by Rosalyn D`MelloSep 16, 2022
The Hayward Gallery is hosting an immersive exhibition, titled In the Black Fantastic, the United Kingdom's first major exhibition dedicated to the work of Black artists. The works presented use fantastical elements to address racial injustice and explore alternative realities. Showcasing new works and special commissions, curator Ekow Eshun brought together a group of artists who inventively recycle and reconfigure elements of folklore, myth, science fiction, spiritual traditions, and legacies of Afrofuturism. The visual 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.
Encompassing painting, photography, video, sculpture and mixed-media installations, the exhibition seeks to create multi-dimensional aesthetic experiences that bring the viewers into a new environment somewhere between the real world and a variety of imagined ones.
My colleague, Samta Nadeem, visited the exhibit and I had the fortune to discuss her experience and takeaways from it. Here is an extract of the reflective conversation we had, on the eve of closure of the show in the UK.
Rahul Kumar: When dealing with or thinking about emotions of injustice and violence, the word ‘fantastic’ would not normally come to mind. How did it come together for you when you viewed the show?
Samta Nadeem: We all possibly use fantasy as a tool for imagining the non-existent or impossible, and often even to escape reality. It is then no surprise if fantasy is a form of expression in communicating narratives of the past, present, and imagined-futures for those whose excruciating histories and much of the present is ridden with social injustice and inequality.
As per the art exhibition literature, In the Black Fantastic brings together 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora whose works question our knowledge of the world by drawing on science fiction, myth and Afrofuturism. This in a way prepares you for the speculative and fantastical that’s in the show. For me, as an audience, the impact of the ‘fantastical’ was immediate attraction, and reduction of visual fatigue that is not unfamiliar when visiting a large showcase with 20 works spread across three floors of Hayward Gallery. Each work immediately draws you in and holds attention as you slowly unravel the meaning behind each. When you are caught between an entrance through beauty and an exit through pain, there is no other way but to stay with it.
Rahul: What kind of ‘alternative realities’ were presented in the works? Was it ‘wishful’ in nature or ‘just another perspective’?
Samta: The works talking of alternative realities had different takes. Some were dystopian/utopian in nature. I say that with a slash because one’s utopia could be another’s dystopia. Isn’t that what the age of enlightenment was for the African and indigenous people vs the colonisers?
What makes it one or the other is your position and that points us towards critically reflecting on our own positionality in relation to power and privilege.
Rahul: So, you are saying that one’s nightmare might be another’s nirvana? Where do you believe it was most prevalent in works?
Samta: Sedrick Chisom’s paintings presented a post-apocalyptic future in which all people of colour have chosen to leave the earth and the ones left behind are afflicted with a disease which darkens the pigmentation of their skin in patches. My reflection of this was: ‘serves them right’, or can we find ways to be together for better or worse? Rashaad Newsome’s video Build or Destroy shows a bejewelled performer who vogues while fire consumes a fictional cityscape as a ‘state of mind’. Established hierarchies and structures are destroyed making space for a new. What could this new be, can we imagine together?
Wangechi Mutu uses collage as a way of destroying certain set of hierarchies - race, gender and class. How I see, this technique adds the complexity back into our realities which are otherwise over simplified and presented in binaries for the benefit of social organisation and control, for those who have the power.
Rahul: Well, yes. Our realities, which are typically overly simple and portrayed in binary, become more complicated through collage. And what is your take on the concept of alternative reality?
Samta: What I enjoyed about the aspect of alternative reality in this show was not the intent to define it but to create space for imagining a different way of being together, through provocation.
Rahul: Our understanding of history is linear but that is quite contrary to how time flows. The intersectionality of time creates multiple realities. Is it why it is important to re-write, or at a minimum re-narrate the history?
Samta: History is about the past, and time in the modern world is usually understood on the linear vector of past, present, and future. But isn’t that an over simplification of a complex phenomenon that has engaged scholars across science, humanities, and philosophy since time immemorial. If we could agree that time is multi-directional, intersectional, even circular, or as per Foucauldian understanding, time emanates from events (human experiences), then wouldn’t all-time be important for making sense of our world? Also, if are contemporary to our times, we need to understand it as Villem Flusser puts it, “a future coming from all sides into the present”. We must also acknowledge that not everyone exists in the same now, hence, a constant oscillation between the past and future designs our present.
Rahul: Describe what you felt when you experienced the work of Nick Cave (his own hand cast forming a chain)?
Samta: Like I said before, when you are caught between beauty and pain, there is no way out but to stay with it. This evokes a stronger sense of ‘comradeship’ in agitating towards a better future for all. An emotion that I felt throughout the exhibition and in retrospect think what Nick Cave’s chain reaction stood for – solidarity.
Rahul: You were particularly intrigued with the choice of work that concluded the show. What was unique about it?
Samta: The last painting in the show is placed within a room given to contemporary artist Ellen Gallagher. Amongst her own artworks that are inspired by a mythic Black Atlantis called Drexciya, the artist included a historic painting by Albert Eckhout (c.1610-1665) who travelled to Brazil and documented people, plants and animals of the new Dutch colony. Gallaghar considers Eckhout's painting as ‘commodity maps’. This particular painting of a black man as commodity puts in perspective the injustices that we live with till today. While so far an audience has gone through narratives helping us understand the world from the position of the African diaspora artists, complete with its pain, anger, hope and futurism, this one work right at the end from the position of a coloniser provokes the audience to question dominant orders of our society.
Rahul: Finally, there has probably been no era or geography where the powerful and/or those in majority have not marginalised the ‘other’. Open any page of any history book. How do such interventions play a role to bring forth the aspects that this show does?
Samta: Firstly, power is rarely about majority marginalising minority. A prominent anthropologist, Arturo Escobar, points out four institutions that exercise and maintain dominant structures in the society, namely - government, corporations, religion and university. These have always been run by a few, organising the mass at large. The colonisers were never the majority, they had more ammunitions of power. Political power has always been problematic as it resorts to othering, dividing and classifying people, so it can hold onto the reins. It is such power that we need to constantly challenge, and I feel this show did that for me.
Rahul: To round up this discussion, which installation interested you the most?
Samta: The work of Cauleen Smith is particularly interesting for me for the way it is executed. How she has assembled personal and found objects against a small-screen video backdrop, projected on the art gallery walls as live feed that suddenly elevates the mundane into the fantastical, complex and riveting. The objects used in the immersive installation are “an archive of associations, travels, affections, desires, questions, and longings”. The series of painting of book covers are a compelling way of introducing the audience to text and writings that have informed her own political and social consciousness. In our photo-saturated world, she chose to paint them in order to slow down the audience and take note.
In the Black Fantastic closes on September 18, 2022, at the Hayward Gallery, UK.