In the Black Fantastic Ekow Eshun Curates London’s Best New Summer Exhibition 

In the Black Fantastic

The Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition titled ‘In the Black Fantastic’ is the UK’s first major exhibition dedicated to the work of Black artists who use fantastical elements to address racial injustice and explore alternative realities. 

Curated by Ekow Eshun and showcasing new works and special commissions, this exhibition adds a new chapter to the Hayward Gallery’s tradition of presenting groundbreaking shows that respond to and illuminate key themes in contemporary art.

As a concept, the Black fantastic does not describe a movement or a rigid category so much as a way of seeing – EE

In the Black, Fantastic brings together a group of artists who inventively recycle and reconfigure elements of folklore, myth, science fiction, spiritual traditions, pageantry and legacies of Afrofuturism. The artists reimagine how we represent the past and think about the future whilst also engaging with the challenges and conflicts of the present. The fantastical element has nothing to do with escapism; instead, it considers alternative ways of being and confronts socially constructed ideas about race. Participating artists include Nick Cave, Sedrick Chisom, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Rashaad Newsome, Chris Ofili, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleen Smith, Lina Iris Viktor and Kara Walker.

in the black fantastic
Tabita Rezaire

Encompassing painting, photography, video, sculpture and mixed-media installations, the exhibition seeks to create multi-dimensional aesthetic experiences that bring the viewer into a new environment between the real world and a variety of imagined ones. Opening the show, a major new commission by Nick Cave takes the form of a dramatic installation comprising hundreds of casts of the artist’s arm, joined together like links in a chain. Alongside this, Cave will present a group of Soundsuits: the legendary series of wearable artworks begun 30 years ago in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. In addition, a new Soundsuit commemorating the killing of George Floyd is shown in the exhibition.

Other artists using their bodies to create works of far-reaching imagination include Hew Locke and Lina Iris Viktor. Locke’s immersive installation comprises a series of portrait photographs of the artist masquerading as corrupt kings, tyrants and bandits. At the same time, Viktor’s mixed-media works draw from sources including astronomy, Aboriginal dream paintings, African textiles, and West and Central African mythology. Similarly, Wangechi Mutu reimagines the human body and reflects on its imperilled environment, presenting collage and film works alongside two new female figure sculptures made from Kenyan natural materials, including red soil, horn and shells.

Intersectionality underpins the work of several artists, including Rashaad Newsome, whose multi-disciplinary practice explores themes of gender, sexuality and race, and Tabita Rezaire, whose immersive film installation critiques Western conventions of narrow binaries by invoking a spiritual connection to pre-colonial Africa. In addition, interwoven mythologies and history are explored by Ellen Gallagher, who addresses the horror of the Atlantic slave trade through paintings inspired by mythical sub-aquatic realms inhabited by the ancestors of Africans who drowned during the Middle Passage, and Chris Ofili, whose paintings transport Homer’s encounter between Odysseus and Calypso to the islands of the Caribbean.

Past, present and future, utopian and apocalyptic, are all explored. Works by Sedrick Chisom and Kara Walker probe the parasitic ideology of whiteness and America’s history of racial violence. A stop-motion animation by Walker weaves a nightmarish tale of racial violence and domestic terrorism based on events of recent history, including the storming of the US Capitol in 2021. In contrast, Cauleen Smith addresses community and Afrofuturist utopias themes with an immersive installation.

Hew Locke In the black Fantastic
Hew Locke In The Black Fantastic

Accompanying In the Black Fantastic, a rich summer season of events takes place across the Southbank Centre, spanning artist talks, literature, performance and music. Also inspired by the exhibition is a series of free outdoor installations scattered across the site and a range of Creative Learning events aimed at local schools and teachers. A parallel programme of film screenings curated by Ekow Eshun will also be hosted at BFI Southbank throughout July.

Ekow Eshun, Curator of In the Black Fantastic, says: “As a concept, the Black fantastic does not describe a movement or a rigid category so much as a way of seeing shared by artists who grapple with the inequities of racialized contemporary society by conjuring new visions of Black possibility. Black visual artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians are thinking in boldly imaginative terms to explore race and cultural identity in the contemporary era.”

Ralph Rugoff, Director at the Hayward Gallery, says: “Thanks to the insights of curator Ekow Eshun, In the Black Fantastic will be the first exhibition to highlight this very significant – and still under-acknowledged – artistic territory that extends across the field of visual art to recent trends in literature, film, television, and music. At once vivid and thought-provoking, lyrical and relevant, the works in the show embody the power of the fantastic to help us chart new ways of confronting legacies of racism and celebrating cultures of resistance and affirmation.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated publication exploring the expansive territory of the Black fantastic across film, music, design and literature. Published by Thames and Hudson, the book includes an introductory text by Ekow Eshun and extended essays by Eshun, Kameelah L. Martin, and Michelle D. Commander.

In the Black Fantastic is curated by Ekow Eshun with Assistant Curator Thomas Sutton and Curatorial Assistant Debbie Meniru.

The exhibition will tour Kunsthal Rotterdam, Netherlands, from November 2022 to March 2023.

Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2022

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