‘In The Black Fantastic’: a powerful exhibition of fantasy and speculative storytelling

‘In The Black Fantastic’: a powerful exhibition of fantasy and speculative storytelling | Soho House

Eleven artists from the African diaspora explore myth, folklore, science fiction and Afrofuturism in London’s Hayward Gallery. Curator Ekow Eshun discusses his vision

Tuesday 28 June 2022    By Anastasiia Fedorova

There is a lot of power in being able to envision the future; to think beyond the pre-determined horizons and reinvent yourself with no roadmap. Imagination is not only creative and pleasurable, but a political force capable of transforming the world. In The Black Fantastic, a new exhibition curated by Ekow Eshun at the Hayward Gallery in London, examines the fearless and expansive imagination that drives the global Black community. Blending myth, science fiction and spiritual traditions, it creates an immersive journey through a multitude of imagined worlds. 
Eshun – a British writer, broadcaster and curator – has worked on the exhibition for the past two years. The complex questions of race, identity and belonging are integral to his creative output: among multiple projects in this space, he is behind an anthology of African photography titled Africa State Of Mind and the exhibition Made You Look: Dandyism And Black Masculinity exploring the style legacy of Blackness.  
In The Black Fantastic creates an immersive experience that manipulates space and time. The exhibition combines the works of 11 artists, including Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Rashaad Newsome, Chris Ofili and Kara Walker – each of them in charge of creating a separate universe within the gallery walls. While some artists disrupt the past, others invite us to imagine fantastical futures. But the reach of In The Black Fantastic is not limited to the exhibition – it exists in literature, music, film, and everywhere where speculative storytelling becomes a tool of cultural liberation; a way to address racism, injustice and painful history, and turn it into a space of celebration, joy, hope, and power. 
We talked to Eshun about the legacy of Afrofuturism and the task of bringing multiple visions together. 

‘In The Black Fantastic’: a powerful exhibition of fantasy and speculative storytelling | Soho House

How did the idea of In The Black Fantastic emerge and what are the main ideas behind it?

‘The starting point is an acknowledgement that race itself is a social construct, but also a lived reality. A lot of the works grapple with the contradiction that this fiction imposes a reality. I believe their response has been to reach further and to insist that we understand Black experience. They choose not to be constrained or confined by prejudice, by a gaze that suggests that people should look and behave a certain way. Their reaction has been to reach towards the imaginary, beyond the everyday and the ordinary, to go back in time and forward into the future, and to use all these different means as a way to underscore the fictions within which we live and the possibilities for resistance through their own speculative fictions.’
Were speculative fiction and Afrofuturism something you were interested in for a long time or part of your cultural upbringing? 

‘If you’re a Black person growing up in Britain, very often you exist in a situation where someone already has an opinion on who you are and how you’re supposed to be or present yourself. I always liked reading science fiction, because it took the present day as a provisional position. It takes reality as a state of possibility rather than a fixed position. Gradually, fantasy and speculative fiction have become much larger – it’s kind of the language of popular culture. This opening up towards the fantastic has allowed room for Black creative thinkers to speak through that language and interrogate or offer ways of being and seeing that they didn’t necessarily have in the past.’

‘In The Black Fantastic’: a powerful exhibition of fantasy and speculative storytelling | Soho House

Would you describe the exhibition as offering a non-European centric and non-Western point of view?

‘Absolutely. The 18th century Enlightenment is based on notions of progress, modernity, and rationality. Western societies are based on these values. But simultaneous with the development of those ideas, we also get the growth of scientific racism. The European project of rationality was always predicated on the notion that there was also another, beyond the Western world. That was often taken to be people of African origin who were cast as underdeveloped, as primitive, as savages. That remains true today in many of the ways that Black people are treated in popular culture and in contemporary Western society.
‘So partly, this is also a reclaiming. Not just of the African originated being, but that the kind of beliefs, spiritual practices or cultural identities that come out of the African diaspora – that were carried from Africa to the Caribbean to Americas – aren’t inferior to Western ideas of progress, modernity and science. Their validity and inspirational potential exist as ways that people can find to honour themselves, to orient themselves to a world that is often hostile to them.’

I think this conversation is particularly interesting in the context of thinking about the future and technology, and the lack of diversity in these conversations. Who gets to build the future and determine what it looks like?

‘Who gets to dream? Who gets to imagine? Who gets to be? In The Black Fantastic for me is not a rigid genre. It is central to the perspective, collective memories and lived experience of POC or people of African origin. From that basis, we can look into the future and even at the present with a renewed capacity for wonder and possibility.’ 

‘In The Black Fantastic’: a powerful exhibition of fantasy and speculative storytelling | Soho House
What was the most challenging in the process of bringing together all these different visions?  

‘Part of the challenge was editing things down to a coherent exhibition, choosing to work with just the number of artists in the show when I could have had four times that number. The book, which comes together with an exhibition, goes far beyond what I could put in the show. Simultaneously, there’s a film season at the BFI, as well as music, talks and free art across the Southbank Centre buildings. All these different aspects can sit in conversation with each other and that’s what I’ve been trying to thread together as a larger project.’ 

What kind of experience would you like the people who come to the show to have?

  ‘A kind of sensory one, and hopefully a little bit magical. The Hayward Gallery is divided into a number of spaces for each artist. Within each of those environments there’s a different perspective or an alternative way of thinking about the central thesis. It’s called In the Black Fantastic, because the idea is that people explore within these territories and have their own encounter. The spaces are complementary, but they’re quite distinct, so it’s a journey.’

In The Black Fantastic runs from 29 June to 18 September 2022 at London’s Hayward Gallery. 

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