When Tyler tells a story that I know for a fact Hakeem has heard before, he still laughs and gasps at all the right places like it’s the first time. I call him out on this over lunch at The Pantry, but he just smiles. “I love her stories,” he says. “I love hearing them over and over.”
Tyler English-Beckwith and Hakeem Adewumi met in 2013 as students in the Black Studies program at the University of Texas at Austin, where they became fast friends and discovered a shared aesthetic. By now, the two operate more like a family unit, two pieces of one whole. Over eggs, biscuits, burritos and a glass of white wine for Hakeem, they tout each others’ accomplishments and finish each other’s stories. They even dressed in color-coordinating outfits from a photo shoot earlier.
The duo is on site in Santa Fe writing, producing, directing and acting in a series of short narrative videos with us to bring a new storyline into the exhibit.
Meet the Umbra sisters: three women from fifty years in the future who appear in the House through digital portals. They show up in a series of videos on screens in the exhibit and online, taking the form of black female icons with a message to communicate: Find Nimsesku to stop a future apocalypse.
Hakeem has indeed been hearing Tyler’s stories over and over. They first worked together on the professional premiere of the Afrofuturist play, TwentyEight, in Austin. Tyler wrote and co-directed, and Hakeem made a series of posters that functioned both as marketing and world-building. But to hear them tell it, they’ve always been creative partners, even when there was no product.
“It’s crazy that the first time we worked together was only two or three years ago,” Hakeem says. Tyler agrees: “It feels like we’ve always been making things together. We have a friendship that’s full of a lot of ideas.”
This rich creativity and commonality is rooted in a lively rapport and their shared influences.
Both were raised in Texas on a rich diet of science fiction and genre-adjacent stories from an early age — The Twilight Zone, Octavia Butler, Hitchcock, and horror. It wasn’t until being introduced to the world of black studies and critical theory that Tyler felt like she could be the author of those types of stories. The fandoms around most contemporary sci-fi made her feel excluded. “I was like, that’s not for me,” Tyler says. “But then I learned about Afrofuturism.”
Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic and philosophy that melds the African Diaspora with science and technology. Movies like Black Panther and musicians Sun Ra and Janelle Monae have popularized the movement in the cultural consciousness.
Vince Kadlubek, the CEO of Meow Wolf, had a vision of Afrofuturism playing into the House of Eternal Return's next chapter. As a friend and fan of Tyler's, I put her name forward as one of the most exciting writers I know and one who makes dynamic Afrofuturist work. Tyler brought on Hakeem as co-creator, and Umbra was born.
Visiting the exhibit for the first time, Tyler knew one thing: she wanted to root her story in something real.
“I don’t want to represent something without it being attached to actual blackness,” she emphasizes. “That’s never going to be my work.” Tyler and Hakeem were both aware of the traps of making “the black story” in a narrative that’s inherently white. “Starting any process with ‘this is going to be important’ does a disservice to the work and to the audience,” Tyler says.
Instead, they meditated on the Umbra sisters as individuals, a trio counterpoint to the presiding narrative – the Selig family whose actions ripped open time and space into the Multiverse. Afrofuturist style grew organically from character-driven development.
Approaching an existing story to add a new voice can be challenging, but Tyler and Hakeem relished the opportunity to collaborate with Meow Wolf’s rich story web.
They looked at it like the Marvel universe, where stories that seem peripheral stories in one context often have their own moment in the sun. (There is one crossover character, Nimsesku, the Selig family’s bionic hamster.) Touch points asides, Umbra is its own sub-world ripe for future expansion.
Ultimately, black stories and science fiction go hand-in-hand. Tyler says, “Our ability to have our home taken away, to come from another place and not just assimilate, but create a whole other culture… Our entire existence is science fiction.” Hakeem nods in agreement: “We survived an apocalypse.”
Kimberly Belflower is a playwright and educator originally from Appalachian Georgia. She works as a Narrative Lead at Meow Wolf and is proud to hold an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin.