Stepping into a historic site like Hatfield House in Strawberry Mansion can sometimes feel like a form of time travel. Over the next few weeks, that sci-fi notion comes a lot closer to reality, as the house of Greek Revival is transformed into something of a portal by the North Philly-based artist collective Black Quantum Futurism.
With their new installation, “Ancestors return again / this time only to yourself”, Black Quantum Futurism postulates that Hatfield House is a meeting place in several eras for the Temporal Disruptors, a secret society of time travelers who communicate from the future to the past and back via quantum time capsules buried and unearthed at the site.
Artist, author, activist and lawyer Rasheedah Phillips teamed up with poet, musician and activist Camae Ayewa (also known as Moor Mother) to form Black Quantum Futurism based on their common interest in Afrofuturism. The philosophical and artistic movement draws concepts from scientific theory, African culture and its diaspora, and black history, weaving these threads with speculation and science fiction, among other mediums.
“We call ourselves Black Quantum Futurism because we specifically focus on the temporal or temporal element of Afrofuturism,” says Phillips. The duo have a particular fascination with quantum physics, which examines nature at the atomic and subatomic levels; the strange properties of matter at this scale are often used by science fiction writers to provide a scientific basis for time travel, among other futuristic notions.
“[We’re interested in] the ways in which quantum physics parallels African traditions and rituals [and the way that] African and Afro-American cultures engage in space and time. It’s very different from the linear way we generally think of time moving from the past to the present to the future.
Viewed through this more traditional sense of history, Hatfield House was built in 1760 in what is now Nicetown, serving as a private residence and girls’ boarding school before Doctor Nathan Hatfield bought the property and moved it to its current site in Fairmount Park. The house has been operating as a historical museum since the middle of the 20th century.
By bringing a piece like ‘Ancestors Return Again’ to Hatfield House, the Fairmount Park Conservancy hopes to attract new visitors to this little-known site and engage with the local community who may feel little connected to the imposing structure.
“Here at Hatfield House, our goal has always been to create something that feels hyper-local,” says Adela Park, Project Manager for the Conservancy. “We try to create programs that not only respect the history of the house, but also speak about a part of the history and culture of the people who live here now… A project like this [opens] all the different possibilities of buried stories and stories that aren’t told. It highlights that these stories, whether you know them or not, are real. “
The ghosts of the former residents of the house are now joined by the mysterious presence of the Time Disruptors, represented by artifacts and imagery throughout the house as well as a three-channel film installation titled “Write No History,” the centerpiece of the exhibition. The company’s presence creeps through the work of Black Quantum Futurism, with the latest iteration raising questions about how history has been written, rewritten, and often obscured.
As you walk through the two-story installation of Hatfield House, the presence of the Disruptors is implicitly haunting. Coming across a photo album, hearing voices and sounds emanating from a room littered with impenetrable clocks, or finding an abandoned typewriter next to a stack of books on quantum physics, one has the feeling like someone has just rushed out – or is still present in an alternate dimension or time.
The story of the “return of the ancestors” remains ambiguous for visitors, as does the ultimate mission of the Temporal Disruptors. The charms and tokens scattered around the house combined with the dancing movements of the limbs in some footage of the film suggest elements of ritual dating back to the old days, while the obscure clocks and textbooks littering the rooms allude to the experiences of the future, suggesting a convergence of the spiritual and the technological. The framed collage pieces span multiple rooms, but the house itself looks like a written collage of large, vague meanings resulting from juxtaposition rather than an explicit narrative.
In addition to direct nods to Afrofuturist ancestors like Octavia Butler and Sun Ra, “Ancestors return again” features images of doctors like NASA engineer and astronaut Mae Jemison and doctor Caroline Still Anderson, co-founder of the Berean Institute of Philadelphia.
“The Time Disruptors are based on those female scientists, healers, and physicians whose achievements and accomplishments are often erased, undermined, or simply ignored,” Phillips said. “We want to disrupt this linear storytelling of history where black people are left out.”
Afrofuturism arose in part from a similar sentiment that black people were also excluded from science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative genres, both as creators and as fans. Phillips had always been fascinated by science and science fiction, but put that passion aside for a while until she was awakened by her discovery of Afrofuturism.
“The popular conception that black people engage in science fiction is simply that we die first in movies,” says Phillips. “We’re just not included in these future worlds very often, so part of the reason I haven’t been involved in science fiction for a long time is because I didn’t see myself reflected. So, discovering the work of Octavia Butler was mind-blowing and really changed my life.
Next month, Phillips and Ayewa will have a unique opportunity to engage with the real-world analogue to their fictional creations. In February, they were announced as the winners of this year’s Collide Prize, which grants them a two-month residency at CERN in Geneva, site of the Large Hadron Collider. There they will interact and study with scientists in the physics lab, emerging with new work inspired by the experiment.
“It is absolutely an act of policy and agency when I engage with [Afrofuturism]Phillips says. While science fiction’s ability to critique contemporary issues is undoubtedly a big part of its appeal, it also underscores the passion every fan has for the more exciting aspects of the genre. don’t want to undermine either [the fact] that it is also a lot of pure pleasure. I don’t think joy should be squeezed out of it just because it involves social commentary as well, so we try to do [our work] as fun, accessible and engaging as possible for people.