Since Sun Ra descended in a breast-shaped Ark to recruit Americans for his planetary Afrotopia, science fiction has played a significant role in representations of African life. The original past represented by Africa as ‘cradle-of-civilization’ has recently been inverted in work which measures futuristic narratives against everyday life on the continent. Now the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, England, has produced Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction (until July 1st), an exhibition bringing together ten works for which the continent is the point of departure for speculative fiction.

The show starts with Luis Dorado’s ‘Untitled (Map of Africa)’ (2010), which uses a cut-up technique to confound the Mercator projection in radial diamonds, as coast and centre are thrown inside out and upside down in beautiful disorder. This work proclaims for the show a promising (albeit perhaps a little predictable) refusal of existing political geographies.

A significant proportion of the works considered the science fiction genre as a Western imposition, which images Africa from an alien perspective. Nostalgia, a triptych of films by Omer Fast, restages a remembered conversation with a refugee and flips it into the retro sci-fi vision of a tawdry television drama in which a white British man seeks asylum in ‘Fortress Africa’.

The importance of science fiction in relation to Africa is, for these artists, manifold. The genre offers the opportunity to consider Western cartographies of the future as fictions in their own right. In Nicolas Sarkozy’s nicely idiotic Dakar speech, he argued that “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future …” (Reuters). These comments plainly regurgitate Hegel’s infamous exclusion, and modifies it, denying Africa both a past and a future. In Sarkozy’s impoverished vision, launching oneself into the future involves no more than making one’s country and its resources more entirely available to the global markets.

Works of futurology are often eu-topian (good-places), but the future is often represented as utopian (no-places). Insofar as it is unknown, the future must be placeless, and this absolute otherness conditions its most persistent fictions. Thomas More’s Utopia is based on sixteenth century English fantasies about the geography paradise in the New World. James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ was criticised for basing the representation of future-other-worldlings on certain ethnic groups (not to mention its compulsive adherence to the white man savior complex). The future may be unpredictable, but our imagination certainly isn’t. Perhaps all works of futurology or utopianism are refracted ethnographies.

Fictions are only theoretically placeless, and fantasies which seem to depart from the world invariably happen within it. The future, an important fiction in itself, is formulated in the present. Visions of the future can radically alter the landscape of the present. A construction site, for example, is an eyesore to the spectator unaware of plans to transform it into a beautiful building; a ruined building may be evidence of the failed ambitions of a deceased regime to construct a future.

The effects of Western visions of the African landscape are clearly mapped out in AIAC favourite Kiluanji Kia Henda’s project ‘Icarus 13’ (2008; photo above), which offers a (fictional) account of an African space program, illustrated by (real) images of faded Soviet architecture in Angola. This simple juxtaposition which speaks eloquently to the hubris of inter-planetary ambitions, the waste of resources in Utopian projects, and the aftermath of the Cold War still visible in Africa.

Scholars have often recognised the importance of ethnography to science fiction, and extra-terrestrials are given the appearance of fabled strangers. Pawel Althamer’s ‘Common Task: Mali’ (2010) plays on this familiar argument:

In Common Task: Mali, the group travelled to Mali in order to visit the mythical Dogon tribesmen. Engaging in a series of activities for the duration of their stay, the whole time wearing their trademark gold suits, the Common Task group appear as curious invaders in the Mali landscape, with peaceful intentions. (Gallery notes)

The exhibition displayed images of the group – formed of the artist and some neighbours from his home in the Brodno district of Warsaw – essentially a bunch of pallid men in golden jumpsuits, interacting with local people. The project seems to offer to the viewer a kind of reverse ethography, reflecting on the absurd ritual of Western attempts to explore space. The whole thing is illuminated, like Icarus 13, with the same humourous measure of transcendent ambitions against everyday life.

A retro-futurist MDF structure houses a viewing space for Neil Beloufa’s film ‘Kempinski’ (2007), which targets cliches about the African imagination, presenting a series of interviews with ‘stereotypical’ Africans, who discuss a range of speculative fiction (which mostly involve new sorts of relationships with cattle).

If you need persuading that scifi presents an effective tool for interrogating boundaries of the familiar and strange in Africa, there are two early films by the omnipresent Neill Blomkamp, ‘Alive in Joburg’ (2005) and ‘Tetra Vaal’ (2004), and Wanuri Kahiu’s celebrated feature film ‘Pumzi’ (2010).

The Arnolfini bills this exhibition as a ‘survey’ of the ‘recent tendency’ to use science fiction to reconsider African life, and vice versa, and it is certainly a valuable opportunity for those within pilgrimage distance of Bristol to see these films. While the exhibition indicates the genre has an exciting future, it does not give much evidence of tradition, beyond mentioning 2001: Space Odyssey in the press release. More context for these works, which would have given under-informed visitors such as myself greater insight into the central question: how representations of realities on the African continent emerge from within broken fictions. The ten works selected as exemplars of this trend were not produced in a vacuum, and without their proper historical context, these appear like strange creatures from a distant place.

The potential richness of African critiques of European and American ideas of the future is certainly present within the works on display, but the curation does not provide any external suggestion of its place within political thought. In contrast, a current exhibition at Eva International in Limerick City, After the Future, presents contemporary art’s extensive response to discourses of the future in explicit correspondence with theorist Bifo Berardi’s new book on abuses of the future in global financial markets.

The richest store of thought into the problems of the utopian thinking native to Western modernism is in the exhibition’s only textual work: the script of an extraordinary conversation which apparently took place during the 1976 Soweto riots between South African activist Steve Biko (under an assumed name), American theorist Francis Fukuyama, American architect Minoru Yamasaki and Egyptian Marxist economist Samir Amin. This script, taped to a wall in one of the rooms, is also available online, as part of the Arpanet Dialogues (co-organised by Nav Haq, one of the Arnolfini curators) which took place through an experimental computer system developed by the American military.

The conversation, which ranges across the respective mens’ disciplines, is characterised by a common interest in the improvement of human life. The contribution of the Americans, both key exponents of post-modern thought (Yamasaki had already built the World Trade Center; Fukuyama would later proclaim ‘the end of history’), try to understand the non-American ideas of freedom, but they end up repeating the mantra that America represents the best possible state of human freedom. The dialogue culminates with a statement by Amin that ‘economics is the mathematics of life’, and Steve Biko intervenes to emphasise the importance of ‘human dignity’, which Amin then places at the centre of his science. The men all agree this is the ultimate destination for human endeavour, and this ‘economics of dignity’ seems an imagined future which has not degraded.

There will be a free screening of some of these films on July 4th as part of the Africa Utopia programme at the Southbank Centre, London.