In his 2020 Aperture article on ‘The Black Fantastic’, Ekow Eshun used a definition of the fantastic created by the scholar Rosemary Jackson which, “has to do with inverting elements of this world, re-combining its constitutive features in new relations to produce something strange, unfamiliar, and apparently ‘new,’ absolutely ‘other’ and different.”
With ‘In The Black Fantastic’ Eshun has said, in a conversation with film critic Chrystel Oloukoï, he “is interested in how artists from a range of different mediums (visual art, film, music) deal with the idea of race in general, as a social construct that retains a determining presence in all of our lives, through myth and speculative fiction.” He’s interested in “the fantasy of race and the lived reality of race”, but also in “interrogating that condition and looking beyond it” “as a way to describe new encounters, new ways of being and seeing.”
I am interested in collective memories, cultural and spiritual practices – Ekow Eshun
Alongside this facet of the Black Fantastic, Eshun is also interested in “collective memories, cultural and spiritual practices that artists and cultural figures are drawing on in expansive and generative ways, reaching back in time, as well as into the future, reaching towards myth, spiritual belief.” This is about breaking out of western binaries or dichotomies such as “backward versus future-oriented”, “past and present, natural and supernatural, scientific and spiritual, etc.”
The works he’s highlighting or displaying – which, in 2020, included Ayana V. Jackson, Adama Delphine Fawundu, Lina Iris Viktor, Hew Locke, Isaac Julien and Kiluanji Kia Henda while, in 2022, in addition to Viktor and Locke, are Nick Cave, Wangechi Mutu, Tabita Rezaire, Sedrick Chisom, Rashaad Newsome, Cauleen Smith, Kara Walker, Chris Ofili, and Ellen Gallagher – “create moments of possibility, moments of utopia, moments of otherness that go beyond othering.” He finds the roots of the Black Fantastic in “pioneering authors, musicians, and filmmakers of the 1960s and ’70s such as Octavia E. Butler, Henry Dumas, Amos Tutuola, Sun Ra, and Ousmane Sembene.” Looking around the art scene today, he suggests that if “you look at music with Solange or Lemonade, or a film like Black Panther (2018), a show like Lovecraft Country (2020), the fictions of N.K. Jemisin, etc, you recognise that there are a lot of people talking this language right now, exploring this territory.”
To demonstrate this breadth of vision, the wider programme surrounding the exhibition includes, among other events, a season of features and shorts by visionary filmmakers from the African diaspora at the British Film Institute programmed by Eshun and a cross-arts event with texts selected by editor and literary critic Ellah Wakatama. That included texts by authors who draw on African folklore, such as Chigozie Obioma, Chinua Achebe and Afia Atakora, the experience of the diaspora and the Afrofuturism of contemporary speculative fiction.
It’s worth listing all this to show the breadth and variety of this way of seeing – rather than a movement or rigid category – but also to recognise that within that diversity there are multiple readings of this phenomenon. Wakatama, for example, creates a chronological survey that, as she explained in her ‘Bad Form’ interview with Sophie Marie Niang, includes “African writers from the 50s who were starting to talk about traditional lives”, “classics of the Black fantastic”, and new fiction, non-fiction and poetry which questions “traditional literary categories, of what is or isn’t fantastical.” She takes the conversation to a different place, engaging different authors, and creating a 90-minute collage of authors talking across the years in ways that demonstrate consistency and challenge to a soundscape from Space Afrika and a backdrop of digital landscapes created by visual artist Alistair MacKinnon.
As there is no general movement, coordinating group or overarching manifesto, the exhibition is formed through individual rooms and diverse styles. Diversity is also found in media – painting, photography, video, sculpture and mixed-media installations – and materials – seashells, living plants, volcanic rock and 24-carat gold.
While there is no over-arching narrative, there are some connecting concepts. One such is collage. Mutu uses collage as a means of destroying those hierarchies in which she does not believe. These include hierarchies of gender, race and class, as demonstrated by images torn from magazines celebrating cars or pornography which are then reconstituted to shape fantastical female figures engaged in mythical activities. Eshun, in an interview with Jeffrey Boakye, speaks of collage as rejecting linear narratives through “a collapsing of time.” The layering involved in collage “brings together fact, and memory, and sense impression, and colour, and beauty, and pain, and horror.”
Another connecting concept is the visualising of new ways of being. Nick Cave’s ‘Soundsuits,’ a series of wearable artworks begun 30 years ago in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, draw on traditions of carnival in their decoration, materials and sense of personal agency, while obscuring the wearer’s gender, race, and class, taking the works, in the words of Eshun, “into a space of self-constructed fictions, self-constructed being.”
Double consciousness is a term coined by the great African American sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois. It means as Eshun explains: “to see the world twice over as a Black person. Once through your own eyes, once also through a society that looked at you, as he put it, with hatred and contempt. So, as well as seeing the world through your own eyes, you also see it through white eyes, through mainstream society. For Du Bois, this was a heritage of burden.” Works by Chisom and 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.
A merging of past and future occur in many works, with Viktor speaking of “looking at ancient cultures to tell the story of our place in the universe.” She appears in her series ‘A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred.’ – which relates to the history of Liberia – as a Libyan Sibyl who foresaw the transatlantic slave trade and was a reference for some groups in the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement. Such artists says Eshun, are: “recognising that part of our collective legacy is to do with historical fact, but also to do with constructed ideas of myth, of shared histories. And they’re recognising no distinction between looking back or looking forward. And this is some of the territory that we can occupy and explore.”
Additionally, some works involve a reaching toward myth, utopias, or spiritual belief. Rezaire’s immersive film installation critiques Western conventions of narrow binaries by invoking a spiritual connection to pre-colonial Africa. Smith draws on science fiction, Afrofuturist literature and experimental jazz to address themes of community and Afrofuturist utopias in an immersive installation. Cave speaks of the ceremonial quality embodied in works such as his arm casts with tole flowers as “altars, shrines – these alternative relics that hold a spirit.” Eshun speaks of “Black artists drawing inspiration from African-originated myth, knowledge systems and spiritual practices to confound the Western dichotomy between the real and unreal, the natural and the supernatural.”
The artists in ‘In The Black Fantastic’ reimagine the ways in which 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. The exhibition seeks to create multi-dimensional aesthetic experiences that bring the viewer into new environments somewhere between the real world and a wide variety of imagined ones.
Words: Revd Jonathan Evens Photos PC Robinson © Artlyst Top Photo Hew Locke Artlyst
‘In The Black Fantastic’, Hayward Gallery, 29 June – 18 September 2022