Beyond the Pressure of Black Excellence is the Promise of Afrofuturism

Installation views of In the Black Fantastic at Hayward Gallery, 2022. Photo: Zeinab Batchelor, Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

By Flora Kambona

The Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition ‘In the Black Fantastic’ (29 June – 18 September 2022) is a triumph for Black expression, Black innovation and Black freedom. As part of the Southbank’s  Grace Jones Meltdown, curator Ekow Eshun produced a space of boundless creativity by dedicating an exhibition for art inspired by the Afro-Futurist movement. 

The gallery showcases the different, and yet equally poignant, interpretations of how Black realities need to change for a better future. Afro-Futurism provides a chance for African mythologies, histories and philosophies to be properly addressed; whilst exploring its hypothetical manifestation in the future. Artists of the diaspora realign themselves with ancestry and ideologies, originally thought to be lost to them,  through the afrofuturism movement.

Each piece in the gallery evokes a different fantasy. A strong visual journey is created in the overall culmination of the mixture of sculptures, installations, paintings, short films and clothing. Due to the expansive topic, each artist’s work follows a different art style and narrative. This level of variety can only be achieved with a diverse group of artists, ranging in interests and experience. 

Photo: Zeinab Batchelor, Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

The opening room is filled with works from established visionary Nick Cave. Introducing the exhibition with a ceiling to floor installation of matte black chained hands. The striking sculpture diagonally cuts the room whilst guiding the viewer to the display of the iconic ‘Sound suits’. Even more magnificent in real life, the soundsuits are explosions of colour made from crochet sequin or gemstones. Considered a ‘wearable sculpture’, this garment is timeless with its rejection of gender and structure and  leaves the wearer completely unrecognisable. Removing the identity off the clothes is meant to symbolise Cave removing the prejudices that came with being a child of the African diaspora or African-American experience. Nick Cave first made the soundsuits as a response to the death of Rodney King. He felt his identity as a Black man could easily be rejected in the wider system of oppression. His livelihood could be trampled on like the stick on the ground. Resulting in Cave collecting debris from the ground and creating his very first sculpture.  

The room directly opposite is dedicated to the works of Sedrick Chisom. Depicting an alternative reality in which people of colour have left the planet. The remaining inhabitants roam the earth ill, disillusioned and directionless. Rich oil paintings fill this room, each displaying images of overgrown and dangerous landscapes. Phantom figures add to the composition of this hybrid of dystopian and utopian worlds. Mainly exploring ideas of race in white America; Chisom’s work should be regarded as a “cautionary tale,” that addresses the climate change reality, not too far off from where we are heading. Lush fuchsia’s lull the viewer into this post-apocalyptic nature take-over. However, the streaks of neon green and red create the misty world and show the discomfort for those left lost, wandering through that world.

Each art piece centres itself on a different story. Just passed Chisom’s work is Tabita Rezaire’s installation. All attention is focused on a huge lone prism in the middle of the all-black room. With a series of recorded short films, poems, dances and literature. The piece feels more like a lesson in rejecting dictated binaries, mindsets and philosophies. Several narrators share their wisdom or past African mythology on topics such as gender and how western rigidness confine free-thinkers from fully expressing themselves. Paired with images of flowers, waterfalls and outer space; Rezaire’s work presents a future in which Black people are allowed to exist as the highest versions of themselves. 

Removing traditional concepts such as masculine and feminine and urging viewers to embrace the intersections of all their emotions, the range of meanings and interpretations is what truly makes this exhibition fantastic. Ekow Eshun sourced pieces that warn, teach and challenge the public to search within themselves for hidden truths and lost connections. It does not promote the idea of Black excellence, excessive wealth and successful business as the only version of a prosperous future. But offers an alternative, more soulful questioning of matters of the heart, body and imagination. Each artist explores how their afrofuture is directly impacted by their past and present through a creative sci-fi adventure for any art lover!

For more about the Southbank Centre, London visit; https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on?

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