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Imagining Freedom: A Review of ‘In the Black Fantastic’

By Melis Dumlu


Installation view of Wangechi Mutu, 'Sentinel V', 2027, In the Black Fantastic at Hayward Gallery, 2022. Copyright the artist; Photo by Rob Harris, Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.

Wild imagination and myth gathered eleven artists from African Diaspora under one roof. 'In the Black Fantastic' at the Hayward Gallery is a group show of artists who use myth and speculative fiction as a way to explore everyday racism. The artists propose new ways of seeing that looks beyond the constraints and confinements Black people often face in society. They explore the idea that race itself is fiction, a social construct. They do so in such a delicate way, constructing new myths, new forms of possibility, and new ways of being in the world.

Each work is contributing to Afrofuturism, a term which was first coined in 1993 to describe a movement that seeks to uproot. Afrofuturism transforms the cliché perception of Africa as a continent of misery and oppression, but rather seeing its self-defined agency, an image that explores other ideal futures.

Installation view of Nick Cave works, In the Black Fantastic at Hayward Gallery, 2022. Copyright the artist; Photo by Zeinab Batchelor, Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.

Throughout the exhibition the nuance of this suffering is apparent. Nick Cave’s sculpture 'Chain Reaction' was created from casts of his own hands. The hands are linked to each other, forming a chain reaching for the ceiling.

Cave beautifully blends suffering, kinship and power as the chains could be interpreted in many ways, depending on the viewers' own experiences.

When looking up from the bottom towards the ceiling, you get a sense that the hands are supporting each other. This creates a powerful message of connection, while on the contrary, the suffering is more visible as the hands are separating under the weight of the sculpture.

The show is thoughtfully curated by Ekon Eshun, and each artist is showcase within a space equal to that of a solo exhibition, so they can have the room to breathe and sing. The exhibition offers a broad range of mediums from video, painting, sculpture, collage, and even costume design. It incorporates rich colours, shimmer, glitter, a flight of fantasy full of diamontes, polished bronze, and even 24 karat gold.

Although 'In the Black Fantastic' is of fiction and myth, the artists aspire for discussions beyond race.

They explore the possible meanings of freedom, folklore, and cultures, therefore creating a space for open conversations. There is an incredible balance between addressing difficult subjects of race and racial violence whilst also offering to see the world through beauty.

Installation view of Rachaad Newsome works, In the Black Fantastic at Hayvvard Gallery, 2022. Copyright the artist; Photo by Zeinab Batchelor, Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.

Ellen Gallagher creates this balance in a prodigious way, where she takes a myth and turns it into a question; what is freedom? Her painting series is inspired by the myth of Drexciya, a story about the pregnant African women who were pushed from slave ships into the water to drown. Traveling from Africa to the Americas, the captors of these women saw them to be an ill nuisance. The legend tells of foetuses from these women surviving by learning to breathe under water, eventually forming their own underwater realm. Although Drexciya is fiction, it is also based on the fact that over one million people from Africa died during the 'Middle Passage' in the Atlantic.

Gallagher's paintings contain elements from the sea, which include molluscs, pearls, and tentacles. Among this detritus on the ocean floor are the citizens of this strange realm. The figures look slightly alien in the mystical Aquatopia. While the viewer's eyes are taken on a journey to this oceanic land, Gallagher also suggests questions about the freedom, truth, and sovereignty of African statehood. In this myth, the citizens win. They are free to be themselves and are at one with the ocean, where they call home. They are the most powerful and the most magical aspect of this Aquatopia, yet they blend effortlessly.

Installation view of Cauleen Smith, In the Black Fantastic at Hayward Gallery, 2022. Copyright the artist; Photo by Zeinab Batchelor, Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.

Even though the artists have their own space to breathe, the decision to create this space also allows for subtle echoes and connections between the works involved. Echoes of another world, a chance to have a deeper look at ourselves and each other, of folklore and culture. These reflections are not limited to the works but are also in the minds of the people looking. This offering of another way of seeing hopes to follow the viewer outside of the mesmerising, shimmering, Afrofuturistic world and into their daily life, where the present day meets fiction. There is always more than one way to address an issue, and 'In the Black Fantastic' offers a regal perspective for a possible future.

In the end, the ultimate connection surrounding the whole show is passion. A force that can turn feeling into vision, painting, music, poetry, and ethos in the most glistening ways. The context, explicit or not, is the narrative of Black history in an incredibly original and hopeful way.


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