REVIEW In the Black Fantastic – Kunsthal Rotterdam – Rich imagination from the African diaspora

review: REVIEW In the Black Fantastic – Kunsthal Rotterdam

Central to the exhibition are contemporary artists from the African diaspora. They create exuberant, challenging and colorful works with a strong message. With inspiration from folklore, myths, science fiction, spiritual traditions and Afrofuturism, they tell new stories. In it they address racism and social inequality, but they also create a world full of new possibilities. The exhibition features works by eleven artists: Nick Cave, Sedrick Chisom, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Rashaad Newsome, Chris Ofili, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleeen Smith, Lina Iris Viktor and Kara Walker. This provides a diverse collection of painting, photography, video, sculpture and mixed media installations.

Ellen Gallagher, Ecstatic Draft of Fishes, 2021, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Tony Nathan © Ellen Gallagher.

Afrofuturism and beyond
In the black fantastic was created in collaboration with the Hayward Gallery in London. The exhibition started there with great success, and that is not surprising. Not only are the participating artists imaginative and technically strong, the black fantastic is ubiquitous in pop culture. Janelle Monáe’s artistic ambition and social criticism Dirty computerthe movie Black Panther and Tom Adeyemis Children of blood and bones are popular examples. The emphasis is often on the US and the science fiction qualities of Afrofuturism. Nice how the perspective is expanded here with artists of different nationalities with a range of folkloric, mythical and historical inspirations.

Lina Iris Viktor, eleventh, 2018 © Courtesy the Artist.

For example, Lina Iris Viktor combines influences from, among other things, West African textiles and aboriginal painting. She portrays herself as the Libyan Sibyl in the series A refuge. Hell. A dream deferred about Liberia. This country was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society as a new home for black people. Ellen Gallagher, on the other hand, uses modern myths Drexcia. This ‘Black Atlantis’ is populated by the descendants of enslaved African women who were thrown overboard during the transatlantic passage. Gallagher translates this into a magical underwater world.

A way of looking
The artists all get their own space and are discussed completely separately from each other, but the similarities are not far off. Curator Ekow Eshun calls it a way of seeing. Tabita Rezaire and Rashaad Newsome both address queerness in their video art from a different perspective. In an installation of a pyramid surrounded by mirrors, Rezaire explores the possibility of a world beyond the dichotomy between male and female. It is a future dream based on certain pre-colonial cultures where a more fluid conception of gender was prevalent. IN Newsome’s Build or Destroy (2021) an android female figure dances through an apocalypse. She is vogue, a style that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York’s underground queer community, mostly Black and Latino. The suppressed identity becomes a form of strength and liberation.

Tabita Rezaire, Ultra Wet – Recapitulation, 2017, Ultra Wet – Recapitulation, Royal Standard, Liverpool, UK, 2018, by Rob Battersby. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, South Africa.

A striking similarity between several artists is the richness of textures. Nick Cave’s embroidery, buttons and flowers Sound suits conceal and protect the wearer’s identity while attracting attention. Their exuberant material forms an armor against prejudice and mistreatment of African Americans. Other artists explore the boundaries between painting and collage in their work. From the cartographic reliefs of Viktor, to the cut paper of Gallagher’s underwater world, to the organic growths of Wangechi Mutu. That is the only reason why the exhibition is worth a visit in real life. Wander through the artists’ worlds, then return to see your favorite again.

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