Whose Place, Whose Space?: Extraterrestrial Stakes

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday

Whose Place, Whose Space?: Extraterrestrial Stakes

By Genevieve Quick February 13, 2018

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday explores how artists create counter-narratives that fuse science fiction, present-day life, and histories of colonization, displacement, and economic and political inequities.


Outer space is an Other space. Unlike the Earth we know, claim, and occupy, outer space is vast, nebulous, and open to exploration. But only a few have had the means to pursue space exploration. As European colonization was a contest between empires to expand their claims of Other lands around the globe, the mid-twentieth-century space race was also a territorial contest between superpowers, this time aiming for the moon. With the end of colonial empires and the Cold War, many countries have faced newly formed or contested ideas of nationhood and place. Considering this history, the artists Frances Bodomo and Larissa Sansour create poetic and fantastical extraterrestrial missions as alternative narratives to existing space programs, in order to explore, respectively, the tenuousness of Zambian and Palestinian national identity.

The capacity to explore the globe and outer space indicates the wealth, knowledge, and international prestige that perpetuates political, economic, and technological inequities between developed nations and Others. Moreover, space- and sea-based explorations are narratives of the future, speculations on the trajectory of global powers and our habitation, about where and how we live. As we imagine the future of space exploration, we are haunted by persistent territorial disputes, notably in Africa and the Middle East.

In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, Zambia gained independence from colonial British rule. Shortly thereafter, the schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso—who had been drafted under the British flag during World War II and then became a Zambian liberation fighter—established the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Astronomical Research. With a crew of teenagers and no funding or scientific expertise, Nkoloso devised DIY exercises to simulate the gravitational disorientation of space travel, like rolling down hills in old oil drums and swinging from ropes. Despite his limited resources, Nkoloso boasted that they would reach the moon before the Soviets and Americans and had plans to reach Mars. In Namwali Serpell's New Yorker article, "The Zambian 'Afronaut' Who Wanted to Join the Space Race," (2017), the author states that most of the press took Nkoloso's makeshift space program at face value and dismissed it as ridiculous.1 However, Serpell argues that it was actually a satire of the space race and recounts how Nkoloso asserted that the Zambians would establish a Christian missionary for "primitive" Martians; that they would be the "controllers of the Seventh Heaven of Interstellar Space"; and that they were working with cats as "technological accessories" that the astronauts could drop down to the surface of Mars to see it was safe and habitable.2 Nkoloso was in fact pointedly criticizing how paternalistic missionaries swept through the globe, the ways that superpowers were fighting each other for control, and the practice of sending dogs (most famously Laika, by the Soviets) and monkeys into space as safety tests. Nkoloso’s fantastical project proposes a way for the newly formed Zambian nation to convene with the rest of the world's powers as co-explorers in space, suggesting a narrative of the present and future. Additionally, Nkoloso scrutinized the world that had plundered his country for its mineral wealth and sent him during war to fight for his colonizers.

The Ghanian filmmaker Frances Bodomo revisits the Nkoloso space program in Afronauts (2014). Set on July 16, 1969, the day the Americans launched for the moon, Bodomo's stunning film paints a poetic and surreal picture of Matha Mwamba—a sixteen-year-old Zambian girl—training to land on Mars. With accompanying actors dressed in khaki uniforms and combat helmets and Matha in her space suit and helmet, Bodomo fuses Zambia's military past—the fight for independence was recent—and an imagined intergalactic future; militaries are closely connected to space missions, and both are about claiming place and conquest. Inviting the viewer to contemplate history and our futures, Bodomo revisits and honors Nkoloso’s imagination and expands the narrative of the space race beyond the superpowers.

The film's black-and-white palette abstracts the landscape, such that the desert and a modest building (like the farmhouse Nkoloso used as a headquarters) shift between being possibly Mars or Earth. With the film’s stillness and scenes of a solitary Matha looking at the moon, Bodomo suggests the marginalization and Otherness of Africans in global contexts. The lack of color also transforms the skin of the African American albino actress Diandra Forrest, who plays Matha, into shades of gray; at moments, it is difficult to place her racially or determine if she's of this world. Moreover, Bodomo's use of grayscale creates an abstraction of temporal distance and dreamlike quality.

Larissa Sansour. A Space Exodus, 2009; video; 5:24. Courtesy of the Artist.

While Zambia has endured the economic and political growing pains common among formerly colonized nations, Palestine still exists in a tenuous state. After the UK invaded Palestine in 1917, the League of Nations in 1922 granted the British a mandate to govern the territory and establish a Jewish homeland. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly partitioned Palestine to create Israel. Today, according to one perspective, Palestine continues to be occupied, possessing partial sovereignty and no recognition by the US as an independent nation. Palestinians are subjected to Israeli checkpoints throughout the territory and grapple with ambiguity about their citizenship, statehood, and futures.

In the video A Space Exodus (2009), Larissa Sansour restaged the US landing on the moon with the iconic music used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In the opening sequence, Sansour informs, "Jerusalem, we have a problem." Unlike Apollo 11’s “Houston” call signal, the headquarters of mission control in this context is more contentious: Jerusalem is claimed as a capital by both Israel and Palestine and is the home to important sites for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Optimistically, Sansour corrects things to say, "No, everything is fine. We are back on track."3 On their mission, the American astronauts announced that the lunar module The Eagle had landed, a reference to the bald eagle, a proud national symbol of pride. In Sansour's version, she announces, "The Sunbird has landed"; that bird symbolizes Palestine. In a hopeful and campy gesture, she says, "One small step for Palestinians, one giant leap for mankind," as she plants the Palestinian flag on the moon. While mirroring the dialogue from the Apollo 11 mission, Sansour's adaptations playfully balance optimism and political critique.

Larissa Sansour. A Space Exodus, 2009; video; 5:24. Courtesy of the Artist.

Sansour's moonwalk metaphorically addresses the difficulties in claiming one’s geographic place on Earth and within the global hierarchy. Most of the world only watched the battle between the superpowers in the space race. Palestinians continually have to fight to be involved in their destiny and for their state to be recognized as an equal in the international community. Sansour’s video elevates Palestine out of its ambiguous national status and places it on par with the United States. While the tensions between Palestine and Israel are mostly the result of conflicting interpretations of history, Sansour, by claiming the moon, marks space that is less fraught with injustices and wars.

In the colonization of lands and of space, stories are told of rising and falling empires. Amid continuing questions about the US’s international preeminence, India and China are rising as economic and political powers and have announced plans for lunar missions. As global power is exercised in space, the players are changing. While it is unlikely that Zambia and Palestine will develop major space programs, Bodomo's and Sansour's imaginative and playful projects metaphorically address the condition of placelessness on Earth.

Notes

  1. Namwali Serpell,  "The Zambian 'Afronaut' Who Wanted to Join the Space Race," The New Yorker, March 11, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-zambian-afronaut-who-wanted-to-join-the-space-race.
  2. Serpell.
  3. This 2009 statement is ironically hopeful; to the consternation of much of the world, President Trump recently declared that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, possibly eliminating the two-state solution.

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