Ekow Eshun (curator), In the Black Fantastic (Hayward Gallery, 29 June-18 September 2022)
Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler (Canterbury Christ Church University)
For many years, it felt odd that there were so few Black science fiction writers – beyond Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Charles R. Saunders and Steven Barnes, I drew a blank. Thanks to Mark Sinker’s essay, ‘Loving the Alien’ (1992), and Mark Dery’s interviews with Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose in ‘Black to the Future’ (1993), I discovered I was looking in the wrong place – there was a lineage of music from Louis Armstrong, Sun Ra and Funkadelic, among others, that offered an African diasporic utopian and dystopian oeuvre. The connections were deepened when Kodwo Eshun explored the music and the genre in his ground-breaking More Brilliant Than the Sun (1998), which led me to Drexciya, a Detroit-based techno duo who built upon their myth of an undersea civilisation of enslaved people thrown overboard from a ship in the Mid-Atlantic.
Kodwo Eshun’s younger brother, Ekow, has curated eleven artists from the African Diaspora in the Brutalist splendour of the Hayward Gallery to present In the Black Fantastic. Some of the work is definitely science fiction, with aliens, machines, cyborgs and visions of the apocalypse; some perhaps fits more comfortably into the fantastic. Underlying much of it is a sense of alternate history – if the horrors of the slave trade had not happened, if colonisation had played out differently, if so much history had not been lost…
What strikes me is how much of the work is physically layered, collaged or bricolaged. The first room consists of several of Missouri-born Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, assemblages of buttons, fabric, flowers, hair and sequins that would disguise the identity of its wearer. Cave has assembled over five hundred of these, initially inspired by the Rodney King beatings in 1991. I am reminded of Yinka Shonibare’s Ankara fabric clad figures, including astronauts, and Larry Achiampong’s Wayfinder astronauts, but these are more complex. Bisecting the gallery is Chain Reaction (2022), a network of casts of Cave’s arm, perhaps rigging, perhaps a prison wall, but hinting at Black power and solidarity.
Such layering is also there, upstairs, in the works of Cape Verde-Irish-American Ellen Gallagher, whose paintings are composed of collages of watercolour paper and lined paper, sometimes augmented with resin and gold leaf. Three of her Watery Ecstatic series (2021) face off against three of her Ecstatic Draught of Fishes series (2019-21), a surreal undersea world of sea creatures, tendrils and busts, part of her feminist remix of the Drexciya. These stand in stark contrast with the ‘fine art’ of Portrait of the African Male (1641), painted by Albert Eckhout, a problematic depiction of a man taken from Guinea or Angola and forced to work in what was then Dutch Brazil. The networks of the journeys of and the economies dependent on the enslaved are complex; the painting is the property of the National Museum of Denmark.
Backing onto this room are a number of paintings by Nigerian-British Chris Ofili, inspired by the recasting of Homer’s Odyssey (via Derek Walcott’s Omeros ) to Trinidad, where Ofili now lives. Odysseus and Calypso, sea and sky, capturer and captive are reoriented, complicating the power and gender dynamics. In his sculpture Annuniciation (2006), Ofili engages with another of the west’s taproot texts, with a key scene from the gospels now featuring a shining, golden Mary (albeit with metres-long arms) copulating with an Angel Gabriel who has Afro hair and black-swan wings. Two decades ago, his painting of the Virgin Mary in the Sensation exhibition, led to the then mayor of New York, Rudi Guiliani, suing the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
The other example of a more traditional painter is Sedrick Chisom, whose works explore an imaginary future where people of colour have left the Earth and the remaining whites have been infected by a disease which darkens their skin. Meanwhile, a monstrous new group of mutants appear. In creating his own mythology, Chisom appropriates classical mythology and thus western art history – the extraordinary charcoal The Wholly Avoidable Death of Mighty Whitey, The Last Drunk Dionysian Hero, AKA The Wholly Tragic Birth of Fragile Narcissus (2020), where a naked man stares into a pond whilst ripping his belly open with a spear, and the American Civil War art of artists such as Winslow Homer feed into the burning, Confederate flag punctuated landscape of The Drunk Cooldown Rhythms Capitulated By a Deserter of The Southern Cross on Intimate Terms with Catastrophe (2020). Rather than being stretched taut, Chisom’s works on canvas sag, challenging historic practice, even as the surrounding narrative adds to and refines history.
An intermediate stage between two-dimensional images and collage is offered in the images of British-Liberian Lina Iris Viktor. Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed African Americans, whose inhabitants maintained support for the US and were hostile to the indigenous people of West Africa, in effect recapitulating earlier European colonial practices. Many of Viktor’s images include gold embossed maps of the territory; in front of these are edited photos of the artist, as goddess or prophet, forming the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred (2017-8), previously shown in New Orleans. For this specific exhibition, she has created a triptych, Red/Cazimi, Red/Sun and Red Meridian, dominated by a rich red, with exotic flowers, gold leaf and two more self-portraits. Viktor is attempting to return to a pre-linguistic symbolism, invoking the Libyan Sybil who was adopted by abolitionists as foreseeing slavery; in the room containing these pictures there are sculptures which invoke astrology and prophesy.
In British-Guyanese Hew Locke’s space, the equine sculptures draw more attention than his heraldic wall-mounted portraits. He might be more familiar for his miniature armada or convoy, For Those in Peril on the Sea (2011, commissioned for the Folkestone Triennial and now in the Tate collection) and his epic The Process (2022, a Duveen Hall Commission for Tate Britain), but The Ambassadors (commissioned in 2019 for the Lowry Gallery, but only now showing there) is a tighter display of four figures on horseback. My first thought was of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but their decorations with coins, medals, Benin bronzes, toys, guns and images of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture point to a more complex history – when are they from? where are they from? They might be figures from an erased Black history of power and resistance, or envoys from a dystopian future.
Kenyan-American Wangechi Mutu constructs human figures such as Sentinel V (2021) from wood, horn, pumice stone, paper pulp, coral and soil collected on her travels around the world – this one seems to be a female figure, with hat and earphones, and some sort of bird on her head. She sees the sculptures as guardians of language and the Earth, as well as of the artist herself. Her junkyard, recycling aesthetic recalls the works of southern Black American artists shown at Turner Contemporary and the Royal Academy of Art, transmuting discarded objects into something resonant. Mutu also works with two-dimensional collage, tearing images from fashion, travel, car and porn magazines to unsettle a traditional hierarchy of values of commerce and art, as well as gender, class and ethnicity. The space is dominated by a computer animated film, The End of Eating Everything (2014), a Medusan-feminine figure on a monstrous body who pursues and eats a flock of birds, before imploding.
American Rashaad Newsome also moves between media, with a music video style CGI presentation, Build or Destroy (2021) of an ambivalently gendered figure voguing in a city repeatedly engulfed in flames. Elsewhere in the room, a similar figure lies supine, either a passive, sex-doll-like figure with a nod to Allen Jones’s sexualised female sculptures or an active figure of sexual strength. Collaged images bring together pictures of cars and objectified facial features, alongside diamonds and jewellery. Newsome draws upon LGBTQAI+ Ballroom culture to bring play and dance into ideas about gender, power-relations and creativity.
A mixture of computer animation and more traditional footage is projected onto a pyramid in a mirrored but otherwise dark space by French-Guyanese-Danish Tabita Rezaire in Ultra Wet – Recapitulation (2017), with young female, male, non-binary and queer voices discussing gendered, sexual and sexualised identities, as fluidities, binaries and balances. African and indigenous views mix with more contemporary testimony, some of which you may support, some of which you may find problematic. Rezaire sees her work as healing, through a mixture of scientific and more organic knowledges and practices.
American Kara Walker’s film appears more simple, a silhouette shadow play Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies (2021) with music by Lady Midnight, but is no less complex. It takes in the racist history of America, slavery, lynching, the Oklahoma City Bomber, the murder of James Byrd Jr, Trumpian politics and The Turner Diaries (1978), moving from horror to the comic in an unforgettable way. Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019) recently appeared in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, commenting on the slave trade whilst parodying the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace with its erasure of colonial politics.
Finally, Californian Cauleen Smith assembles objects of meaning and sentiment – including various sf paperbacks – on a circular table with live video footage of those objects cast on the wall for Epistrophy (2018). Before you enter this space, there are watercolours of covers of books which have influenced her, from the BLK FMNST Loaner Library series (1989- ), on racial and gender politics. It is my loss that this is the work that I least engaged with in the exhibition – perhaps by then I was too sated with emotion and wonder or I didn’t have sufficient grounding in the culture which grew her; certainly, it was frustrating not being able to flick through the books on display.
The accompanying large-format catalogue (Thames and Hudson, 2022) devotes relatively little space to the works on display – this isn’t a straightforward exhibition catalogue with explanatory essays. Rather, it works through ideas of spirits, migration and liberations, bringing in hundreds of images of music albums, photography, posters, architecture, film stills and works of art, whilst stitching in more academic extracts on Octavia E. Butler, Afronauts and Black Revolution. What strikes me is how little they cite the usual academic sources on Afrofuturism which I’d see in Foundation, Extrapolation and Science Fiction Studies, and how unfamiliar their authorities were. There is a conversation to be had – this is a vital grounding in Afrofuturism.
Even with eleven artists given so much space, the book reveals that Ekow Eshun only scratches the surface. Afrofuturism is alive and well and living in art galleries. The most obvious omission is that of the Otolith Group – Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – who were shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2010 and had a major retrospective, Xenogenesis, at IMMA in Dublin (2022-3), with an image of Octavia E. Butler prominent at its entrance. (This also has a substantial catalogue.) They had already engaged with Drexciya in their high-definition colour film Hydra Decapita (2010), whilst A Sphere of Water Orbiting a Star (2023) features interviews between Kodwo Eshun and Gerald Donald from the duo Drexciya. The 2022 Turner Prize shortlist had a deep mine of estrangement demanding cognition, with Victoria Ryan’s seed sculptures as novums and Ingrid Pollard’s anthropocentric machines, alongside Sin Wai Kin’s virtual boyband and Heather Phillipson’s post-apocalyptic Rupture No 6: Biting the Blowtorched Peach. Among the books on display which had inspired the artists were several Gollancz Masterworks. And there are a whole number of younger artists emerging who are less prominent – some of whom appeared in Life Between Islands (2021-2) at Tate Modern. There is much science fiction to be found, enjoyed and thought about.