In the Black Fantastic – African Diaspora Artists Visualising A Future Beyond Racialisation

In the Black Fantastic (Hayward Gallery, London, 29 June – 18 September 2022) was a group exhibition featuring work by eleven internationally renowned African diaspora artists, whose oeuvres regularly reference aspects of myth, magic, spirituality, speculative fiction and otherworldliness to articulate creative responses to the everyday experiences of racialisation in the West.

Exterior view of the Hayward Gallery, London, where the group exhibition ‘In the Black Fantastic’ was shown, 29 June – 18 September 2022. The large-scale, plexiglass installation “The Hop” by Jyll Bradley is on display until October 2022. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Curated by Ekow Eshun for the Hayward at London’s Southbank, this themed selection of artworks was presented over two floors and offered insights into the featured artists’ day-to-day interactions, encounters, emotions and ways of being in spaces where their presence as people of colour is regularly perceived as somehow ‘out of place’ – and, therefore, seemingly perpetually marginal, outside and beyond someone else’s expectations of what constitutes ‘normality.’

The collections of paintings, sculptures, films, collages and mixed-media installations assembled for the exhibition reflected a diverse range of creative reactions, (counter-)responses, imaginings and interventions that have been advanced by artists to challenge, call out, push back against, and navigate alternative ways through racialisation. It is these (re-)actions, disruptions, (re-)assertions of self, and other innovative modes of establishing presence that Ekow Eshun described as journeying into the ‘Black Fantastic.’

Moving clockwise through the gallery, the first floor showcased work by Nick Cave, Wangechi Mutu, Lina Iris Viktor, Hew Locke, Tabita Rezaire, Sedrick Chisom and Rashaad Newsome.

Detail of a contemporary collage by Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972, Nairobi, Kenya), featuring found elements and symbolism relating to to African myth-making, supernatural forces, and (mis-)representations of Black women’s bodies. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

On the second floor, watercolours and collages by Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965, Providence, RI, USA) from her Drexciya-inspired series “Watery Ecstatic” were shown near to the sculpture “Annunciation” (2006) and a selection of paintings by Chris Ofili (b. 1968, Manchester, UK) from his Odysseus and Calypso-themed “Caribbean homage…” series (2019) in the largest adjoining rooms (shown below).

Additionally, two mixed-media installations by Cauleen Smith (b. 1967, Riverside, CA, USA) and a screening room showing animations of Kara Walker’s famous shadow-puppetry depicting generations of racism in the American Deep South were presented in smaller display spaces directly above the main entrance.

Although I was excited to see very thought-provoking compositions by celebrated luminaries such as Chris Ofili and Ellen Gallagher – presenting bodies of work that referenced (respectively) biblical symbolism, Homer’s epic poems, and Drexciya mythology – the standout sections of this exhibition were by ‘next-gen’ millennials whose oeuvres were less well-known to me and showcased more agonistic and overtly liberatory representations of Black futurity and 21st century ‘Afrosurrealism’. A particular highlight was the film-based installation by French-born, Guyanese/Danish new media artist Tabita Rezaire (b. Paris, 1989). This artwork featured a montage of digital images and animated graphics projected onto a large pyramid structure in the centre of a darkened viewing room. The film was accompanied by a polyvocal audio narrative of young, non-binary and LGBTQi+ contributors of colour discussing different perspectives on gender fluidity and the possibilities of a world beyond the traditional ‘masculine-feminine’ duality.

Several mask-themed artworks by Rashaad Newsome (b. 1979, New Orleans, USA), displayed in the last room on the 1st floor, concluded the presentation by focusing on the themes of “Rage Against the Machine” and the “OG” – signifying bold, queer and assertively defiant manifestations of the Black “oppositional gaze” (cf. hooks, 1992; Campt, 2021). The CGI-based film installation “Build or Destroy” (2020) by Rashaad Newsome played on a loop, with images and audio of the artist articulating positive, Black trans femme perspectives on identity, expressed via the dynamism and ‘fierceness’ of a voguing avatar.

…[A]ll attempts to repress our/black people’s right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: “Not only will I stare, I want my look to change reality.

The Oppositional Gaze, by bell hooks – Chapter 7 in: hooks, b. (1992) Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, pp. 115-131.

I’m pleased I was able to view this exhibition before it closed on 18th September, and I applaud the way Ekow Eshun conceptualised and presented a unifying narrative that communicated the significance of future-focused, utopian and fantasy-related image-making as a way of counteracting the quotidian, ‘changing-same,’ disruptive forces of racialisation.

My only concern about an exhibition of this scale is its over-reliance on African American diasporans from the USA. While I recognise this occurs because Bloomberg Philanthropies was a key funder of the exhibition, as well as the published research by Ekow Eshun on which the presentation is based, a London showcase could have devoted some space to introducing younger, emerging artists contributing to these future-focused themes who are from the UK’s African and Caribbean diaspora communities, Black Europe and continental Africa.

Names and portfolios of work that come to mind as emerging contributors of contemporary creative practice addressing themes of imaginary futures, otherworldliness, Blackness, anti-racism, and de-racialisation include:

  • British fine artist and RCA alumna Emily Moore, whose portfolio of paintings, textile art and cross-medium mark-making on paper addresses themes related to race, history, being, belonging and time.
  • Accra-based, Moroccan-Ghanaian digital artist David Alabo (b. Rome, Italy), whose speculative, futuristic, and surrealist African landscapes reflect on the complexities of Blackness, topgraphy, sense of place and mental well-being.
  • Nigerian interdisciplinary artist, painter, photographer and illustrator Hamed Maiye (b. 1991), who has worked with British photographer Adama Jalloh (b. 1993), who is of Sierra Leonean heritage, on a series of works exploring otherworldliness, bodies and time through surrealist image-making (please see the 2021 photo series “An Ode to Afrosurrealism).

I dare to suggest that substituting one less American within this London-based edition to present ten established artists from the global African Diaspora, with one additional room set aside to showcase related works by selected ‘next-gen’ exponents of these genres based on this side of the circum-Atlantic world, would have improved the balance of the exhibition. Africans, everywhere, are the future!

Virtual Tour

A virtual tour of the exhibition In the Black Fantastic, presented by curator Ekow Eshun, is available online via YouTube (duration c.7 mins.).

Further reading and references

In the Black Fantastic – A Conversation with Ekow Eshun, BFI, London (5 July 2022) – featuring the writer and curator in conversation with film critic Chrystel Oloukoï

Campt, Tina M. (2021). A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Eshun, Ekow (2022). In the Black Fantastic [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Thames and Hudson.

hooks, bell (1992). “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, pp. 115-131.

Title image by: Lina Iris Viktor, photographed at the exhibition In the Black Fantastic.

Related post on Museum Geographies:
Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born to Endless Night – Dark Matter (Autograph, London, 2019), exhibition review by Carol Ann Dixon.

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