‘In the Black Fantastic’: a beautiful but deeply disturbing spotlight on black culture
‘In the Black Fantastic’, a new group exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery curated by Ekow Eshun, the contributing editor of Wallpaper*, is an eclectic exploration of the black past, present and speculative future that shook up Western histories.
A post shared by writer and curator Ekow Eshun on Instagram reads “There are black people in the future” in a bold white font against a depiction of space in its all-encompassing blackness. It is an open invitation to a series of events and happenings that Eshun will curate at the Southbank Center in London until September 2022, entitled ‘In the Black Fantastic’.
Central to the summer spectacle is an exhibition at Hayward Gallery, which opens in conjunction with the release of his new book of the same title. From a ‘Soundsuit’ created by artist Nick Cave in response to the public murder of George Floyd by the American police, to a stop-motion animated film by Kara Walker based on acts of racial violence, the show is an eclectic amalgamation of beautiful yet deeply disturbing works. Although the aforementioned digital proclamation of Black futurity at first sight seems exclusively forward-looking, in conjunction with the works in the exhibition it is inextricably linked to the archive.
Historically, the Western archive has acted as a place of presence and absence, particularly with regard to black culture that has been obscured and in some cases erased from it. Taking up space in this arena, ‘In the Black Fantastic’ showcases artists whose works draw on various black pasts, present and speculative futures, shaping alternate realities as they explore the construction of whiteness.
On the eve of his book release, I had the opportunity to discuss the upcoming exhibition with Eshun. He spoke fervently about the themes and ideas underlying the exhibition, describing the works on display as attempts to ‘evoke new propositions and possibilities of black self-hood, space occupation and imagination’. Here lies the power of the Fantastic.
In an excerpt from Adriano Elia’s essay “Old Slavery Seen Through Modern Eyes,” included in Eshun’s book, Elia constructs fantasy as a sphere that does not remove us from reality, but instead allows us to dig it up. and expose. In this realm we can deconstruct centuries of socially assigned personality and construct meaning from what remains. This notion of fantasy resonates in many of the selected works in the exhibition, which Eshun says come from that endpoint. “Most of these works begin with an awareness of the ideal of Blackness itself as a social fiction rather than a scientific, biological reality, but they also move on to Blackness as a lived reality,” he says. to position Black life as a series of possibilities rather than an interrogation of a lived condition based on some of the historical structures applied to definitions of Blackness in the past.”
Installation view of Wangechi Muto works at ‘In the Black Fantastic’ at Hayward Gallery, 2022. © the artist, Photography: Zeinab Batchelor † Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery
The exhibition includes a selection of films made for art spaces rather than commercial release, which Eshun says eschew “demands in terms of meeting an audience.” One of the capabilities of film is its ability to expand the possibilities and the spectacular strangeness of black existence by taking us to other realms. In a sense, artists often give themselves more of a license to explore their personal areas of interest.’ The films encompass an array of ideas, drawing on conventional histories, folklore, myth, spiritual traditions, pageantry and the legacies of Afrofuturism, to create a new atmosphere, boldly labeled ‘The Black Fantastic’ by Eshun. In addition to these films, there are paintings, sculptures and installations by Chris Ofili, Sedrick Chisom, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Rashaad Newsome, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleen Smith and Lina Iris Viktor which all fall under Eshun’s conception of ‘The Black Fantastic’.
There is a calmness in Western history accounts as it relates to Blackness, largely because our global system actively chooses to disregard non-Western narratives. These works, if approached with a certain openness, can give rise to internal investigations into how Western megalomania in the form of global homogenization keeps us from ancient discoveries, counter histories and futures envisioned by cultures of the ‘global south’. They could prompt us to recognize that by conforming to Western narratives, we are actively complicit in what can only be described as an archive attrition. I
Wangechi Mutu, Eating the end of everything2014. Video Footage, Courtesy of the Artist, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Victoria Miro, London