Alisha B. Wormsley (Pittsburgh, PA, USA) is an interdisciplinary artist and cultural producer. Her work is about collective memory and the synchronicity of time, specifically through the stories of women of color, more specifically Black Women in America. Wormsley is an artist who has worked in communities around the world, helping to develop artistic ideas, celebrate identities, and organize public art initiatives for national and international audiences. Wormsley’s work has received a number of awards and grants to support programs namely the Children of NAN film series and archive, and There Are Black People In The Future. Her work has exhibited globally. Over the last few years, Wormsley has designed several public art initiatives including Streaming Space, a 24 foot pyramid with video and sound installed in Pittsburgh's downtown Market Square, and AWxAW, a multimedia interactive installation and film commission at the Andy Warhol Museum. Wormsley created a public program out of her work, "There Are Black People In the Future", which gives mini-grants to open up discourse around displacement and gentrification and was also awarded a fellowship with Monument Lab and the Goethe Institute. In 2020, Wormsley launched an art residency for Black creative mothers called Sibyls Shrine, which has received two years of support from the Heinz Endowments. Wormsley has an MFA in Film and Video from Bard College and currently is a Presidential Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University to research and create work rooted in matriarchal leadership and mysticism in the African-American community.
For Messages for the City: Dreaming Forward
About There Are Black People in the Future: This work is inspired by afro-futurist artists and writers who highlight the need for Black people to claim their place. Through the inscription and utterance of the words "There Are Black People in the Future," the project addresses systemic oppression of black communities through space and time by reassuring the presence of Black bodies and the claiming of a future that has historically been denied to them. The message reaffirms that Black people have access to the future, a future that is of their choosing.
In 2017, Wormsley placed these words on a billboard in East Liberty, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s east end that has suffered gentrification. When the billboard was removed by the city, community members protested, in response to this community support, Wormsley has raised grant money to artists, activists, and community workers in Pittsburgh and Houston around their interpretation of the phrase “There Are Black People in the Future.” Since then, the billboard has been replicated in Detroit, Charlotte, New York City, Kansas City and Houston, and London. The text, which Wormsley encourages others to use freely, has since been used in protest, critical art theory, essays, song, testimony and collective dreaming.
Selections from an interview with the artist, conducted by Times Square Arts Fellow Andrea Leal Montemayor:
Q: How did the phrase “There Are Black People in the Future” originate?
ABW: I moved back to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn for a residency at the Andy Warhol Museum. I had the idea of creating a residency project there, inspired by Project Row Houses in Houston, so I talked to the director of the Warhol at the time, Eric Shiner, about doing work in Homewood, the neighborhood where I grew up. Homewood is a really amazing Black historical neighborhood. Due to The War On Drugs and the insidious nature of white supremacy, Homewood is struggling to survive, and I wanted to do something to support it.
For the residency at the Warhol Museum, I had a classroom in Westinghouse Academy. At the time, I was working on these experimental sci-fi films, which I didn’t know then were Afrofuturist. I showed the kids my films, and, as I had a hard time finding sci-fi films with Black and brown people in them, I ended up showing them a lot of independent films from Africa, like Pumzi, and Native Son, and some US films by Terence Nance and John Akomfrah. Still, there is not enough representation in science fiction. That made me think how we don’t even have a place in the future, how white supremacy denies us a place in the future.
I would walk around Homewood with the kids, and they would say that it was perfect for a zombie film. I thought, that’s crazy, this is our neighborhood, why does it look like this? So we would break it down, asking why does Homewood and other Black neighborhoods look like they do and thinking about systemic racism. I was talking to my partner, ranting to him about all this, and I told him you know, there are Black people in the future! So I started writing it down in my sketchbooks, making stencils and screen printing it on things, using it as my mantra. Then, while the kids were making zombie films, my anthropology came into play and I decided to archive the neighborhood, collecting its objects to learn about Homewood as if it were an ancient civilization. The act of collecting these objects and of stamping them with “There Are Black People in the Future” became like a ritual for me.
I continued with this body of work, eventually doing videos and installations. In 2018, Jon Rubin at Carnegie Mellon asked if I wanted to put the text on a Billboard in East Liberty, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh that has been extremely gentrified. The billboard is on top of the remnant of a club called the Shadow Lounge, a really important Hip Hop and Jazz art space for young brown people. The club was the very reason people wanted to live in East Liberty, and ironically, they were eventually outpriced by gentrification. When we put the billboard up, the developers felt threatened by it and they took it down. Pittsburgh protested and it was really beautiful to see people had my back, so I made a statement and I gave the phrase to the public. Artists in Pittsburgh started making things around There Are Black People In The Future, and we had community meetings around it, where elder Black people expressed they felt like the sign, kicked out and unwelcome in the space where they lived for generations.
I wanted to do something more, so I asked foundations to support a grant project. We gave many grants to artists to use the text in their work, and so many things came from it, like anti-racist yoga practices, rest doulas, a nap ministry, a teen afrofuture club, and an afrofuturist rap album by a young non-binary Black artist. People also started to want to curate the billboard in different spaces; it has been in North Carolina, Detroit, and New York, and it will be in the Oakland Museum, Kansas City, and in Houston through the Monument Lab, where I am a fellow this year. It’s really just taking off.
Q: When people encounter your work in Times Square, what do you hope they will feel or think?
ABW: I want them to feel hope. I hope it inspires different thinking. Where people feel left out of this sentence, I hope they begin to examine why it is important to say that there are Black people in the future. In that one sentence, I am acknowledging all people, acknowledging that we are on stolen land, and the atlantic slave trade. I hope people can open themselves up to it and feel joy that we are still here.