In the Black Fantastic at Hayward Gallery review – visually stunning, intellectually coherent

“Medusa wandered the wetlands of Sedrick Chisom’s capital citadel undisturbed by two Confederate drifters concerned about toxic fumes stirring in the night air” (2021) © Pilar Corrias / DACS

Majestic and inexorable, they rise up the stepped platforms of the Hayward’s vast opening gallery like actors in a classic drama. High in the back, emerging on a screen, the singer Santigold transforms herself into a monster: dreadlocks rolling up like tentacles, body in hanging machine parts, she fills the skies, devouring flocks of birds, in “The end of eat everything” by Wangechi Mutu. In the foreground, the red earth of Mutu, the wooden-entwined “Sentinel V” figure presides as a grotesque goddess – part earth mother, part vengeful spirit.

You first see it through a frame: as you enter the gallery, you come across Nick Cave’s monumental, wobbly grid of bound black hands, stretching upwards, clutching tightly. It’s “Chain Reaction”, speaking at the same time of links, of collectivity, and of confinement, of cages, of enslaved labor cycles.

Dotted around the hands, a chorus of light, are Cave’s “Soundsuits”: rattling multicolored wearable sculptures assembled from feathers and twigs, sequins and beads. Enveloping the whole body, they erase the appearance of race or gender. The staging, marvelously upsetting the cool concrete geometry of the Hayward, announces from the first moment that his new show In the dark fantasy is as electrifying and immersive as the title suggests – and as dark undercurrents underlie the spectacular.

“Soundsuit” by Nick Cave (2014) © James Prinz /DACS

Cave began making his comically exuberant “Soundsuits” upon hearing reports of police brutality against an innocent black man, Rodney King. His sculptures speak of vulnerability; theatricality and masking are defenses (Cave trained as a dancer).

In her “Sentinels”, Mutu transforms old weathered materials, witnesses of centuries of trauma, into “characters” who, she says, “speak of a place and an era. in the future when we can live in harmony with each other, in harmony with the earth”.

Fantasy deflects horror and confusion with wild imaginative freedom. Alice in Wonderland responded to the perplexity that Darwin’s discoveries imposed on the Victorian mind. Kafka wrote Metamorphosis when a hostile society made him feel like an insect. Thus with Black Fantastic, which curator Ekow Eshun defines as the “turn to speculation” of contemporary black artists who “draw on history and myth to evoke new visions of the culture and identity of African Diaspora”.

“Ecstatic Draft of Fishes” by Ellen Gallagher (2021) © Hauser & Wirth/DACS

As if galloping across the bridge from its ‘procession’ to Tate Britain, Hew Locke’s ‘ambassadors’, black statues in ornate costumes on horseback, one-third life-size, are poignant, dignified, captivating and individualized . One is decked out in a red turban and an embroidered bust of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, another in a Rasta canopy hat and the William Blake print of a tortured slave. Carnival vibes intersect with the mimicry of rigid Baroque sculptures: these richly dressed figures are literally weighed down by the trappings of colonial history. Yet they walk: Locke calls them “survivors, on horseback, through a scorched dystopian landscape, heading into the future.”

Black art in motion, creating new idioms, is a great and timely subject. Eshun’s show is visually stunning, intellectually cohesive, the Hayward’s open spaces and ramps allowing for conversations, showcasing overlapping interests. A particular strength is linking black magical realism in the visual arts to film (there is a companion season at the BFI next door) and music within the Afrofuturist movement, including several direct collaborations.

“Prince McVeigh and the Blasphemies of Turner” by Kara Walker (2021) © Sikkema Jenkins & Co/Sprüth Magers/DACS

Lady Midnight’s ragtime, soul and rock score adds melancholic and provocative strains to Kara Walker’s stop-motion animation “Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies”: leaping shadow puppets bring recent white supremacist atrocities to life from the Oklahoma City bombings of Timothy McVeigh and the 1998 lynching of James Byrd, Jr. The shock of violence is amplified by the chasm between terror and the delicate, dancing fluidity of the silhouettes.

The disturbingly forged beauty of horror is there too in Ellen Gallagher’s “Watery Ecstatic” series, sumptuous evocations in pools of saturated color of an underwater realm of hybrid amoebas/aquatic plants/human creatures, and “Ecstatic Draft of Fishes”, underwater female figures based on the sculptures of the Queen of the African Fang. Gallagher’s narrative source comes from 1990s Detroit electro-techno music duo Drexciya, who proposed an origin myth of an underwater species descended from pregnant slaves thrown overboard during the transatlantic deportation – a thriving alternative to the tragic history of slavery in America.

While the heavy, grounded sculptures of Mutu, Cave and Locke reign downstairs, the specters of Walker and Gallagher are part of a more fluid installation upstairs: shape-shifting figures and landscapes that metamorphose into multiple media. Cauleen Smith’s “Epistrophy”, named after a composition by Thelonious Monk, projects videos of Earth and Nasa landscape photographs onto a still life of symbolic objects – statuettes, jewelry, a stuffed crow – which cast shadows on the improvised landscape: jazzy, kaleidoscopic. Chris Ofili’s Black Ulysses swoops before an emerald mermaid, tail whipping the waves, in “Kiss,” a painting as sinuous and sexy as Klimt’s. A water-flecked cast of shapeshifting characters star in his “Odyssey 11” and “Calypso.”

‘Annunciation’ by Chris Ofili (2006) © David Zwirner /DACS

Harnessing the language of decorative modernism, Ofili continues to significantly influence contemporary black figuration – his dreamy stage designs, his narrative energy, his majestic female figures, as exemplified by two gifted young painters who are the revelations of this show.

Sedrick Chisom’s spooky marshy color fields appear crystal clear but have heavy titles evoking the rampage: “Medusa Wandered the Wetlands of the Capital Citadel Undisturbed by Two Confederate Drifters Preoccupied by Poisonous Vapors that Stirred in the Night Air”; “A withered rider patrolled the valley of rocks on his worn horse through the dead mist in hours of ass miasma”. The satirical epic of Chisom envisions a scenario where all black people leave Earth, and the remaining population, succumbing to a skin-darkening plague, fights based on shades of color.

‘Eleventh’ by Lina Iris Viktor (2018) © DACS

Magnified to scale from a billboard outside the Hayward is a statuesque woman in a black mask posed against a gold background, staged like a fashion shot, from Lina Iris Viktor’s collage series “At Haven. A hell. A deferred dream”. Up close, Viktor’s lavish textures are mesmerizing: maps of West Africa and its rivers flowing in 24-karat gold are superimposed over printed and painted figures and, in a lyrical image, a palm tree, shaped of woman in a wide dress, stretching on the seas of cobalt. The historical cartography is one of exploiting the gold trade – yet Viktor reclaims the tropes of the Heart of Darkness with glittering assertions of youthful black power and growth.

“But where is your Renaissance? the white master asks the slave in “The Sea is History” by Derek Walcott. “It is enclosed in these sea sands”, one replies, and “in the salty laughter of the rocks/with their sea basins, there was the sound/like an echoless murmur/of History, which really began”. Eskow’s exhibition suggests something like this possibility: artists responding to a negative fantasy, “race as a socially constructed fiction” with their own imaginations, rethinking the past, reconfiguring the future. It is an exhilarating sight.

As of September 18, southbankcentre.co.uk

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