Author: Amirah Muhammad
In the Black Fantastic was a multimedia exhibition of 11 contemporary artists, curated by Ekow Eshun at the Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery from June to September 2022. Featuring film, photography, sculptures and paintings by African diaspora artists, Eshun summarises the exhibition’s main thesis as artists constructing ‘new myths, new fictions, new ways of seeing, new forms of possibility, new ways of being in the world for Black people.’
As I entered the exhibition, I was greeted by Nick Cave’s Chain Reaction (2022). Its size alone arrested my attention and drew my eye upwards. Cave’s interlocking hands are cast in resin and metal, symbolising kinship and union. Yet, the tenuous grasp each cast has on another suggests that this connection is delicately balanced. The duality of this sculpture, along with its title, proposes that the very nature of Black being exists under so much societal pressure as to threaten combustion, the loss of connection, a break in the chain.
But no hand in Chain Reaction is let go. Despite the precarity of the grasp, it endures.
Wangechi Mutu, The End of eating Everything, 2014. Video animation. Courtesy of the Artist, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Victoria Miro, London. Commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC.
Scanning the sculpture for a weak link, and finding none, the rest of the exhibition beckoned. The deep red walls framing Wangechi Mutu’s work indicated that I had moved to another of the exhibition’s pocket universes, slightly apart from Cave’s, yet intimately connected by the call to alter the scale at which you see the world.
On repeat is Mutu’s short film, The End of Eating Everything (2013). The film’s ever-expanding zoom out reveals more of a distressed, hybrid being (some combination of a woman, a snail, and a factory), slowly moving across the screen against an apocalyptic smog-filled sky. Mutu’s sculptures continue the animal-human hybrid theme. Sentinel V (2021) stands statuesque, a patchwork of materials including Kenyan soil, wood, and pumice stone. As in the film, Mutu combines the human and the environment to increase our understanding of our relationship with the natural world beyond Western frames of reference alone. While the film explores the pain of imbalance between humanity and nature, Sentinel V’s defiant formidability befits its name and tends towards the hope of restoring balance.
Where Cave and Mutu invited me to see the world at a different scale, Hew Locke’s How Do You Want Me? series (2007) engages the exhibition’s main thesis with bite. Locke ruptures the contract between art and viewer to make us aware of the power that looking holds. Floral reds and yellows congest his boldly colourful photographs, and sceptres, crowns and guns are recurring motifs. In each photograph, the outline of a figure is barely divisible from the background, but the face is always concealed. Here, Locke forces us to confront the subject/object dichotomy created in the act of viewing art to introduce the parallel concern of the slippage between subject/object status for Black people. With the viewer’s gaze both invited and challenged, Locke asks what, if anything, are you looking at?
Tabita Rezaire, Ultra Wet – Recapitulation, 2017. Pyramid projection mapping installation, variable dimensions. Ultra Wet – Recapitulation, Royal Standard, Liverpool, UK, 2018, by Rob Battersby. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, South Africa
The fault lines of previously stable binaries continue to be troubled in Tabita Rezaire’s pyramid projection mapping installation, Ultra Wet – Recapitulation (2017). In the darkened room, Rezaire encourages us to reconsider how masculine and feminine energies exist within us all. With a plurality of voices, Rezaire’s piece muses on where sexual-creative energy can take us when we accept it without limits on expression. This primes us to consider one of the most evocative statements in her piece: ‘To dare to imagine a Blackness that’s not constantly responding to or validating itself or countering whiteness. A Blackness that’s just Black.’
With my mind sufficiently opened to worlds of possibility, I ascend the stairs to the second level of the exhibition. One of Frantz Fanon’s most famous quotes from Black Skins, White Masks (1952) is plastered across the wall: ‘I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth’. I am reminded of the core of the exhibition’s purpose: to both challenge our conceptions of what Blackness is and to play with the meaning of what fusing with the world looks like through an artistic lens.
Kara Walker, Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies, 2021,Video, colour, sound: original score by Lady Midnight. © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; Sprüth Magers, Berlin.
Upstairs, I am in the territory of mythmaking and reinvention. Kara Walker’s short film Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies (2021) awaits. The stop-motion animation with cut-paper silhouettes references some of America’s most infamous moments of white supremacist violence, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh. Infused with allusions to America’s contemporary political landscape, Walker’s film subverts the myth of linear progress towards racial equality. Simultaneously, Walker presents a sense of historical continuity in the terrifying vision of what it is to be Black in America.
Ellen Gallagher’s work closes the exhibition. Replacing mythic rupture with imaginative continuity, Gallagher’s Ecstatic Draught of Fishes (2020) is both memorial and invention.
Gallagher’s intricate watercolour painting presents an oceanic mythos, first hinted at in the deep red circles peppering the centre of the canvas, resembling an octopus’ suckers. Central to this work is the Drexcyia myth of an ocean-based civilisation founded by the water-breathing foetuses of pregnant African women pushed overboard of slave ships. Connected by a venous tentacle, the regal silvery heads suggest a pride in Blackness that predates the fissure of slavery and live on in a world untainted by this legacy. Gallagher’s aquatic theme is testament to water’s significance in Black history, yet she compels us to view it as a space for new narratives. Her painting is an invitation to question reality as we have come to accept it, and, beyond that, to see what else could be possible.
In the Black Fantastic began its questions with ‘what if…?’ Representing varied artists’ perspectives, the exhibition itself gave a thousand different answers to the questions posed. I left the exhibition with the fertility of possibility etched into my mind, all the while searching for a path to the exhibition’s core question: ‘what can fantastical thinking teach us about Blackness and our identities?’ I eagerly await my discoveries.