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In the Black Fantastic

Curated by Ekow Eshun

(Hayward Gallery, 29 June–18 September 2022)

Review by Gabriel Gbadamosi


If black lives matter, then black art might, too. Chain Reaction (2022), a tangled chain mail screen of black hands and forearms clutching each other, hangs down from the ceiling to confront you as you enter the Southbank’s Hayward Gallery to see black art in action. Made by the African American artist Nick Cave, his wearable sculpted reactions to the televised beating of Rodney King by cops in Los Angeles are ‘soundsuits’ to be worn by bodies like King’s – ‘monstrously threatening’ with ‘superhuman strength’. You have to imagine the sound.

Black art, then, gets a crack of the whip at the Hayward’s exhibition, In the Black Fantastic, curated by the British Ghanaian former director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, Ekow Eshun. His memoir of growing up black in Britain, Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa (2005), was illustrated by one of the 11 contributing artists, Chris Ofili.

Just to note, then, this is not outsider art. This is insider art, the artists represented and promoted by some of the world’s top commercial galleries. Sixth (2018), by US-based, British Liberian painter Lina Iris Viktor, one in a series of decorous, full-length figures of black women in painted blackface (literally gilding the lily by incorporating 24 carat gold) is as trenchant a critique of desire and use in colonial and slavery-era portraiture as painting can produce while still being for sale. Gorgeous imagery from high end galleries, mocking and resembling the art of the rich, gives me pause.

According to Eshun, the Black Fantastic is ‘what freedom looks like’. But these artists, I notice, are also dealing with the matrix of the international art market, trying not to be imprisoned by it. Freedom always comes in many qualified shapes. And there’s money in them thar pyramids – Tabita Rezaire’s critique of ‘exploitative and oppressive structures’, Ultra Wet – Recapitulation (2017), projected onto the sides of a pyramid – that ancient, slave-built, geometrical response to death. The art world knows how to spin a penny and call it the moon in the eye and whirlpool of the sun.

Certainly, the exhibition’s a playground of ideas and startling strangeness in its flaunting of surreal, Afrofuturist playfulness, ingenuity and irony. Personally, I feel its search for ‘rampant and unfetishised black beauty’ in the commodity market of the art world is doomed. But let’s agree there’s a simple, basic idea at play in the exhibition – the use of art to construct a different image of the world than the one we have, not to escape this one but to critique it and give ourselves imaginative freedom to build back better. 

A further problem comes, for me, when the delusional narcissism of ‘whiteness’ still informs a conception of ‘blackness’ – now under ‘the sign of hallucination and madness’ (a quote on display in the exhibition from Suzanne Roussi Césaire, an early supporter of ‘Négritude’ with its fantasies of an anti-rational, primitivist, emotional blackness in reaction to white, colonial oppression). Or, to put that another way, I am appalled by the polymorphous perversity of an exhibition reproducing – ironically, or pathologically – a commodification of blackness, harnessing imaginative work under the wounded, growling, getting-our-own-back power of the grudge. 

We don’t owe our sanity to whiteness; we owe it only to ourselves. The exhibition catalogue, In the Black Fantastic (Thames and Hudson, 2022), gives useful background context and some discussion of the work, as well as extensive reproductions of the work of some related artists. That would be a good starting point for anyone interested in rethinking why black art matters. And don’t miss the room installation with British-born, Guyanese artist Hew Locke’s The Ambassadors (2021) – four large as life apocalyptic figures on horseback, one carrying the black flag of… anarchists, islamists, orcs? His fantastic (free) installation, The Procession is on display at Tate Britain until 22 January 2023.