‘In the Black Fantastic’: new horizons for black culture

In Black Fantastic, at London’s Hayward Gallery, is an insidious exhibition. The exhibition, ambitiously curated by curator Ekow Eshun, aims to offer a different view of contemporary black art than is often the case recently, less political, less documentary. Only: in the beginning you hardly see that politics or society play a role. The exhibited works seem to be more about seduction: they are all multi-coloured, exuberant, multi-faceted and indeed a mass in every respect anyway – many references to different cultures, histories, times.

Take the so-called ‘Soundsuits’ of the American artist Nick Cave (no, not the singer) with which the exhibition opens: they are large, shiny, multi-coloured suits that completely envelop the wearer and appear to have stepped out of a futuristic carnival procession – although aliens could also blend in beautifully with humans in these suits.

Rodney King

Cave made the first ‘Soundsuit’ in 1992, however, in response to the infamous attack on the black man Rodney King by the American police. The idea of ​​the suit is that because of all the color and sound, the wearer evokes ultra-high attention on one side (like black people get extra attention from e.g. the police), but that because of the suit, the real person inside, regardless of color or race or gender, remains invisible – and the suit transcends everyday prejudices.

Or, in terms of opulence, take Chris Ofili’s paintings The Odyssey II and Calypso. Both are inspired by Homer odyssey, a story that (certainly in a contemporary context) could very well be interpreted as a man’s search for a home. With Ofili, who has lived in Trinidad for more than fifteen years, this theme becomes a fascinating combination of seduction (both in his style and in the figure of Calypso) and alienation: the canvases refer to the Caribbean tradition, to European, early twentieth. century century Art Nouveau, as if all kinds of futurism – stars, galaxies, new, unknown worlds that Homer encountered on his journey.

In the meantime, you as a spectator are already walking quite nicely.

That is the fascinating thing about this exhibition: all the works beckon and beckon, like the sirens of Odysseus, to leave you bewildered once you enter their world.

In this case, it has a nice effect on the spectator’s own identity: is this confusion due to me? It has of course happened more and more in recent years that art has a history and a frame of reference that no longer necessarily originates from the white bubble, but these often still relate explicitly to the old white ruler, if only in form of criticism or reaction.

In the black fantastic, which can also be seen at the Rotterdam Kunsthal from November, goes one step further. As I walked through the exhibition, I often thought of one of my first art experiences, when I visited Dalis at the age of seventeen. The Temptation of Saint Anthony so V. I was amazed by the elephants on their ultra-long, thin legs, the golden structures that propelled them into the sky, the thin man who seemed to both push up and fend off these giants—who that Antonius was: no idea who had to be, I looked up, but I was so intrigued that I gladly did so.

That’s how it goes In the black fantastic: when you’ve been seduced, you want to move on. And more. As attractive (and easy) as it is to view these depictions of colorful galaxies, faraway places and new creations by artists like Hew Locke, Kara Walker and Ellen Gallagher as a form of escapism, they are primarily explorations, glimpses of new possibilities and worlds ., which provides a new horizon for limited everyday life.

It is not without reason that the exhibition regularly refers to ‘Afrofuturism’: a term introduced in 1993 by the critic Mark Dery, which means something like a form of fiction that, often with the help of technological imaginations, gives African Americans new ideas. perspectives and opportunities. You can see this, for example, in the work of Cauleen Smith, who shows a large circular still life of all kinds of objects, often African-related, to project them simultaneously on large screens in the background, making them larger than life and seems to come from a completely different universe.

Smith’s work also shows the contemporary significance for black culture of reviving images that have often taken on colonial significance in the past—as if black artists are re-appropriating them and giving them new meaning, separate from the colonizer.


At the same time, there is also a downside to this set-up: There is something tender and restrictive about rejecting ‘black culture’ as one monolithic lump. whose In the black fantastic one thing proves that it is correct that there is no more one black culture than one white culture, and that art always works best if it manages to break free from such labels. Perhaps that is why I was most intrigued by Wangechi Mutu’s latest work. She has been known for some time for her large, surreal, alienating collages and films, but now comes with a series of images of standing figures, which she calls Sentinels.

These figures show the power of art as well as the power of a rich vision: at a time when one could hardly imagine that new, surprising human figures could be created, Mutu comes up with creatures that seem both animal and human, both from the past as points to the future, both seemingly impotent as all-powerful wizards and also utterly compelling as individual images. Wonderful new universal beings they are – and with them the perfect representations of the great ambition of In the black fantastic. Odysseus would surely have met them in amazement on his journey – and yet recognized many in them.

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