manifestation, discrimination”.

Here Picture This Post ( PTP) talks to Celia C. Peters ( CP) about her perspective on Afrofuturism as a movement and genre, the #BLM movement’s impact on the arts industry and her personal artistic journey.

(PTP) Can you please tell our readers about the definition and history of Afrofuturism as a genre?

(CP): Black science fiction has been around for a while….for example, W.E.B. Dubois wrote a sci-fi novel called The Comet that was published in 1920 and there was a Black sci-fi film called Son of Ingagi that came out in 1940. But Afrofuturism as a movement really started with the visionary jazz musician Sun Ra and his otherworldly sensibility. Introducing his music shifted to from straight-ahead jazz to his signature cosmic sound after he said that he’d been taken by aliens and shown an expanded vision of the Universe. Despite being a musical prodigy, Sun Ra had experienced racism very harshly and he saw the Cosmos as a place of liberation for Black people. Introducing this concept through his music profoundly shifted and expanded people’s awareness while he was alive---and has continued to do so since he passed on, which I’m quite sure was his intention. In Sun Ra’s wake, we saw other musical artists like Parliament and LaBelle taking on cosmic personas too. This mindset expanded and showed up in other areas of creativity. The earliest documented use of the actual term Afrofuturism was when writer Mark Dery used it in an essay published in 1994. But it was a thing long before that.

What All Arts and WNET has done in creating this film festival literally takes Afrofuturism to a new level. Blackness Revisualized is an entire virtual film festival of Afrofuturist films produced by a public media company --- which means it is free and accessible to everyone. There are multiple layers to the festival: the films; an Afrofuturism explainer video; Black writers writing about the films; a Spotify playlist of Afrofuturist music across genres and eras; live-streamed conversations with the filmmakers and guests discussing the work and its concepts. That is HUGE. By shining this kind of light on various aspects of Afrofuturism, Blackness Revisualized makes the clear and unequivocal statement that Black artists are definitively, mindfully and innovatively creating diverse futures from a Black perspective. Fully exercising their agency. I remember a time not long ago when I would talk about my work being Black science fiction or Afrofuturism and people’s eyes would glaze over….so this is INCREDIBLY exciting.

Celia C. Peters Artwork: DESTINY Photo courtesy of Celia C. Peters
Celia on set of film Roxë15. Photos courtesy of American Freedom Ltd

And why does this matter? Because Afrofuturism is inherently a liberation movement. On one hand, it’s an innovative, transcendent response to the racial oppression that Black people have experienced. But beyond that, it’s an exploration of the possible futures for Black people, from an imaginative perspective that’s free, unconstrained yet inspired. So events -- political, social, scientific, anthropological and technological --- have been impacting Afrofuturism for decades. The resurgence of racial violence and aggression against Black people, together with tremendous advances in science and tech (some that have revealed deeper connections to our ancient past) has prompted many of us to dive even more deeply into Afrofuturism. The future is now, and we are consciously and mindfully creating it for ourselves.

For me, Afrofuturism is The Truth. It is quite literally liberation, because the future is not yet written and I as a creator can make it whatever I want it to be. For a Black woman, dealing with double isms in a country that seems determined to regress, the liberation of Afrofuturism is beyond cathartic. There is power and truth in creating your own reality; in simply understanding that you can and do. Furthermore, Afrofuturism is both nurtured by and feeding my intense love of science and technology. It all is in perfect sync with the trajectory I have chosen for myself.

Scene from Peters' film Roxë15. Photos courtesy of American Freedom Ltd.
Scene from Peters' film Mission Photo courtesy of Artistic Freedom Ltd.

How do you see the Afrofuturism movement contributing to the Black Lives Matter discussion and activism in the near future and the coming years?

First off, I really dig the phrasing of this question. Afrofuturism is indeed a movement --- and a state of mind. I see this movement empowering Black Lives Matter discussions and activism. No matter how backwards some people in this country are, we are nevertheless headed into the future. That is a reality of the three-dimensional space-time reality that we are living in. I believe that time is a linear construct that we use to understand our existence; I believe it’s true nature is not linear at all, but…. that’s another discussion. I believe that the fight, the insistence on safety, integrity and equality for Black lives will morph as society does. Having a futurist sensibility is the perfect antidote to the moronic, regressive, devolved phenomenon known as racism and its insidious, unimaginative manifestation, discrimination.

Celia C .Peters Artwork: THE EYES HAVE IT. Photo courtesy of Celia C. Peters
Celia C. Peters Artwork: Amasunzu Photo courtesy of Celia C. Peters

From your perspective, how do you think the #BLM movement has influenced the arts community?

From where I sit, #BLM and its root causes have pushed Black creators to go further and create stories that take Black characters to new dimensions. Stories, artwork and design have become exponentially more inventive and imaginative. I think that’s because so many of us don’t want to absorb any more trauma to Black bodies and minds by reliving it ad infinitum. There’s a term in the film industry called ‘trauma porn’ -- that refers to work that shows Black people being terrorized and traumatized for entertainment. There is a strong consciousness that rejects that at this point; it’s toxic and certainly not good for Black people’s psyches. I think #BLM has also pushed Black creators to up their game because the virulent, barbaric racism that America continues to throw our way has caused many Black people to look more closely at our roots and our origins from a place of appreciation. We wonder, ‘Why are we so despised and vilified and attacked by the very people who brought us to this land? This is bizarre. What is it about us?’ And we look at ourselves and realize how beautiful, how special, how powerful we are. Despite all propaganda that has said otherwise. And the more we look, the more beauty, power, imagination and ingenuity we see. And of course, we’re drawn in. And artists realize we have an endless treasure of beauty, knowledge and innovation in our very DNA. And so, creative expressions of Afrofuturism take quantum leap after quantum leap.

Scene from Peters' film Roxë15 Photos courtesy of American Freedom Ltd.
Scene from Peters' film Roxë15 Photos courtesy of American Freedom Ltd.

In the midst of the #BLM movement, do you think the art industry will change to incorporate more Black voices?

I’m not so concerned about the industry as I am about us continuing to create and be heard. THAT is what matters. Our creative expressions are eternal. Industries that are deformed by racism and sexism are not; they will either be remade or replaced. The other piece of that is the absolute importance of Black people appreciating and supporting Black art. You don’t have to be a millionaire to collect art. Instead of spending $200 on a generic print at Ikea, find a Black artist in your community whose work you like and buy one of their works for that same $200. Being a patron of the arts elevates art in a capitalist structure.

That elevation is also why I’m so excited about partnering with All Arts and WNET to create Blackness Revisualized. It is an honor to have filmmakers and artists trust me with their creations. It’s also been amazing to work with a team that treats Afrofuturism with the respect and care that it deserves. All Arts recognized the value of Afrofuturism and invested in it; they raised the stakes, and in doing so, elevated all of this work. There are no barriers between the art and the audience. Who else is bringing 10 curated, independent Afrofuturist films, from five different countries, to the audience….streaming for free? So I guess if I think about the question as a producer, I do believe this is where the industry is headed with Afrofuturism, because they know the audience is there and hungry. It’s good business.

People of African descent are among the most powerful and resilient people in the world. We’ve survived centuries of people trying to break us; countless atrocities.

Not that damn long ago, the U.S. government passed a law saying we were not fully human. Yet here we are, not only surviving, but thriving. Black Americans created this country’s greatest cultural exports: jazz and hip-hop --- art forms present all over the world over. Black culture has defined what is cool and what drives pop culture in America for decades. We’ve invented so many things and contributed so much that makes life as we know it possible. The creativity of Black people has the power to move the world.

Celia C .Peters Artwork: DESTINY Photo courtesy of Celia C. Peters

As much as anyone, we too channel the magic of the Cosmos through our lens --- and we always have. The difference between now and back in the day is that our awareness has shifted; we recognize and own our greatness. I think today more of us than ever truly understand our greatness and power….and everything starts in the mind. The days of trying to prove our equality or worthiness are over; the days of seeking approval or acceptance are over. We’re not playing that shell game anymore. Obviously, that has made the landscape more hostile and more dangerous for us in the short term. But there is a bigger picture. And Black people know without a doubt that we, along with all that we create, are perpetually expanding forward. Why is that? There must be a reason and I can’t wait to experience the unfolding.

Please tell our readers about your artistic journey. What first interested you in visual arts and film and shaped your artistic perspective?

It’s funny how pathways are so clear in hindsight. My artistic influences came from my family. When I was a girl, my grandfather had a Super-8 camera and he would take home movies of the grandkids, then he and my grandmother would have movie night with popcorn. It really blew my mind to see myself on a screen in moments that were long gone. The act of watching yourself talking and doing things is pretty surreal and it captured my imagination. Also, my mom’s sister was a visual artist, a painter. I grew up visiting her studio and seeing the canvases and paints and brushes. And my parents were members of the art museum where we lived (Toledo, OH) and the Toledo Museum of Art is actually internationally known. We spent time there. So, art has always been part of my life. My artist aunt also used to take my sisters, cousins and I to drive-in movies all the time too. So although I didn’t think about it consciously for many years, film and visual art were a part of what rooted me. They were part of what formed me.

Celia on set of film Roxë15. Photos courtesy of American Freedom Ltd.
Celia on set of film Roxë15. Photos courtesy of American Freedom Ltd.

After graduate school, I worked as a social worker while I lived in Chicago. I was dealing with clients in circumstances where poverty, gang warfare and the drug game were integral to their lives; but all of that was totally foreign to me, because my upbringing was the complete opposite. But what became crystal clear to me was that there are basic human drives that define the human experience and although circumstances may change, what it is to be human does not. This was reinforced when I did graduate work again, in clinical psychology, in New York. I learned how layered and complex the human mind actually is --- and also that the basic components of the human psyche are universal. My fundamental understanding of life changed as a result of those years. And so as an artist, that is a cornerstone of my work. I believe that that universality is where we find the Divine.

In terms of influences outside of that, there are SO many. So many. Most of my friends are artists of all kinds, and they inspire me. Not to mention amazing artists in the world, both the famous ones (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Elizabeth Catlett, Frida Kahlo, Jacob Lawrence, James Van Der Zee, Kara Walker, Romaire Bearden, Augusta Savage, Gordon Parks, Lorna Simpson, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, so many more) AND the ones who are not household names. No matter what we’ve gone through, Black people continually create beauty and innovate. Tap into something beyond. Whether it’s visual art, music, film or dance. Consider the source of human creativity, the vastness of that source….so of course there’s an endless stream of it flowing through Black imaginations.

Scene from film Mission Photo courtesy of Artistic Freedom Ltd.
Photo courtesy of Godspeed Sci Fi Productions
Scene from film Mission Photo courtesy of Artistic Freedom Ltd.

Can you share with our readers your latest work, MISSION? What inspired you to create this story?

To be honest, MISSION was inspired by me feeling stagnant as an artist and my urge to make something new. I felt like it had been too long since I created a new piece. Also, I wanted to push myself to do something different….so I made a silent sci-fi film, where the score speaks for the characters. Telling a story with no dialogue, for a writer, was a HUGE challenge for me as a writer. But it opened up the opportunity to communicate with the audience in different ways. I worked with an electronica producer in Columbus, OH named Moxy Martinez, who scored the film. It was a meaningful collabo, because music is a critical part of storytelling for me. Music is emotion! Anyway, I’d been living in Columbus for a few years and had previously tried to get support from the Wexner for my feature film project, GODSPEED. That didn’t happen, so when I knew I was doing this new project, I applied for the post-production residency and got it. I was able to use their facility and staff editors for post-production of MISSION. It was really significant to be in a space that was inherently artistic, because that’s how I see film, as art. I want the audience to feel more alive after experiencing my art. In whichever direction….I want to make them FEEL. Beyond that, it is my hope that my work leaves people better off. New thoughts, new perspective, new understanding, new inspiration. Something!

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Photos Courtesy of Celia C. Peters, Ferdinand Nyarko, American Freed Ltd and Godspeed Sci Fi Productions.

Images for first slider and third slider provided by American Freed Ltd, images for second slider provided  by  Celia C. Peters.

Editor's Note:  This interview was curated by Assistant Editor Britni Fletcher and Assistant Editor Rachel Goldman. 

Britni Fletcher, Assistant Editor for Black Lives Matter

About the Author: Britni Fletcher, Assistant Editor for Black Lives Matter

About the author: Black Lives Matter Editorial Team

Britni Fletcher, Assistant Editor for Picture This Post’s Black Lives Matter section says, “Picture This Post magazine has taken initiative to highlight Black creatives across the world in hopes of bringing awareness to Black voices.  The Black Lives Matter Movement has been on a rise, due to the disheartening events during the summer of 2020. Picture This Post has not taken these events lightly;  we have created a Black Lives Matter section that highlights dance, music, art and theater through the lens of Black artists. Art is not only a presentation of entertainment but a chance to fight against systemic oppression, racism and White privilege. Together we can make a difference by uplifting Black voices across the world.”

Read Picture This Post’s  growing coverage of #BLM conversations here.

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