Curated by Ekow Eshun, it’s the first major UK exhibition of its kind, featuring the 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. Each artist has effectively created their own reality, directly drawing on the past but also looking forward to the future, both with a liberated view of what another realm could look like. Plinth has also collaborated with Southbank Centre to develop a series of limited-editions by Hew Locke, Rashaad Newsome and Alisha B Wormsley from the exhibition.
Into the Black Fantastic
In a world plagued by injustice, inequality and uncertainty, it goes without saying that many of us look to imagine an alternative reality. Taking it as a given that 'utopia' is impossible, how might we centre one's idiosyncratic way of being and the possibilities that are afforded to us? This concept is central to In the Black Fantastic, which has just opened at London’s Hayward Gallery, in which fantasy takes centre stage and new ways of existing both within the current world and beyond it are explored.
"how can we truly understand what a world that isn’t centred around injustice looks like if that is all we have ever known?"
Being someone who frequently takes a cynical standpoint, it’s sometimes hard to see past the horrors of the world around me – luckily, In the Black Fantastic doesn't ask me to. The exhibition isn't trying to turn a blind eye or create a world in which racism doesn't exist, and rather than offer escapism, the artists gathered here share an interest in how lived experiences can be used to offer an alternative perspective or new ways of being. Simply put, how can we truly understand what a world that isn't centred around injustice looks like if that is all we have ever known?
Whilst not directly linked to spiritual traditions and mythology, popular culture concepts such as ‘Black Girl Magic’ have spurred on modern Black artistic liberation, in which creatives are not bound by arbitrary Western societal expectations. Given the current state of the world, it would be easy to assume that artists might wish to escape – or perhaps burn it all to the ground and start again. Rashaad Newsome's Build or Destroy (2020) is, as its name suggests, concerned with these competing urges: irreverent as the 'This is fine' meme, Newsome's video features a glamorous dancer voguing as fire devours the landscape around them.
"Given that race is a social construct, it is arguably the manifestation of an imagined reality itself"
The idea of creating a realm where racial injustice doesn’t exist – whilst a reality that we would all hope for – is to oversimplify the more nuanced, creative exploration of In the Black Fantastic. Given that race is a social construct, it is arguably the manifestation of an imagined reality itself. Art, being a world unto itself, can be a space to unpack this construct rather than being constrained by the expectations that come with it.
Eshun has described the Black fantastic as ‘a way of seeing’, as opposed to a movement in the vein of Afrofuturism. Whilst the exhibition borrows a lot from Afrofuturistic concepts, it is perhaps deeper in its desire to present an inclusive fantasy that does not shy away from social constructs about race as opposed to pretending that they don’t exist. Consider it a middle realm or multiverse. Popular culture is rife with current examples of imagined fantasies, a space that is becoming increasingly diverse with films and TV shows such as A Wrinkle in Time and Atlanta aptly providing commentary on race whilst playing with folklore, science fiction and fantasy. As a young Black child, it was rare to see myself reflected in the genre, other than as a wise-cracking sidekick who mysteriously disappears part way through the story. Given that the fantasy genre had previously been more likely to feature the extra-terrestrial than non-white humans, this shift towards the convergence of social commentary and imagination offers another ‘way of seeing’. Typically, when Black people are featured in the fantasy genre, especially those derived from well-known source material, usually from Norse, Celtic or Greek mythology, critics point to canon and authenticity, to suggest that the inclusion of Black people is at odds with this fantasy.
"As a young Black child, it was rare to see myself reflected in the genre, other than as a wise-cracking sidekick who mysteriously disappears part way through the story"
In removing Black people from the fantasy narrative or keeping us as minor players within a world that is governed by Western practices, our knowledge of the world and subsequently our imagination is limited. How can you imagine yourself in an alternative reality if you don’t know what that reality can even look like? What happens if possibility isn’t a concept that is afforded to you? In the Black Fantastic suggests that not only are there many ‘ways of seeing’, but many still to be seen. The Black fantastic is really whatever you want it to be. That’s the beauty of it. Many Black artists aren’t afforded the luxury of true liberation in their practices, being pigeonholed into particular categories or blanket labelled as ‘diverse’. There is an arresting sense of agency that feels noticeably distinct from Afrofuturism. With this exhibition, it’s evident that in the Black fantastic, the possibilities are endless.
Cover image: Lina Iris Viktor, Eleventh, 2018 (detail)
Pure 24 karat gold, acrylic, ink, copolymer resin, print on matte canvas
165 x 127 cm
© 2018. Courtesy the Artist