After a very successful initial run at the Hayward Gallery in London, the exhibition ‘In the Black Fantastic’ is on display at Kunsthal from November 19. The audience is invited to immerse themselves in an experience at the intersection of reality and a variety of fantastical worlds.
Eleven contemporary artists from the African Diaspora have created seductive, energetic, and colourful works that contain powerful messages. Using their limitless power of imagination and technical virtuosity, the artists are addressing racism and social inequality. They take inspiration from folklore, myth, science fiction, spiritual traditions, and Afrofuturism.
The exhibition presents paintings, photographs, videos, sculptures, and mixed-media installations by Nick Cave, Sedrick Chisom, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Rashaad Newsome, Chris Ofili, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleen Smith, Lina Iris Viktor, and Kara Walker. These artists are reshaping the way in which we imagine the past and think about the future. At the same time they are dealing with the societal challenges of the present.
A Black Odysseus
The British artist Chris Ofili (1968), for instance, went in search of a new version of Homer’s Odyssey. Relocating the classical story to Trinidad, he depicts a Black Odysseus. The Greek hero finds himself entangled in the arms of his lover Calypso, who is portrayed as a mermaid in mysterious landscapes.
The sumptuous artworks in the exhibition could easily be interpreted as a kind of escapism to get away from the constraints Black people have to live with on a daily basis. But this is not the case here. The artists instead want to use their imagination for exploring new, possible realities. The American artist Nick Cave (1959), for instance, began working on his lavish series of Soundsuits in response to the brutal assault of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. With the help of patterns, colours, and embellishments these suits obscure and protect the body of the person wearing it, but at the same draw all the attention. Judging on the basis of ethnicity, class, or identity is no longer possible. Cave recently made Soundsuit 9:29, in response to the murder of George Floyd. Even now, after having made five hundred Soundsuits, his works are still all too relevant.
Beyond visual art
To writer and curator Ekow Eshun – who compiled the exhibition – the Black fantastic represents a way of looking at things that the artists featured in the exhibition, as well as many other makers, all have in common. The themes in the exhibition also have an outreach beyond visual art. Think, for example, of the spectacular imagery in Beyonce’s Lemonade, the film Black Panther, and the enthralling novels of Toni Morrison and Octavia E. Butler. Although none of these are featured in the exhibition, they are well-represented in pop culture. “In all these instances, we see Black culture at its most wildly imaginative and artistically ambitious”, Eshun says.
Cover: Soundsuit by Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Mandrake Hotel Collection