In The Black Fantastic: Pushing Past The Constraints Of The Racialised Everyday
Ekow Eshun, curator of In The Black Fantastic – the new summer exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – shares his inspiration behind a show that uses thought-provoking and imaginative works to “grapple with the inequities of racialised society by conjuring bold new visions of Black possibility”
For the past several years I’ve been searching for the Black fantastic. I’ve been tracking its progress, watching it flourish in art and music, film and literature. This summer, I finally fulfilled my quest with a new exhibition I’ve curated at the Hayward Gallery in London. In The Black Fantastic is the first major exhibition to gather artists from the African diaspora who embrace myth and science fiction in their work as a way to address racial injustice and explore alternative realities.
The idea of the Black fantastic doesn’t describe a movement or a rigid category so much as a way of seeing, shared by artists who grapple with the inequities of racialised contemporary society by conjuring new narratives of Black possibility. It means, for example, the gorgeous, gilded imagery of artist Lina Iris Viktor, who draws on sources including African textile patterns, spiritual practices and mythologies in her work. Or the art of 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 who drowned during the Middle Passage.
Beyond visual art, it also includes the spectacular imagery of Beyoncé’s Lemonade or the movie Black Panther, or the mesmerising novels of Toni Morrison and Octavia E Butler. In all these instances, we see Black culture at its most wildly imaginative and artistically ambitious. But why now for the Black fantastic? After all, the long history of racism and bigotry suffered by Black people in the West makes an unlikely context for art that looks to myth and fable. All the more so in the era of George Floyd and the BLM movement. But I’d argue the turn to the fantastical has nothing to do with escapism. On the contrary, it suggests a refusal to live within the constraints of a world that defines Black people as inferior and alien. And it offers instead a thrilling invitation to reach beyond the constraints of the racialised everyday and to embrace fantasy as a zone of creative and cultural liberation. The Black fantastic is what freedom looks like.
In The Black Fantastic, 29 June-18 September 2022
Ekow Eshun is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, curator and former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. His book, In The Black Fantastic, accompanies the Hayward Gallery exhibition