Space is the place

“I had no nation now but the imagination” says Shabine, the seafaring poet and alter ego of Derek Walcott as he sets out in search of a new life in “The Schooner Flight”. Shabine could be speaking for the eleven artists from the African diaspora assembled shrewdly by Ekow Eshun for this group exhibition, In the Black Fantastic. The imagination is the only sphere where a sensitive soul might feel completely free and at home.

Each artist’s work is marked by a determination not to be bound by the prejudicial narratives that previously cast Africa as a site of degradation, a continent subject to European imperialist campaigns of plunder and an Atlantic slave trade that reduced an African to a thing. The curators write that they have resisted any simple allusion to Afrofuturism or magic realism, but Afrofuturism underpins the exhibition as it aims to reach beyond the discourse of race that traps so many diasporic artists. Almost thirty years ago, when introducing the concept of reimagining the experience of African Americans, “the descendants of alien abductees [who] inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen … force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements”, the cultural critic Mark Dery asked:

Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?

Yes, is the answer. The Afrofuturist movement, a fusion of science fiction and fantasy embraced by diasporic artists, seems to be having a moment, but it’s been a long time coming. Decades before Hollywood’s popular Marvel movie Black Pantherthe fabulously outrageous jazz musician Sun Ra set out the stalls for what would come to be called Afrofuturism in Space Is the Place. On landing his spaceship in 1970s Oakland, the visionary Ra encouraged African Americans to leave their toxic homeland and find salvation in space. Since then artists across disciplines have been enthralled and influenced by myriad proponents of Afrofuturism, especially by the alternative future, conflating past and present, imagined by the science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler in works such as Kindred, whose protagonist time-travels back to the antebellum South. Zak Ove’s sculptures – “Umbilical Progenitor”, a fiberglass astronaut embellished with a Mende helmet mask, a talismanic figure representing the first male of an African tribe on an outward-bound journey through time, and his monumental 30ft-high spaceship “The Mothership Connection – are also notable Afrofuturistic landmarks.

Ove’s work doesn’t appear in In the Black Fantastic, but to step through the gallery’s swing doors is to enter a new and beguiling world in which “The Mothership Connection” seems to have landed. “Soundsuits”, bespoke body suits by the American artist Nick Cave, stand like sentinels greeting you. They’re gorgeous adornments of individuality that are difficult to read. But that’s surely the point, as the suits were Cave’s response to the beating in 1991 of an African American man, Rodney King, by LA policemen who reduced him to a criminal type, unworthy of respect or restraint – a thing. The suits, which, when worn, emit sounds characteristic of their source material, are both protective exoskeletons and emblems of individual style, with bodies covered from head to toe in silk flowers, beads and the kind of mother-of-pearl buttons favored by exuberant pearly kings and queens.

The suits are separated by “Chain Reaction”, a work that at first looks like a loose curtain of bones strung together. On closer inspection it resolves into a series of linked resin casts of the artist’s forearm, or rather a pair of fused forearms with hands at either end. These identical forearms seem to climb as one hand reaching up connects and grips another, and it, in turn, is pulled up by a forearm above it. The sequence continues in a chain from the floor to ceiling, as if constituting a mass break-out of enslaved Africans from the hull of a slave ship, up and up, to the deck and freedom.

Those hands, helped to safety, contrast with, and are a reminder of, the desperate bones of the abducted people who didn’t make it across the Middle Passage. A book I read in childhood, whose title I no longer remember, conjured a disturbing image: so many Africans had died (either thrown overboard or by suicide) during the crossings on the Atlantic slave trade that their accumulated skeletons formed an undersea pathway from Africa to the Americas. But what if they had drowned and survived? It’s a question Ellen Gallagher asks us to consider in “Watery Ecstatic” and “Ecstatic Draft of Fishes”. Her bleached, submerged world, rendered in oil, pigment, paper cutouts and flattened palladium leaf, evokes a colony of escapees from slave ships. Superimposed on the seascape, these foetus-like figures, identical but of differing scales, progress through the sea facing backwards but moving forwards, a shoal of metamorphosed humans, both ancient and futuristic.

One of the pleasures of In the Black Fantastic is the generous space it affords each artist to showcase their ideas and to create an individual atmosphere. This is particularly the case in Wangechi Mutu’s brooding, sinister film, “The End of Eating Everything”. The animation starts with a flock of birdlike creatures circling a barren, sickly pea-green sky. From a corner of the screen we see a human head with tendrils of hair that unfurl and snap. The head, you imagine, might be fused to a giant snail. But as more of the creature emerges, the screen is filled with her monstrous and malignant body, which appears to have consumed the detritus of machines, contaminated soil and human body parts. She has survived and been forged, perhaps, by an apocalyptic event. A hideous pumping sphincter shooting out gas propels her. The birds scramble to escape, but she devours them; blood scars the sky. It’s the darkest and most menacing piece of the exhibition, heralding the path to entropy towards which the earth seems to be hurtling.

“A dystopian burnt-out landscape”, Hew Locke’s imagined location for his “survivors” in “The Ambassadors”, situates four small-scale statues of horses and riders on plinths, reminiscent of memorials to generals erected in the defeated South after the American Civil War. Locke’s ambassadors, costumed and intricately adorned with badges (including one signifying Toussaint Louverture), miniature skulls, beads and scraps of fabric, do not suggest splendour and pomposity. Rather, they are weighted with responsibility towards the “wretched of the earth”, carriers of ancestral hurt, but also exhausted champions of battles won, as they head towards the future.

The unity of the exhibition’s theme and the resonances between the artists are amplified as you move from room to room. Chris Ofili’s meditations on Odysseus and Calypso seem like companion pieces to Gallagher’s mysterious undersea world. “Kiss (Calypso & Odysseus)” is a reflection on the surrender of the soul and the allure of the other, between the lost voyager Odysseus and the nymph Calypso. The mating alluded to in the seeing colors of the water and conjoining of bodies is starkly contrasted with a stunning sculpture, “Annunciation”, in which a charcoal-black winged angel Gabriel and a bronze Virgin Mary fuck and fuse with abandon in the middle of the gallery space.

Erotic charge and sensuous devouring inform Lina Iris Viktor’s “A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred”. Her work is a series of collaged photographs of posed, gowned women in West African fabrics (purples and International Klein Blue), with patterned areas, notably decorated with gold leaf, merging with their bodies in reminiscent ways of Gustav Klimt’s lush portraits. Viktor’s women also exhibit an unsettling minstrelsy through their blackened faces on brown skin, like masks worn at a Venetian carnival; the masking harks back to the show’s beginning, to Nick Cave’s enigmatic “Soundsuits”, but the allure of the sitters is both provocative and defiant.

As a collectionIn the Black Fantastic sings a hymn of defiance. Its mythic and speculative ambition, to “conjure otherworldly visions” from the African diasporic experience, pays off in this virtuosic group show, defined by the artists’ shared aesthetic and subtle ability to communicate empathy. The beauty found here and the skill of its creation are a marvel to behold, without denying the pain and pity of the suffering that inspire them.

Colin Grant’s most recent book, I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Bewill be published in January 2023. He is the director of WritersMosaic, a platform for new writing and an initiative of the Royal Literary Fund

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