Stepping into a historic site like Strawberry Mansion’s Hatfield House can sometimes feel like a form of time travel. Over the next few weeks, that science-fiction notion comes much closer to reality, as the Greek Revival home is transformed into a portal of sorts by the North Philly-based artist collective Black Quantum Futurism.
With their new installation, “Ancestors returning again / this time only to themselves,” Black Quantum Futurism posits that the Hatfield House is an era-spanning meeting place for the Temporal Disruptors, a secret society of time travelers who communicate from future to past and back via quantum time capsules buried and unearthed on the site.
Artist, author, activist, and lawyer Rasheedah Phillips joined forces with poet, musician, and activist Camae Ayewa (also known as Moor Mother) to form Black Quantum Futurism based on their shared interest in Afrofuturism. The philosophic and artistic movement draws concepts from scientific theory, African culture and its diaspora, and Black history, weaving these threads with speculative and science fiction, among other mediums.
“We call ourselves Black Quantum Futurism because we focus specifically on the temporal or time element of Afrofuturism,” Phillips explains. The duo have a particular fascination for quantum physics, which examines nature at the atomic and subatomic level; the strange properties of matter at this scale is often employed by sci-fi authors 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 African American cultures engage with space and time. It’s much different than the linear way that we typically think of time as moving from past to present to future.”
Viewed through that more traditional sense of history, Hatfield House was built in 1760 in what is now Nicetown, serving as a private residence and a girls’ boarding school before doctor Nathan Hatfield purchased the property and moved it to its present site in Fairmount Park. The house has been operated as a historic museum since the mid-20th century.
In bringing a piece like “Ancestors returning again” to Hatfield House, the Fairmount Park Conservancy hopes to attract new visitors to the little-known site as well as engage with the local community who may feel little connection to the imposing structure.
“Here at Hatfield House, our focus has always been to create something that feels hyper-local,” says Adela Park, project manager for the Conservancy. “We’re trying to create programs that not only respect the history of the house, but also speak to some of the history and culture of the people who actually live here now … A project like this [opens] all of the different possibilities of histories that are buried and stories that aren’t told. It brings into light that those stories, whether you know them or not, are real.”
The ghosts of the house’s past residents are now joined by the mysterious presence of the Temporal Disruptors, represented by artifacts and images throughout the house as well as a three-channel film installation called “Write No History,” the exhibition’s centerpiece. The society’s presence weaves throughout Black Quantum Futurism’s work, with the latest iteration raising questions about the way history has been written, rewritten, and often obscured.
Walking through the two-floor installation at Hatfield House, the Disruptors’ presence is hauntingly implied. Coming upon a photo album, hearing voices and sounds emanating from a room littered with inscrutable clocks, or finding a typewriter abandoned next to a stack of books on quantum physics, it feels as if someone has just made a hasty exit — or is still present in some alternate dimension or time.
The story of “Ancestors returning again” remains ambiguous to visitors, as does the ultimate mission of the Temporal Disruptors. The charms and tokens scattered around the house combined with the dance-like movements of the members in some of the film footage suggest elements of ritual that look back to the ancient, while the arcane clocks and textbooks that litter the rooms hint at the experiments from the future, suggesting a convergence of the spiritual and the technological. Framed collage pieces occupy several rooms, but the house itself feels like a collage writ large, vague meanings arising from juxtaposition rather than explicit narrative.
Along with direct nods to Afrofuturist forebears like Octavia Butler and Sun Ra, “Ancestors returning again” contains images of doctors like NASA engineer and astronaut Mae Jemison and physician Caroline Still Anderson, cofounder of Philadelphia’s Berean Institute.
“The Temporal Disruptors are based on these women scientists, healers, and doctors whose achievements and accomplishments are often erased, undermined, or just not talked about,” Phillips says. “We want to disrupt that linear telling of history where Black people are left out.”
Afrofuturism arose in part out of a similar feeling, that Black people were also excluded from science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative genres, both as creators and as fans. Phillips enjoyed a lifelong fascination with science and science fiction, though set the passion aside for a time until it was reawakened by her discovery of Afrofuturism.
“The popular conception of Black people engaging with science fiction is just that we die first in the movies,” Phillips says. “We’re just not included in these future worlds very often, so part of the reason why I had not engaged in science fiction for a long time is because I didn’t see myself reflected. So coming across Octavia Butler’s work 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 winner to this year’s Collide Award, which grants them a two-month residency at CERN in Geneva, site of the Large Hadron Collider. There, they’ll engage in dialogue and study with the physics lab’s scientists, emerging with a new artwork inspired by the experience.
“It’s absolutely an act of politics and agency when I’m engaging with [Afrofuturism],” Phillips says. While science fiction’s ability to critique contemporary issues is undoubtedly a large part of its appeal, she also stresses the passion that any fan feels for the genre’s more thrilling aspects. “I also don’t want to undermine [the fact] that it’s also a lot of pure fun. I don’t think joy needs to be extracted from it just because it also involves social commentary, so we try to make [our work] as fun, accessible and engaging as possible for folks.”