African masks and jewelry made to be worn by fictional figures. natali wiseman

When I entered the space at Seattle Art Museum that contains Saya Woolfalk's installation ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space, I immediately noticed four black boys staring at the work with amazement.

And though ChimaTEK is certainly captivating—with its swirling and brilliant colors, its hypnotic music, its enigmatic blend of the ancient with the high-tech and the traditions of West African art with the processes of experimental science—I was certain that something else was connecting their eyes and minds to the installation. The work is now a part of the museum's permanent collection and the centerpiece of the exhibit Lessons from the Institute of Empathy.

If the black boys had seen ChimaTEK in, say, 2017, they might have looked at it for a moment, thought it was a bit weird, and left the installation with heads filled with confused impressions. Maybe they even would have been a little spooked by the strangeness of the masks, headgear, and floor mats. But in the spring of 2018, there was no way they could miss or be muddled by the work. What was the difference? My guess: the blockbuster Black Panther, which was released in February of this year and has so far grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.

At the heart of this film is the fictional African nation of Wakanda. This nation is powerful because it has what the UK producer A Guy Called Gerald once described as "black secret technology." The way this technology is presented in that film owes a lot to the literature, art, music, and cinema of the black arts movement called Afrofuturism.

Though it has its roots in the 1970s, Afrofuturism came into its own in 1998, when the British culture critic Kodwo Eshun fully theorized it in the dazzling book More Brilliant Than the Sun. Twenty years later, the superhero flick Black Panther brought the underground art (its theories, its sounds, its language, its visions of black secret technologies) to the masses. As a consequence, anyone who has seen the movie is pretty prepared to connect with the science fiction of Woolfalk's ChimaTEK, or any of the other works in the Lessons from the Institute of Empathy exhibit.

These African masks, African jewelry, African clothes—made to be worn by fictional figures who run a fictional institute that deals with things like Empathy Deficit Disorder, and made to exist in real and virtual spaces—now have, for young and old Americans, a mainstream point of reference.