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Alma Thomas Was the Godmother of Afrofuturism

“Through sheer imagination,” art critic Elizabeth Hamilton writes, “Alma Thomas fantasized about space exploration as a metaphor for Black liberation.”

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Alma Thomas artwork

Mildred Baldwin

Billionaire Jeff Bezos rocketed into outer space in 2022, which ignited conversations about the usefulness of space exploration. Bezos’s space tourism is an ego-driven display of wealth and privilege that did not benefit anyone. However, through sheer imagination, Alma Thomas fantasized about space exploration as a metaphor for Black liberation.

Many significant firsts mark Thomas’s life. She was a pioneer in American art. She was the first student to graduate from Howard University’s newly formed art department. At the Barnett-Aden Gallery, the first space to exhibit Black and white artists together and one of the first successful Black-owned art galleries in the United States, she was the founding vice president. She was the first Black woman to have an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. One of her paintings, Resurrection (1966), was the first by an African American woman to enter the White House’s collection, during Barack Obama’s administration.

Alma Thomas was a radical Afrofuturist who imagined worlds for herself and the children she taught.

Born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, in what she called the horse-and-buggy times, Thomas was a consummate artistic innovator. The analog technologies that defined her fin de siècle birth did not leave her stuck in the past; rather, she was fascinated by technology, especially space travel, and it greatly influenced her Space paintings. She watched images retrieved from NASA’s Apollo mission on her color television and imagined herself in outer space with the astronauts. Her paintings were not just her interpretations of celestial bodies and spaces but also her transformative space to imagine herself in a galactic elsewhere free of white supremacy.

Thomas was an artistic innovator. She developed her signature style, Alma’s Stripes, in the mid-1960s after Howard University, her alma mater, asked her to do a retrospective exhibition. Alma’s Stripes are effervescent, broken lines of color. Some compositions place Alma’s Stripes in a circle, while others are free-form. Some art historians have likened these colorful marks to the tesserae in mosaics. However, more current technologies were likely Thomas’s influences.


Alma Thomas (1891–1978), Atmospheric Effects I, 1970, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Vincent Melzac (Smithsonian Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac)

I remember as a precocious five-year-old, I would press my face into the color television set, hoping to get into Mister Rogers Neighborhood, only to be disappointed by the red, green, and blue microblocks on the screen. Russell Kirsch invented pixels in 1957 when he scanned an image of his son into the computer. Pixels are the digital dots that make up the images we see on screens, and the number of pixels determines the screen’s resolution. The more pixels, the crisper the image. An image that appears pixelated has discernible dots of color, making the image blocky. Television pixels, viewable at the micro level, are similar to Thomas’s images that feature vertical and horizontal rows of color. Instead of the frustration that I found in the multicolored pixels, Thomas found possibility. Thomas was giving us her perception of the world through Alma’s Stripes. They are pixelated scenes of her reality.

Thirty-one vertical rows of brightly colored broken stripes fill a square canvas in Thomas’s A Glimpse of Mars (1969). From left to right, there are three blue stripes, one teal, one red, three pastel pink, five more red, which are thicker and bolder than the other stripes (perhaps a representation of the terra firma of the red planet), ten more pink stripes that dominate the piece, another red, two blue, one more teal, two more red, and two additional pink. A white background peeks from behind the colorful truncated stripes. Also visible are Thomas’s guiding graphite lines that she applied to the canvas with a straight edge before applying layers of acrylic paint. She was explicitly charting the shape and dimensions of a new world. She signed the composition in blue paint in the bottom right-hand corner. The images of Mars from the NASA spacecraft Mariner 4 inspired Thomas’s galactic visions, although the images the Mariner retrieved were in black and white and she watched them from her television. The subject of the abstract composition does not immediately reveal itself, but Thomas’s descriptive naming of her Space paintings exposes her vast imagination. In A Glimpse of Mars, we see Thomas chart an expanse of the red planet in vivid color.


Alma Thomas, (1891–1978), Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Vincent Melzac (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Alma Thomas)

Although a Black woman would not travel to space until Mae Jemison was on the Endeavour in 1992, Thomas insisted that when she painted, she was with the astronauts. She said, “My Space paintings were inspired from the heavens and stars and my idea of what it is like to be an astronaut exploring space.” This bold and Afrofuturistic exclamation mirrors jazz musician Sun Ra’s musings during the same period of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. He said, “I and my musicians are astronauts. We sail the galaxies through the medium of sound. We take our audience with us where we go whether they want to or not.” Afrofuturist art attends to technology, fantasy, reinterpreted pasts, and visions of the future. Both artists wished to travel to space through their art, but only Sun Ra gets heralded as the Afrofuturist prototype. Quoting Afrofuturism expert Alondra Nelson, Kara Keeling notes that “it has become a habit to start projects about Afrofuturism with Sun Ra.” Like Keeling, I want to resist this tendency; this is why in my art-history examinations I start with Thomas, who was a radical Afrofuturist who imagined worlds for herself and the children she taught throughout her 45-year teaching career at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C.


Alma Thomas (1891–1978), Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum, bequest of the artist (Gene Young)

Starry Night and the Astronauts (1972) is a canvas that consists of mostly blues to represent the expanse of the universe. Thomas used three shades of blue to fill the canvas. The daubs of paint vary from light to dark. Behind the signature Alma’s Stripes are gleaming spaces of white that are like stars. In the upper-right-hand quadrant of the painting is a four-sided form that has red, orange, and yellow paint. This warm-colored form, glowing against the cooling sea of blue paint, is a vessel that holds the astronauts. Thomas imagined herself in this vessel, 20 years before Jemison’s flight, to resist the white-supremacist limitations placed on her life and those of her students at the segregated Washington, D.C., junior high school where she taught.

Through her work as an educator, Thomas was envisioning the future. She said, “People always want to cite me for my color paintings, but I would much rather be remembered for helping to lay the foundation of children’s lives.” One of the primary tenets of Afrofuturism is black liberation. Thomas was using her work as a statement of possibility—as a place to which she could go to get away from the cruel world of segregation and oppression that she inhabited. She was leaving all that behind in hopes of a liberated future. Furthermore, by engaging with the space race, she was making an implicit, yet bold, political statement about Black people’s role within it. This is the significance of her performance as an astronaut: her refusal to let white supremacy confine the boundaries of her art, life, and career, instead expanding them to the entire universe and taking her students along for the ride.

Elizabeth Hamilton is an assistant professor at Fort Valley State University. She is working on her first book: Charting the Afrofuturist Imaginary in African American Art (Routledge).

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This post originally appeared on Harper’s Bazaar and was published March 15, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.