In January 2023, Mercersburg Academy’s Burgin Center for the Arts will feature the work of Mikel Elam, an Afrofuturist visual artist based in Philadelphia.
“I’m super excited to have him here on campus and bring something fresh and new to these kids and give them a launching point to learn what art is all about and what’s possible,” says Sydney Caretti P ’24, ’26, arts faculty and director of galleries at Mercersburg.
Elam’s exhibit, “Between Night and Day,” will be on display in the Cofrin Gallery January 9 to February 19. There will be an artist’s reception Friday, January 27, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Elam will also meet with students as a class and in small groups during his time on campus.
As an Afrofuturist visual artist, Elam generally works in mixed media because he feels the possibilities are endless, allowing him the freedom to explore contrasting thoughts.
“I hope the students get a better understanding of the joys of art making,” Elam says about his planned visit to Mercersburg. “Also, they should understand that it won’t be easy to etch a career in art, unless they are really impassioned and willing to work really hard to make it happen. I believe if one can trust this process, they will find their way to fulfillment.”
What is Afrofuturism? Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism, which he said applies to works that focus on African American themes and address “African American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.” It is, in other words, an artistic genre that combines science fiction and fantasy themes and aesthetics with Black culture and concerns. Early examples include the Sun Ra Arkestra, the storyline from the Parliament-Funkadelic albums, the Black Panther superhero and the science fiction of authors like Samuel Ray Delany Jr. and Octavia Butler.
While serving as Miles Davis’ personal assistant, Elam was able to assist with the Jazz legend’s second love–that of making art. Elam traveled the world with Davis, moving from stage to film to art. “Miles taught me discipline, and he taught me to believe in myself.”
Elam’s mission is to bring imagery to art that has not been understood or embraced by American culture. Many of his paintings are based on memory, and his source materials often are old, worn, and torn photographs. “The painting begins where the photo left off,” relates Elam, who has a bachelor of fine arts in painting from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “Much of the imagery is reimagined.”
He encourages engagement in his work so viewers can feel many things in the same moment. He also welcomes viewers to be curious and want to know more as they walk away, stating that this experience is the beginning step to opening minds to a more inclusive world.
Pictured: Elam’s work Brooklyn 1944 is an oil acrylic collage on linen, mounted on cotton canvas.