Of the many themes addressed by In the Black Fantastic, a new exhibition inspired by Afrofuturism at the the Hayward Gallery, the negotiations of the Black body is perhaps the most resonant.
Take Chain Reaction, a dramatic new commission by the American sculptor Nick Cave, which sees casts of the artist’s arm, joined together in both unity and struggle, hang from the ceiling, fingers grasping for each other. Elsewhere, Cave’s Soundsuits – colourful costumes that cover the wearer’s face and body – loom with unsettling yet celebratory fervour. When in movement, as part of Cave’s performances, they ensure that the Black male body is seen. It is no coincidence that Cave’s first Soundsuit was made in 1992 following the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. Soundsuit 9:29, the latest iteration on display here, is a homage to George Floyd and the duration of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. For Cave, taking up space and sound is a form of protest and a means of envisioning new realities.
With its hopeful, fizzing energy, this collection of work by 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora is important because it offers a glimpse of the way ahead. It embodies the message of Afrofuturism, a term first coined in 1993 to describe a movement that seeks to uproot, take apart and reinvent the stagnant cliche of Africa as a continent of misery and oppression, imagining a newly self-defined agency over a future ideal and image that explores the infinite, fantastic possibilities of Black futures.
Like Cave, Hew Locke and Lina Iris Viktor also use their bodies. Viktor’s gilded cosmologies bring together photography, painting and sculpture to create an imagined history of Liberia, from where her family originates. Liberia was established in 1847 by free African Americans, and so symbolically, the notion of a “return” to Africa, which holds inherent problems for many Black people, is navigated. Liberian society would then assimilate many features of European colonialisation, which is why Viktor’s Liberia becomes a Paradise Lost. In Where is Mulciber? Viktor casts herself as both priestess and abolitionist – in the gilded possibility of emancipation. Meanwhile, Locke’s series of photographs How Do You Want Me? parodies the excessive portraiture in stately homes, repurposed by the artist casting his own body against the backdrop of traditional Guyanese houses, decked in sinister, elaborate pomp and regalia. Power is as fragile as the pound-store plastic mangoes that hang from the necks of these self-cast heroes.
Wangechi Mutu’s The End of eating Everything offers something different: a cosmic animation that reminds me of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. In Mutu’s work a flying monster with a humanoid body and sharp whips of hair looms in thick grey smoke. When she meets a flock of birds, she gorges and binges on them before imploding in further ash. An obvious reading warns us against overconsumption, but perhaps there is also something here in the Roman myth of Saturn, who ate his offspring after Gaea prophesied that he would be overthrown by his children. Is the world so deeply insecure, so stuck in the quicksand of ego that we would rather destroy ourselves – gorge on ourselves and so our future – than change?
Kara Walker’s cut-paper craft fantasies expose the US’s racist history with the whimsical nostalgia of shadow-puppet language. As these brave, afflicted characters narrate nightmarish drama on stark white walls, in the room next door Cauleen Smith introduces utopian possibilities by projecting sentimental objects on to video footage of landscapes in the pursuit of transcendence.
New and imagined worlds are important. Ellen Gallagher dives deep into Drexciya, the mythic Black Atlantis. Nearby, Chris Ofili teleports through history and mythology, retrieving scenes from the Bible and Homer’s Odyssey and bringing them to Trinidad, where the artist has lived since 2005. In uprooting these tales, and bringing them to new lands – can we understand the effect of migration on diversifying culture and birthing new cultures and histories?
Rashad Newsome’s Build or Destroy is a fitting end to the show. It sees a dazzling bejewelled dancer voguing as fire engulfs the fictional landscape behind them. Symbolising, assuredly, that Earth is in its flop era and undoubtedly calling forth the “This is fine” meme that engulfed social media in recent years, as we collectively move through various crises worldwide. With Newsome, pop culture, traditional African sculpture and the Black queer community meet at an apex.
For all the diverse material on show, there is a strong takeaway message. If we are to move towards a truly decolonised art world then we must realise that it should not require an artist to fit neatly or repeatedly into a category – especially those narrowly defined by geography, gender or any other shallow definition. Nor should it shoehorn artists into art historical movements and philosophies that deny their full human experiences. We must resist the trappings of the canon. Exhibitions like this show us how.