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  • Writer's pictureDominic Dalglish

Revolutionary Escapism: In the Black Fantastic

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre

Curated by Ekow Eshun

29th June – 18th September 2022

On at London’s Southbank Centre, ‘In the Black Fantastic’ includes an exhibition of works on display at the Hayward Gallery by ‘eleven contemporary artists from the African diaspora, who draw on science fiction, myth and Afrofuturism to question our knowledge of the world.’[1] As well as this display of visual arts (including shorts), ‘In the Black Fantastic’ makes full-use of the Southbank Centre with a season of films selected by curator Ekow Eshun on at the BFI.

Whilst ‘science fiction’ and ‘myth’ are fairly broad categories, ‘Afrofuturism’ is a term that implies a more limited (if still expansive) frame for thinking about the works on display. ‘Afro-’ speaks to work by and relating to African people and the African diaspora; ‘-futurism’ to ideas that frequently explore contemporary situations by imagining possible futures.[2] But rather than being a show about ‘Afrofuturism’, Eshun has specifically brought ‘science fiction’ and ‘myth’ into the picture: one points to an imagined future, the other to an imagined past. Collectively, this is ‘the Black Fantastic’. Writing in 2020, Eshun had this to say:

…the Black fantastic is less a movement or a rigid category than a way of seeing shared by artists who grapple with the legacy of slavery and the inequities of racialized contemporary society by conjuring new narratives of Black possibility.[3]

Part of this possibility entails not only future-thinking, but explorations of the past, too. What this can amount to is of course open to debate and interpretation; the exhibition showcases many responses to these ways of thinking, through these ways of thinking. However, the point of this show isn’t so much to define ‘the Black fantastic’, as to use its breadth – entailing Afrofuturism, science fiction and myth – to draw together works that explore (and confront) constructions of race, gender, sexuality, politics and so on.

The breadth of ‘the Black Fantastic’ as an approach leaves artists free to develop their work in a variety of media. Consequently, we might consider how the particular concerns of artists are expressed through the media they choose. What do the visual arts – in contrast to music and film, for example – allow artists to explore? Are there aspects of their work that address constructions of race in particular ways? And how can we read these images and objects back against other Afrofuturist, science fiction and mythological approaches realised in different media?

A series of forearms with hands at either end, delicately grasp each other, reaching vertically upwards to the ceiling. Several rows do so to cast a net running up to the ceiling. They are cast in black resin. The photo shows the work in the Hayward gallery, with other pieces behind.

Above: 'Chain Reaction' Nick Cave, 2022 (Photo: Ocula)

The Hayward suits the exhibition; its split levels have been designed to give the feel of a united whole, whilst allowing artists to be displayed individually. The mixture of high and low-ceiling rooms provide larger-scale pieces with room to breathe and by turns more intimate works a suitable degree of intensity. This is a powerful show not only because of the work it contains, but also the sensitivity of the curation: its parts are great, but it is more than their sum. Eshun has grasped the power of what’s on display and how works can speak to and inform each other. Moving through the gallery, quite different artists complement rather than compete for attention.

On entering, you’re met by Nick Cave’s Chain Reaction, a floor to ceiling net of linked hands and forearms cast in black resin. It’s the first indication that the body – that black bodies – are central to what this exhibition is about. Cave’s other works on display are some of his Soundsuits. Made of material he has found and brought together, they completely cover the body hiding the race, gender and all other aspects of the person inside. They also distort the body, elongating its forms: the body covered or masked can push against the idea of what it is. The Soundsuits can be seen as sculptures, but they may be worn, too, in performances that link this work strongly to music and sonic art.

Above: Two 'Soundsuits' by Nick Cave

The use of collected material is also important in a group of Wangechi Mutu’s work. All of the pieces exploit the idea of collection and collage, but alternatively through flat surfaces, sculpture and film. These are united in their creation of ‘fantastical female figures’, representations that challenge the notion of the female through the construction of the body from gathered ‘stuff’. Using everything from magazine clippings to natural materials of soil, shells and horn, there is nothing intrinsically ‘odd’ about these elements, and yet the results of their combination are literally extra-ordinary. These are discovered forms and possibilities, beautiful and terrifying in equal parts.

Above from left to right: 'The Backoff Dance' 2021; 'Madame Repeatet' 2010; 'Sentinel V' 2021.

Similar ideas of collection play out at different points in the exhibition. Hew Locke’s series of photographs, How Do You Want Me? present grand figures as if posed for honorific portraits, all against the backdrop of a traditional Guyanese house. The figures here suffocate under the accumulation of naff trinkets, fake flowers, gold, guns and baby-dolls. The bodies underneath hardly exist beneath the ephemeral junk that covers them. Here, the ‘stuff’ of the world restricts and restrains the body under a world of assumptions that the material, posing and settings prescribe.

Above: one of the photographs from the series How Do You Want Me?, Hew Locke.

A little further on, Rashaad Newsome also plays with ideas of construction, here combining representations of human forms in African sculpture with the material of pop culture and the Black Queer community. Ansista, a life-size manikin made of the legs of a sex doll, but with a mahogany body and a head influenced by a mask made by the Chokwe of Central Africa, is caught in the middle of a vogue dip. An imagined person that sits behind or in this figure, lies somewhere in the chaos of squaring the circle between these wildly diverse elements. Yet are they so different? The ability to bring them together suggests not. They exist as constructs in the first place, and are therefore apt to be reconstructed and recombined. Tabita Rezaire’s work Ultra Wet – Recapitulation, similarly challenges notions of innate sexuality and gender that have been imparted to the world through colonialist structures. A film projected onto a four-sided pyramid, the work combines narration by seven different people over a further collage of different members of the Black Queer community, scenes of nature, and digitized, often abstracted, objects. The hope is for ‘a blackness that’s just black.’

Above: 'Ansista' Rashaad Newsome, 2019.

Lina Iris Viktor’s series of hybrid painting-photographs, A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred., (and the triptych made specifically for this), offer probably the most conventional representations of the human form in the exhibition. Yet the figure they show, the artist in the guise of the Libyan Sibyl, is a quixotic, even malevolent presence.[4] Set on the background of maps of the Republic of Liberia, she represents a colonial solution to a colonial problem; a paradise but a problematic one. These are dramatically paired with the most abstracted figures of the show, a series of sculptures entitled The Watcher, The Listener and The Orator. The humanity suggested by their titles encourages you to engage with them, and abstracted from bodies they exist without the prejudices that people bring to such engagements. Their black and shining gold-bronze materiality, though, speak to Viktor’s Sibyl in a way that ties them unmistakably to the themes of the exhibition, and the oppressions that black people live with.

Above from Left to Right: 'Eleventh' from A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred. 2018; The Watcher, The Listener and The Orator 2021-22, Lina Eris Viktor.

It’s hardly revelatory to suggest that media such as sculpture, painting and collage are good means of contemplating and exploring the body. Nor is it surprising that work concerned with constructions of race – and challenges to the constructs that people are forced to live under – must deal with the body. But because of this, the work in this exhibition feels essential. The demands that are made of black bodies and the demands made of black people because of their bodies, are exposed in the works of this exhibition for the fallacies that they are. The force of these works and the way they have been displayed make them an indispensable part of discourse on race.

Given the focus on construction, it is notable how many of the works draw on collection as part of their composition. They challenge our sense of reality through plays with materiality and form, and combinations of disparate images and objects. This is clearly where ‘the Black Fantastic’ as a way of thinking – combining past and present; fantasy and potential futures – allows these artists to challenge the paradigms that surround black representation. This collected-compositional nature is a tenet of a ‘Black Fantastic’ approach, and one that gets right to the heart of the issues its exponents are most concerned to challenge.

Above: 'Kiss (Calypso & Odysseus)' Chris Ofili, 2019.

Despite its importance, there is more to this exhibition than contemplations of the ‘body’. The first floor includes works by Chris Ofili and Kara Walker that explore mythological episodes and fantasy worlds more directly. Ofili’s imaginings of episodes of Homer and Biblical narrative don’t just depict these subjects anew, but reimagine the premises that surround them: in his Annunciation, Mary and the angel Gabriel become supernatural beings, conjoined in a sexual embrace. Kara Walker’s film Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies (2021) enacts crimes of white supremacists in the United States through shadow puppets, a medium that lends the performance an air of fantasy. It supposes they existed in a time before our own, forcing us to confront the horrible reality that they in fact do not.

Above: 'Annunciation' Chris Ofili, 2006.

Another artist’s work on display here is Ellen Gallagher, whose works Watery Ecstatic and Ecstatic Draught of Fishes draw on the idea of a Black Atlantis called Drexciya. The name and concept was first developed as part of the 1992 concept album, Deep Sea Dweller by the Detroit techno duo of that name. The idea supposes that the pregnant women thrown overboard from the slave ships during the middle passage gave birth to an underwater, deep-sea civilisation.

Above: 'Ecstatic Draught of Fishes' Ellen Gallagher, 2020.

Though the music might be more obscure, these types of narrative are closer to how most people have come into contact with ‘the Black Fantastic’ than the work on display in this exhibition. Black Panther for one has brought this approach, in particular that of Afrofuturism, to huge audiences worldwide through comics and now film. The first Black superhero and the imagined African state of Wakanda are important elements of the highest-grossing film franchise of all time. But with greater diffusion comes the problem of retaining meaning or even purpose: are important messages lost along the way?

One immediate issue is whether you think about some of these imagined, fantastical and futuristic visions as a balm or remedy for the unpleasantness of life as it is lived, or whether it is something else entirely. Afterall, most of the culture that we consume is designed to help us switch-off, not to get us thinking. Eshun emphatically responds to this problem:

The fantastic is not a territory of escape. It’s a way of riposte and a method of reply to a racialised everyday, but it’s also an assertion of freedom. Black people nevertheless create and sustain spaces of rebellious imagination, of artistic flourishing.[5]

The use of visual arts to express ideas through what Eshun has called the ‘Black Fantastic’, should absolutely silence claims of escapist fantasy. This exhibition of paintings, sculptures, collage and short film should encourage us to see and respond to the same messages conveyed in different media. Film, comics and graphic novels are all important, but none more so than music.

As noted throughout the exhibition - from Nick Cave’s Soundsuits to Ellen Gallagher’s development of Drexciya - music is a particularly important part of ‘the Black Fantastic’; Eshun even gives a playlist at the back of the exhibition guide. Music is clearly extremely important to Eshun personally, too; his 2005 memoir ‘Black Gold of the Sun: searching for home in England and Africa,’[6] must draw its title either from Nuyorican Soul’s version of the song, or the Rotary Connection original (or both). Though Eshun’s own passion for music is clear, it should come as no surprise that someone with such a deep understanding of the art and production of the African Diaspora drew on music to express themselves.

Above: album covers by Herbie Hancock (Thrust), Parliament (Mothership Connection), Sun Ra (Astro Black) and Alice Coltrane (Live at the Berkeley Community Theater 1972)

Up until now, when I’ve thought about Afrofuturist ideas, it’s almost always been through music. Since my early teens, I’ve been in a twenty-five year (and counting) love affair with Parliament-Funkadelic, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Lee Perry, Derrick May and on and on. Like many people who enjoy this great variety of music, it takes me places that I otherwise couldn’t go; music can transport us. But it’s important to acknowledge that as much as you can listen to this music and ‘escape’ from the world, it often has serious intent or it is an expression that stems from very real suffering. Some of this is also deliberately absurd, funny, and caricature; but when have these ever not been weapons of resistance? Other Afrofuturistic music – more about rhythm and feeling than lyrics – is sometimes trivialised, but also, I suspect, left out of forms of cultural analysis for fear that a critical approach would burst the escapist bubble. As Kodwo Eshun (Ekow’s brother) put it, ‘you can theorize words or style, but analyzing the groove is believed to kill its bodily pleasure, to drain its essence.’[7]

The visual arts tend to be thought about ‘seriously’, whilst other forms of expression – however popular they might be – can sometimes be side-lined. That might have to do with their relative appeal: a popular ‘escapist’ film is assumed not to be meaningful in contrast to a painting that is 'hard work'. As much as anything else, this exhibition demands that we don’t make this assumption with works that constantly evoke music, performance, and film. Whilst specific media might be used to explore different themes, ‘Black Fantastic’ approaches encourage an appreciation and contemplation of a spectrum.

That matters because many of these other forms of expression have gained a level of popularity that visual artists can rarely attain. Yet the themes they address and the challenges they mount against the structures of the world that continue to oppress black people, are just as present. Far from escapist fantasies, these are calls to action.

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[1] Artists Nick Cave, Sedrick Chisom, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Rashaad Newsome, Chris Ofili, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleen Smith, Lina Iris Viktor and Kara Walker.

[2] The term was coined in 1995 in a piece by Mark Dery, who described it as ‘speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture – and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.’ (1995, ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.’ This exhibition is clearly not bound by the African-American focus of Dery’s description, but it provides a starting point.

[3] Ekow Eshun 2020, ‘The Black Fantastic’ Aperture. It’s well worth watching Ekow Eshun’s introductory video to the exhibition on the gallery website, and/or having a read of this interview with the BFI.

[4] You can read more about this work and the history of Liberia in an interview Viktor did for Elephant in 2020.

[5] From, ‘In the Black Fantastic: a conversation with Ekow Eshun’ by Chrystel Oloukoï (5.7.2022)

[6] This is notably illustrated by Chris Ofili, one of the featured artists in the exhibition.

[7] K. Eshun 1998, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction 00[-007].


Dominic Dalglish is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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