ART News

IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC:

REALITIES REIMAGINED

04th July 2022 | Guest Writer: Marianna Capelli
Our writer Marianna Capelli reviews the new exhibition In the Black Fantastic, showing now at the Hayward Gallery, London, until September 18th 2022.
How do you envision your future? Does it fit inside pre-existing guidelines? Or do you need to draw outside those lines to see yourself thrive in the world? Fabricating futures accommodating one’s needs is far from naïve: there is power in imagining and shaping new realities and so creating a set of unexplored possibilities.

This is one of the concepts behind the recently open exhibition In the Black Fantastic, now at London’s Hayward Gallery until September 18th 2022. Curated by Ekow Eshun (writer, journalist and curator working around ideas of race and identity), it features 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.
The display embraces a non-European, non-western point of view, partly reclaiming Blackness and African origins while also reclaiming the “beliefs, spiritual practices or cultural identities” from the African diaspora.[1]
The 11 artists involved all deal with themes of the fantastic through their experiences of the African diaspora, through painting, photography, video art, sculpture and mixed-media installations.

Soundsuits, Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist.

The fantastic is an all-encompassing genre that mixes aspects of the mundane with supernatural phenomena or elements. Such fusion is not disruptive but should be accepted and expected by the reader or viewer. Lately, there has been a rise in the consumption and demand for the fantastic, even in the art world. This year's Venice Biennale (The Milk of Dreams), for example, also approaches themes of daydream, the absurd, and fantasy, also leaning on cyborg and sci-fi imagery. This trend is probably due to our growing need for escapism after these last few years: it appeals to our need to see ourselves in different, better realities to escape our own.
However, the Black Fantastic has nothing to do with escapism. On the contrary, it is all about reflection on current social injustice, racism and the real-life experiences of the artists. They do not create unbelievable, fictitious dimensions, but rather address the present by finding unique ways of imagining it or alternatives to it. This is possible through the exploration of myth, folklore, science fiction, spirituality and the legacies of Afrofuturism. Coined in 1993 by Mark Dery, Afrofuturism is a cultural movement that uses science fiction, technology, fantasy and history to explore the African diaspora through speculative fiction, film and art. This allows the exploration of Black futures through Black cultural lenses, as a tool of empowerment, reclamation and liberation. In this way, In the Black Fantastic transports viewers into an immersive space between their own reality and a multitude of imagined ones, where Black people are at the centre of the narrative.
“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. More than ever Black visual artists, as well as writers, film-makers and musicians, are thinking in boldly imaginative terms in order to explore race and cultural identity in the contemporary era.”, said the curator.[2]

Installation view of Nick Cave's works In the Black Fantastic at Hayward Gallery, 2022. Photo: Zeinab Batchelor. Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.

The exhibition opens with Chain Reaction, a specially commissioned work by Nick Cave, African-American artist and dancer. The work consists of an imposing structure hanging from the ceiling of the gallery. On a closer look, it reveals hundreds of casts of Cave's arm connected like links in a chain, forming a repetitive mechanism of struggle and unity as the hands grasp each other.

Soundsuit, Nick Cave, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The display also features a group of works from his prominent ongoing series Soundsuits. Cave crafted the first one in response to the 1992 Los Angeles police brutality episode towards Rodney King - since then, Cave has completed over 500 suits, varying in textures, materials, and colours. His work is visibly informed by African ceremonial attire, dance and choreography, fashion and cultural textiles. In the exhibition, the costumes present as static sculptures, but they are also often used in performances. When on, Soundsuits cover the wearer entirely: they create a second layer, a new dimension of existence. In this way, they camouflage one’s identity (i.e. race, gender, and class), avoiding “being racially profiled, being devalued, less than, dismissed".[3] This forces the beholder to suspend judgement and engage with the costume and costume-bearer in unusual ways. Soundsuits are wearable art that actively confronts discrimination by, quite literally, assuming new forms to reshape human interactions.

ELEVENTH (from A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred.), 2018, Lina Iris Viktor. Pure 24 Karat Gold, Acrylic, Ink, Copolymer Resin, Print on Matte Canvas. 127 x 165.1 cm. Unique.

Another striking participant in the show is Liberian-British conceptual artist, painter and performance artist Lina Iris Viktor. She employs various media (i.e. site-specific installations, performance, sculpture, painting, photography) and techniques to build factual and imaginary narratives surrounding the colonisation of West Africa. Astrology, aboriginal dream painting, African textiles and West and Central African mythologies animate her work. Viktor is mainly known for her bigger-than-life mixed-media self-portraits, which combine the traditional with the futuristic. The artist is the only recurring human figure in the paintings: she is a statuesque and regal presence dominating a background of intricate patterns, like textiles, with a saturated palette of blues, reds, matte blacks, and metallic hues (made from actual 24k gold).
Details of ELEVENTH (from A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred.), 2018, Lina Iris Viktor. Pure 24 Karat Gold, Acrylic, Ink, Copolymer Resin, Print on Matte Canvas. 127 x 165.1 cm. Unique.

In this way, she questions the stereotypes and damaging portrayal of African identities. In her series Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred. the artist reimagines the history of West Africa, particularly the US foundation of the Republic of Liberia, following the international abolition of slavery. ELEVENTH (2018) is the mother work of the series, made for her 2018 solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art and here featured in In the Black Fantastic. It is an imposing 165.1 cm x 127 cm canvas featuring the artist as the Lybian Sybil, ancient prophetess, a symbol of foresight and fate in Renaissance art and American abolitionist art. In the background is a golden geographical map, almost concealed by the repetitive textile pattern. These concepts of repetition and circularity are crucial to her art: “You look at African textiles and you see the repetitive patterns of the universe,” she said in an interview, “Even our DNA is a pattern-based, repetitive, cyclical thing.”[4] History is a repeating cycle, where the past, present and future coexist in the same dimension together with multiple cultures and narratives.
THIRD (from A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred.), 2017-18, Lina Iris Viktor. Pure 24 Karat Gold, Acrylic, Ink, Gouache, Copolymer Resin, Print on cotton rag paper. 101.6 x 132.1 cm. Unique.
You can catch In the Black Fantastic until September 18th 2022!
The Southbank Centre has a rich programme of summer events complementing the exhibition, performance, live music, literature, film screenings and outside installations. Click here for more information.
References:
[1] Extract from the interview by Anastasiia Fedorova for Soho House with the curator Ekon Eshun. Published June 28th 2022. Last viewed 02/07/2022.
[2] Press release. In the Black Fantastic, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, 2022.
[3] Article on Public Delivery. Published June 18th 2022. Last viewed 02/07/2022.
[4] Extract from the interview by Portrel. Published July 07th 2019. Last viewed 03/07/2022.

About the Writer
Marianna Capelli was born in the middle of nowhere, Northern Italy. She moved to London in 2015 to study Asian Art History and Mandarin Chinese at SOAS University of London and fell in love with the contemporary art world.

Temporarily back to the provincial life, she spends her days burying her nose in a book (or multiple books, mostly). The rest of the time, Marianna likes being opinionated about things and writing about art, culture and everything queer.

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