Installation overview 'In the Black Fantastic' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Photo: Fred Ernst

The power of Black imagination: Ekow Eshun on ‘In the Black fantastic’

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

The exhibition In the Black Fantastic brings together work by 11 artists who, each in their own way, make history, collective memory and cultural freedom central to their work. After the Hayward Gallery in London, this visually rich exhibition is currently on show at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. Francesca Rechere spoke to curator Ekow Eshun about his ambitions with this exhibition.

Walking into the exhibition In the Black Fantastic at London’s Hayward Gallery you are immediately confronted by artist Nick Cave’s imposing Chain Reaction (2022), specially commissioned for the show. The floor to ceiling installation which links life-size black resin-cast forearms forcefully pulling each other down whilst simultaneously hoisting each other up, presents a visual embodiment of enslaved labour and Atlantic chattel slavery. It is an immediate and assertive reminder of the West’s colonial legacies and racial capitalism’s commodification of the Black body. But look again. The hands, clasped just at their fingertips, also embody connection, collective resistance, and community. They present a beautifully bold gesture of the continued persistence of Black strength; a firm acknowledgment of Black resistance.

Cave is one of eleven contemporary artists from the African diaspora included in the exhibition. The artists all draw on an array of folklore, mythology, spiritual tradition, and science fiction to conjure inverted analogies, alternate realities and re-worked histories, imaginatively unpicking notions of race and identity to convey the vast breadth that constitutes the Black experience. Their collective shifts between the past, present and future offer antidotes to our contemporary social structuring. Structuring that has long-been dictated by Eurocentric Western theory and philosophy; both the absence of the enslaved and the subsequent discarding of Black histories within the archive. Challenging these hegemonic Western cultural epistemologies and codes both literally and figuratively, these artists also trace the boundaries of Black potential, and possibilities that can exist beyond such limitations. Here lies the fantastic.

It’s about establishing a shift in viewers' positionality and perceptions away from looking at Black figures and struggles, towards looking with them

Installation overview 'In the Black Fantastic' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Photo: Fred Ernst

Social constructs

In Londen I sit down with the curator of the exhibition, Ekow Eshun, for an interview. He immediately points out that ‘one of the things that unites the artists in the show is an awareness that the idea of race is a socially constructed idea that has no basis in scientific fact but nevertheless continues to exert an overwhelming influence on how we all live.’ Eshun, a well-established curator, studied Politics and History at the London School of Economics before he became Director of the ICA in London. He is now Chair of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, a panel of specialist experts who advise the Mayor of London on public art commissions. Eshun: ‘one way or another all the artists in the show are interested in exploring the relationship between race as an idea and the racialised everyday. They are interested in constructing their own fictions and their own ways of seeing and constructing ideas of identity, presence, history, and belonging as a way to look beyond racialised norms. They use fiction as a way to contradict fiction, but they also use the speculative fictions and the emblazons of myth as a way to articulate a space of creative, imaginative and cultural freedom.’

As I head further into the exhibition, I realise Cave’s Chain Reaction is surrounded by four of his so-called ‘Soundsuits. These ornate, human-sized, wearable sculptures are adorned with an assortment of found materials ranging from fake hair and fur, feathers and flowers, to shimmering sequins, bells, and buttons. They are visceral. They are colourful. They emit pure joy. But the history of the Soundsuits, which mirror the masquerade costumes of many West African cultures of Yorubaland, are a byproduct of less joyful origins. Cave, Eshun explains made his first Soundsuit in response to when the televised footage of Rodney King’s brutal beating by LA Police officers sparked city-wide uprisings in 1992. The final of the four Soundsuits on display, Soundsuit 9:29, was made thirty years later, in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

While the Soundsuits are constructed based on Cave’s own reaction to public events, they undeniably reflect sentiments shared by wider Black and marginalised communities. Eshun: ‘What Cave tries to do with the Soundsuits, is offer a route into racialised awareness and visibility. They cover you completely, they don't define you by race, by gender, by sex. But they are not about a retreat from the world, they are about an insistence upon being seen, on your own terms, with the fullness that you might bring to that. The fullness of colour, the fullness of pattern, the insistence on visibility.’ The Soundsuits are Cave’s reckoning with race and a refusal to work within its strictures. ‘They are about shaping - they disguise, but they also change proportion. They are supposed to be imposing and spectacular. There's no hiding them away.’

Installation overview 'In the Black Fantastic' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Photo: Fred Ernst

Installation view 'In the Black Fantastic' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Photo: Fred Ernst

Like much of the artwork included in In the Black Fantastic, the Soundsuits function as a vessel in which the artist connects the personal to the historical through the medium of art. They mask the wearer so as to offer a fantastical psychological and physical armour; protection from the hierarchies imposed by Western ontological thought. They provide a sense of unity to counter the normative ‘othering’ that has guided global ways of thinking since the onset of the Enlightenment. They act as a guise, to shield from police brutality, institutional racism and the anti-Blackness that stem from these histories; histories of continued violence against the Black body. At a time when across the UK there are marches in protest of the unjust killing of Chris Kaba at the hands of the police, the power to define oneself through artistic practice remains all the more important. However, Eshun emphasises, this is not an exhibition purely about violence or re-articulating notions of Blackness defined as such. According to Eshun, each of the artists included in the exhibition take histories of Black presence in the West as a point of departure from which to embrace a sense of beauty, wonder and possibility: ‘That these things can exist simultaneously is hugely interesting to me.’

A way of seeing

According to Eshun, the Black fantastic is best described as a lens, as ‘a way of seeing’. With Black feminist discourses such as Tina Campt’s A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See at its core, the Black fantastic illuminates the many ways that ‘Black creative figures across different disciplines are doing something similar, positioning Black history, Black collective memory and Black cultural presence at the centre of their artistic practice.’ This mastery, together with the virtuosity of this creative work, Eshun points out, is not simply about spotlighting more Black faces. It’s about establishing a shift in viewers' positionality and perceptions away from looking at Black figures and struggles, towards looking with them, alongside them and in turn seeing the world as they see it. Eshun: The ‘in’ part of the title is really important to me, because I wanted to create a show in which you are really fully immersed. The conversation is not purely a cerebral one, it's a sensory one. I wanted to create a space where you feel that you are in a constant process of encounter and discovery.’

The curatorial design of the exhibition underlines Eshuns intentions. Each artist has been given their own space within the exhibition to develop what feels like a series of episodic solo shows that articulate on their own terms. On a raised level just behind Cave’s installation stands a series of sculptures by Wangechi Mutu titled Sentinels. Divine feminine human-like forms constructed using only natural materials, these powerful sculptures stand to disrupt gender, race and class hierarchies. Like other works throughout the show, they stand as metaphors for subverting boundaries. Mutu’s works are intentionally placed in close proximity to Cave’s, fostering an engagement and conversation between the two.

Eshun: 'I wanted to create a space where you feel that you are in a constant process of encounter and discovery’

Installation overview 'In the Black Fantastic' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Photo: Fred Ernst

Installation overview 'In the Black Fantastic' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Photo: Fred Ernst

Kara Walker, 'Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies', on view in 'In the Black Fantastic' at Kunsthal Rotterdam. Photo: Fred Ernst

Lina Viktor Iris’ installation, for instance, transports viewers back to the founding of Liberia in 1882, to a history very much untold. The walls of the space are lined with large scale paintings enveloping three totemic-like sculptures made from polished bronze and volcanic rock. It is a 360-degree experience and you feel completely submerged within it. In the series of gilded portraits A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred (2018) Viktor Iris fuses the factual and the fantastical to figuratively recount how the American Colonisation Society assisted the first resettlement of emancipated slaves to a region now known as Liberia. In the mixed media paintings Second, Tenth and Sixth (2018) the Libyan goddess Sibyl sits surrounded by Ancient African symbolism and cosmic abstractions. Sibyl, a prophetess whose image became an emblem promoting the liberation of enslaved Blacks, foresaw ill-fated futures including the Transatlantic slave-trade. Here, she is a symbol of feminine intuition and knowledge appearing divine and respected.

Iris’s centering of the Black female body is breath-taking and chillingly so. It feels like a radical act. Appealing to a Black female deity challenges colonisation’s pathologies and a long history of Black female presence in the West characterised by fetishisation, objectification, and misrepresentation. Viktor Iris uses her own body as the subject matter to confront these issues and together these Black female figures recount multiple lost narratives. Her meditations on histories of power, imperialist cartography and racial positioning ring clear. And in this realm, she can reclaim them. In Eleventh (2018), Viktor has painted a map of the pre-colonial territories that existed across Liberia. 24-carat gold is applied to boldly emphasise how land was carved up; the partitioning of communities; the pathologies on lands whose established orders and populations were so disregarded. So replete with figurative imagery, the paintings are inherently emblematic and sumptuously captivating. They feel sacred and transcendental, and become hard to look away from.

In another installation, Hew Locke’s four sculptures titled Ambassadors (2021) emerge on horseback from a dark dystopian past. Their ominous origins are a stark contrast to their elaborately embellished armour, equestrian reins and bridles all laden with military regalia and medals, Benin Bronzes and voodoo skulls, and portraits of figures like the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. Their tall platforms elevate them both in height and hierarchy and they are overflowing with images of historic events that continue to shape the Black present. Grounding these survivors in a sense of reality, Locke appears to be challenging Eurocentric Western history - who we have memorialised and why. His Ambassadors stand majestic and disruptive. They are provocative and we are forced to excavate, conjure and (re)imagine the Black histories once stolen, disregarded or lost. A reminder of what might have been.

A measure of Black resistance and imagination

At first glance, In the Fantastic seems to connect to Afrofuturism - a genre born in the nineties that draws on science and technology to explore the African American experience. But Eshun wanted to think from a different position. He aimed to encapsulate the breadth of creative work that is being created right now, work that engages with the racialized everyday, and that places the Black fantastic in its own territory. When asked about some of his main cultural influences and inspirations for the category, it is unsurprising that Eshun has drawn generously from a wide spectrum of cultural and theoretical references. ‘One of the observations I wanted to make with the show is that there's a bigger moment, there's a bigger cultural conversation taking place across a number of different artforms simultaneously. Think, for instance, of Beyonce’s Lemonade or the recent Marvel film Black Panther. We can be entirely in the mainstream and be having these conversations.’

Eshun’s carefully curated selection offers an alternative to the ethnographic Western White gaze and the ideas or binaries of racial superiority and hierarchy historically placed against the Black body. ‘Ideas about progress tend to be predicated on notions of light, of forward motion and of whiteness. Conversely, Blackness is correlated with backwardness, with a lack of progress, with a lack of civilization. The joy of these films is that they are beautiful, dynamic, glorious, imaginative works because they come from a different perspective on how to construct narrative, how to tell stories and how to expand possibilities of being.’

As a whole, Eshun’s exhibition is intellectually adventurous and a poignant and cohesive measure of Black resistance and imagination. Bringing together the visual arts, literature, poetry, film and sound, these artists are united in their own capacities to gather and reclaim 400 years of stolen histories and envision lyrically and metaphorically new realms of Black possibility - new futures heralded by artistic, personal and social emancipation.

In the Black Fantastic, Kunsthal in Rotterdam, until 10.4.23

A translated version of this text appeared in ZIGZAG 2022>2023, our sixth issue of 2022

Francesca Rechere
is a writer, filmmaker and cultural producer

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023