Visionary Fiction, Afrofuturism, and the Videos of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
By Carly Dennis
The Art of Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz currently has work on view at El Museo del Barrio in New York. Her exhibition Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: A Universe of Fragile Mirrors includes five of her works in video—La cabeza mató a todos, La cueva negra, Esto es un mensaje explosivo, Post-Military Cinema, and Otros usos, as well as a set of sound recordings, several photographs of found film, an arrangement of mirror sculptures which she uses while filming to create refracted and repeated images, and a selection of Taíno stone and ceramic art curated by Santiago Muñoz from Museo del Barrio’s permanent collection.
Stylistically, Santiago Muñoz’s videos are somewhat abstract. They move with a slow pace, often using repetition, documenting subtle movement or stillness, and occasionally interjecting narrative through voice over or text. Her body of work also includes a number of videos which involve verbal interviews. She is based in her home city of San Juan, and films her work primarily in Puerto Rico and Haiti, though at times in Mexico. People from walks of life other than acting perform in her videos; sometimes they are people she happens to meet on location, others are artists of various media she has reached out to—dancers, visual artists, musicians—or political activists.
Santiago Muñoz’s work looks to the past while imagining futures. She references various Caribbean cosmologies as frameworks for her narratives, weaving them with contemporary questions. In A Universe of Fragile Mirrors, several pieces address the military dimension of the colonial relationship of the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and the militarization of the Caribbean region as a whole.
For example, in Post-Military Cinema, a forest has begun to consume an abandoned U.S. naval base in Ceiba, Puerto Rico. She focuses on the room that was previously a cinema, now with only a few theatre-style chairs left bolted to the floor. She shows the leaves that vibrate around the cement, and the tree trunks surrounding it. Spiders and bees build webs and nests, using the structure to ends other than those for which it was designed. Santiago Muñoz frames it all in a way that guides toward a larger narrative—toward larger possibilities. It’s not just a building, forgotten by chance, but specifically a U.S. military base in Puerto Rico that the ecosystem is undoing and recuperating.
In La cabeza mató a todos, Santiago Muñoz, in collaboration with performance artist Michelle Nonó, touches on the intertwined questions of gender, religion, brujería, and healing—all pitted against the military industrial complex: the woman in the video, played by Nonó, works with a cat to destroy the war machine by spell.
Santiago Muñoz has also worked in other media—primarily “experimental seminars” and radio. The seminars are called Sessions and consist of group site visits to various spaces in Puerto Rico, documented with writing and a few photographs. Santiago Muñoz describes them as “anchored in the specific geography, local knowledge, emerging art practices, and social and political conditions of Puerto Rico.” She goes on to explain: “The island’s exuberant tropical ecology coexists with environmental devastation, institutional mimesis and decay, militarized and post-military spaces, as well as a growing movement to understand and transform these conditions.”
She describes central aspects of the process as examining how political concepts have material effects on the perception and experience of the aforementioned topics, and developing a pedagogy specific to the Session. One of her radio pieces, Venimos desde el futuro, was “a temporary radio station transmitting for 4 days from the year 2114 and reporting on life after the end of patriarchy.” The station featured conversations with, and programming from, a long list of Latinx feminist folks.
Visionary fiction at play
Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico have a rich history of decolonial moving-image art, as decolonial diasporic philosopher and curator Alanna Lockward has discussed. Santiago Muñoz is a part of this tradition, as well as the interwoven tradition of visionary fiction or visionary art, which involves the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, and horror, paired with intentions of liberation.
The 2015 anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, conceptualized by scholar-activists adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, and based largely on the work of author Octavia E. Butler, was a pivotal text in articulating and growing this long-standing practice, which had also been developed by Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas and published in 2000, and So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and published in 2004.
While the terms “speculative fiction,” and of course, “science fiction” and “fantasy,” had existed prior, Imarisha and brown coin the term “visionary fiction” in their book’s theory-focused intro and outro. Visionary fiction is distinguished by all of the following: 1. exploration of current social issues (through sci fi), 2. awareness and intentionality about identities and their intersections, 3. consciousness of power inequalities, 4. complexity and engagement with oppression, but with an offer of hope, 5. portrayal of change as bottom-up, 6. portrayal of change as collective, and 7. active intention of societal transformation.
Articulating the big idea of visionary fiction, Imarisha asserts, “this space is vital for any process of decolonization […] Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.” brown then draws out the core of the strategy: “If we want to bring new worlds into existence, then we need to challenge the narratives that uphold current power dynamics and patterns.”
Roots of social justice sci-fi in afrofuturism
One major root of cultural milestones such as Dark Matter, So Long Been Dreaming, and Octavia’s Brood is the aesthetic/movement of Afrofuturism. As Ytasha L. Womack chronicles in her book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, the term “Afrofuturism” was first used by cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future” to describe a black tech aesthetic, which actually went back to the 1960s with musicians such as Sun Ra, who combined space age and ancient Egyptian religious references, and new musical technologies.
The term initially referred to black students and artists interested in sci fi throughout the 1980s and ′90s, and their discussions about art and social change as related to science and technology. Dogon astronomy was a popular point of reference, as were many inventors from Africa and the African diaspora. Largely through the work of other cultural critics such as Greg Tate and Kodwo Eshun, it came to refer as well to artists who began their work prior to that period, such as Sun Ra, George Clinton and Parliament, Funkadelic, and the aforementioned black, queer, and feminist sci-fi author Octavia Butler (who continued writing into the 2000s). The term not only gave a name to a cultural phenomenon already at play, but also helped launch it as a topic of philosophical study, which many black scholars have continued engaging with into the present.
Womack frames the sources of Afrofuturism around the erasure of “Africa’s contributions to global knowledge in history, science, and beyond,” and the collective response, which involved an effort to resurface the history of African and African diasporic development of technology, as well as to examine the impacts of technologies upon African and African diasporic people. Afrofuturism is a combination of reaching back in time to consider and unearth histories, experiences, and traditions, and reaching forward to imagine alternatives, fusions, and possibilities.
Afrofuturists and other decolonial futurists of today
Today, a decade later, we can see this aesthetic movement everywhere from pop culture to academia to resistance movements (which are all, indeed, overlapping). Afrofuturists and futurists of all other colonized groups are making artistic works—books, music, film, art, performance—and combinations therein. From the music realm, with Janelle Monae’s “The Electric Lady” and “The ArchAndroid,” Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” clipping.’s recent “Splendor & Misery,” and artists FKA Twigs, Erykah Badu, and Flying Lotus, to the books of N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Malinda Lo, and Daniel José Older, to the images, still or moving, of Wangechi Mutu and the artist we began with, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, artists are creating aesthetics which prioritize a plurality of concepts, visuals, and sounds—rather than only those of Europe—drawing from history and forging entirely new vocabularies, stories, and, eventually, ways of being.