From 29 June to 18 September 2022, the Hayward Gallery will present In the Black Fantastic, the UK’s first major exhibition dedicated to the work of Black artists who use fantastical elements to address racial injustice and explore alternative realities. Showcasing new works and special commissions, this exhibition adds a new chapter to the Hayward Gallery’s tradition of presenting ground-breaking shows that respond to and illuminate pivotal themes in contemporary art.
Curated by Ekow Eshun, In the Black Fantastic brings together a group of artists who inventively recycle and reconfigure elements of folklore, myth, science fiction, spiritual traditions, pageantry and legacies of Afrofuturism. The artists reimagine the ways in which we represent the past and think about the future, whilst also engaging with the challenges and conflicts of the present. The fantastical element has nothing to do with escapism; instead it considers alternative ways of being, and confronts socially constructed ideas about race.
Encompassing painting, photography, video, sculpture and mixed-media installations, the exhibition seeks to create multi-dimensional aesthetic experiences that bring the viewer into a new environment somewhere between the real world and a variety of imagined ones. Opening the show, a major new commission by Nick Cave takes the form of a dramatic installation comprising hundreds of casts of the artist’s own arm, joined together like links in a chain. Alongside this, Cave will present a group of Soundsuits: the legendary series of wearable artworks begun 30 years ago in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles. A new Soundsuit commemorating the killing of George Floyd will be shown.
Other artists using their own body to create works of far-reaching imagination include Hew Locke and Lina Iris Viktor. Locke’s immersive installation comprises a series of portrait photographs of the artist masquerading as corrupt kings, tyrants and bandits, while Viktor’s mixed-media works draw from sources including astronomy, Aboriginal dream paintings, African textiles, and West and Central African mythology.Similarly, Wangechi Mutu reimagines the human body and reflects on its imperilled environment, presenting collage and film works alongside two new female figure sculptures made from natural Kenyan materials including red soil, horn and shells.
Intersectionality underpins the work of a number of artists including Rashaad Newsome whose multi-disciplinary practice explores themes of gender, sexuality and race, and Tabita Rezaire whose immersive film installation critiques Western conventions of narrow binaries by invoking a spiritual connection to pre-colonial Africa. Interwoven mythologies and history are explored by Ellen Gallagher who addresses the horror of the Atlantic slave trade through paintings inspired by mythical sub-aquatic realms inhabited by the ancestors of Africans drowned during the Middle Passage, and Chris Ofili whose paintings transport Homer’s encounter between Odysseus and Calypso to the islands of the Caribbean.
Past, present and future, utopian and apocalyptic, are all explored. Works by Sedrick Chisom and Kara Walker probe the parasitic ideology of whiteness and America’s history of racial violence. A stop-motion animation by Walker weaves a nightmarish tale of racial violence and domestic terrorism based on events of recent history, including the storming of the US Capitol in 2021. In contrast, Cauleen Smith addresses themes of community and Afrofuturist utopias with an immersive installation.
Accompanying In the Black Fantastic, a rich summer season of events will take place across the Southbank Centre, spanning literature, performance and music, as well as a series of outdoor installations. A parallel programme of film screenings curated by Ekow Eshun will also be hosted at BFI Southbank.
Ekow Eshun, Curator of In the Black Fantastic, says: “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.”
Ralph Rugoff, Director at the Hayward Gallery, says:“Thanks to the insights of curator Ekow Eshun, In the Black Fantastic will be the first exhibition to highlight this very significant – and still under-acknowledged – artistic territory that extends across the field of visual art to recent trends in literature, film, television, and music. At once vivid and thought-provoking, lyrical and relevant, the works in the show embody the power of the fantastic to help us chart new ways of confronting legacies of racism and celebrating cultures of resistance and affirmation.”
Participating artists include 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 exhibition will be accompanied by a richly illustrated publication exploring the expansive territory of the Black fantastic across film, music, design and literature. Published by Thames and Hudson, the book includes an introductory text by Ekow Eshun and extended essays by Eshun, Kameelah L. Martin, and Michelle D. Commander.
In the Black Fantastic is curated by Ekow Eshun with Assistant Curator Thomas Sutton and Curatorial Assistant Debbie Meniru.
The exhibition will tour to Kunsthal Rotterdam, Netherlands from November 2022 to March 2023.