Taking stock of these cultural shifts as expressed among Black creatives, In the Black Fantastic, a recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, gathered together the work of 11 Black artists from across the world who are using science fiction and fantasy to interrogate racism and to offer windows into new possibilities for thinking connection, history, and Black being in the world. This shared investment in the speculative represents a growing interest among Black creatives who are pushing back against the restrictions and constructions of “the racialized everyday” — the term show curator Ekow Eshun uses to describe the simultaneous recognition of race as a social construct and lived reality. As an aesthetic mode, the Black Fantastic offers a route through and beyond the racialized everyday into new worlds where dreaming and imagination can produce novel models of being and connecting across the histories and cultures of the African diaspora.
Hailed by Vogue as the summer’s “must-see exhibition,” In The Black Fantastic was on view at the Hayward Gallery through September 18, 2022. But for those who weren’t able to view the show in person, MIT Press has published a book that collects 300 full-color reproductions of work by artists including Kara Walker, Rashaad Newsome, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, and Nick Cave. The book is anchored by an introductory essay from Eshun, as well as critical reflections by scholars — including Kameelah L. Martin and Michelle D. Commander — that illuminate these works’ engagement with major themes in Black feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory, popular culture, and material histories.
I recently spoke with Eshun, a London-based writer and curator, former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and author of Black Gold of the Sun and Africa State of Mind. We talked about how contemporary life has fomented a unique space and urgency for the Black Fantastic, how this ascendant mode encounters the long tradition of Black realism, and how dreaming and imagination function as powerful tools for resistance, survival, and change in a world that is quite literally what we make it.
ERIC NEWMAN: Both the book and the exhibition observe that we are currently experiencing a massive cultural turn toward the Black Fantastic for Black creatives around the world. What do you see fueling this turn toward the themes and genre of science fiction and fantasy?
EKOW ESHUN: We’re in the midst of a time when popular culture as a whole is being led by the fantastic — you know, Marvel movies and Game of Thrones and fantasy in general. It would be strange if Black creative figures were entirely outside of that trend. What they’re doing, to some extent, is using this language of our times — the language of fantasy and speculation — to think with nuance and complexity about Black experience.
And it’s happening on a broad spectrum. We can take a range of different examples. The most obvious one is something like [Ryan Coogler’s] Black Panther, or [Jordan Peele’s] Get Out, or books by N. K. Jemisin and the enduring interest in the writing of Octavia Butler. But you can even potentially see it in Beyoncé’s Renaissance, not because this is necessarily an album that reaches absolutely to the speculative, but because it’s a work of art that seems to be impatient with the everyday. She’s bringing in Grace Jones, asserting or acknowledging these other modes of Black female performance and presence. And the sleeve art features a spectacular image of Beyoncé on a horse that seems to have lightning in it or something. There’s a sense of her rendering another world for us, a world almost beyond our ken.
And we can think about a range of other works in between and around those that I’ve mentioned that point to why the Black Fantastic is emerging so powerfully during these times: we’re in a moment where Black cultural influence has never been as pronounced as it is right now. There have been other periods, like the Harlem Renaissance, that are high-water moments, but right now we’re talking about such a vast range of different artists from the African continent and across the diaspora who are producing an unparalleled richness and flourishing of Black art.
Of course, this is also a time where we see that Black presence and Black visibility still cannot ensure against vulnerability and violence. The roll call runs long of figures like George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor who have galvanized international protest over the last few years because they were brutalized and beaten and killed for no other reason than their color, than their presence in the world, which some people considered unacceptable.
And so, one of the responses that Black creative figures have is to say — let’s not simply accept this as a given, let’s choose to create our own ways of seeing, of being. And they do this not as an escape, not as a retreat from the racialized everyday, but to say that there are more ways that we can walk through the world that are not defined solely in response to the hostility that we might face. There’s a hunger. There’s a desire. There’s a perceived necessity to say we’ll make our own worlds. And those worlds are worlds of speculation and dreaming that can become tremendously generative, restorative spaces for us. These then become ways that we can hold histories of violence and understand that those don’t have to define us, drown us, stifle us.
It would seem that the Black Fantastic emerges as a challenge to the long-privileged aesthetic tradition of Black realism that we see in writers like Richard Wright and in filmmakers like Spike Lee or John Singleton. What are the limits of Black realism that provide an opening for the Black Fantastic?
I think the construction that’s often put on representations of Black life is that unless you remain within realism, somehow you are engaged in escape or retreat from the realities of Black experience. I’ll admit to some impatience with the idea that the only valid way to talk about who Black people are and how we live is through the lens of realism, authenticity, and so on. And that impatience is not because Richard Wright isn’t an important author — clearly he is — but because I want to assert and claim the generative space for imagining something new or different that comes from looking inside or looking out to the cosmos and other imagined realms.
The Black Fantastic does that; it allows us the space to explore the linkages between the external and the interiority that enable us to think psychologically and poetically about Black being. One of the things that’s interesting is that even in realist art, there’s still room for dreaming and speculation. There’s a really interesting passage in [Wright’s] Native Son, quite close to the beginning, in which Bigger [Thomas] is with his friends about to go to a pool hall, and he’s standing at a wall with one of his buddies looking at the sky. It’s a moment of grace and quiet which is at odds with almost every other scene in the novel. It’s the only moment where Bigger is at leisure, where he’s utterly relaxed and free in himself.
In the 1990s, so much Black cultural production, especially in music, but also in film and other areas, was firmly and absolutely based in notions of street authenticity. This is the kind of first wave of Black filmmaking, by Spike Lee and John Singleton, and the hip-hop mantra about “keeping it real” for groups like NWA, performers like Dr. Dre and Tupac. At that time, the idea was that whatever you created had to be a facsimile of “real life.” That’s one of the shifts we’re seeing right now — there seem to be many, many artists who are interested in constructing worlds that don’t obey the physics of the apparent everyday.
Could you talk a bit about Nick Cave’s Soundsuits series? Those pieces really pull together what you articulate here about the Black Fantastic’s capacity to engage speculation and fantasy without retreating from an engagement with the racialized everyday.
Sure, let’s take one of the earlier pieces from that series. In the early 1990s, Nick Cave, who is a Chicago-based visual artist, is watching TV and he sees footage of Rodney King being beaten by police officers. The officers were infamously acquitted in the trial and, as a response and working-through of his distress, Cave makes these gorgeous elaborate costumes he calls “soundsuits.” They are flowered and decorative and ostentatious and extravagant, but resist identification. You can’t see the race of a person in there. You can’t see the gender of a person in there. It’s a sort of protective covering against the racialized othering and violence that Rodney King experienced.
The soundsuits thus say to Black people, look, we have experience of being othered or having violence thrust upon us, but nevertheless, we can conjure a way of being, a way of belonging, a way of asserting ourselves that insists upon visibility, upon presence, upon beauty. And again, this is not an escape from the realities of the everyday — those realities are what compelled him to make the soundsuits in the first place — but rather to say that these conditions cannot in themselves exclusively define who we are and how we live and hold ourselves. So he makes a soundsuit not to deny anything, not to deny reality, but to, in a way, assert his own way of seeing.
He’s made a new soundsuit for the show that’s dedicated to George Floyd. We might think of it as a marker, a memorial, an act of mourning, but it’s also a celebration of Black possibility, of Black aliveness and Black personhood. For me, that is the Black Fantastic in its most capacious terms: whether it’s literature or visual art, it offers a way to look beyond some of the constraints that solely articulating Black life through realism limits us to.
A number of pieces riff on or reference gender and sexuality, and certainly others are made by queer artists whose experience constitutes an elemental part of the art itself. Can you talk about the role that queerness plays in the Black Fantastic, perhaps as a site of liminality, imagination, and transformation?
I think it plays a really important role. I would say that the concept of the Black Fantastic, as I see it, couldn’t exist without factoring in the influence of queerness and queer theory in thinking about transformation, possibility, and alterity — thinking about those as political and aesthetic acts that are also deeply personal acts of self-realization.
Let’s take for example Rashaad Newsome, whose work appears in the book and the exhibition. He’s an extraordinary artist who thinks about digital selves and AI-generated presence as a route to thinking through and thinking beyond some of the boundaries of gender and race that exist in the everyday, in a time when we’re saturated with technology and virtuality. His work also thinks quite powerfully about trans identities as transgressive and transformative. In his work, the articulations of trans identities really emerge as a route towards liberation for everyone — beyond the gendered spaces that historically have constrained men and women in particular roles.
There are also artists like Juliana Huxtable, who conjures herself as all sorts of things — alien and spectacular and strange — and understands this as liberation, as an assertion of a self-politics.
I was really struck by Hew Locke’s work. In the How Do You Want Me? series, he is playing with that phrase on a number of levels. On the one hand, it’s what the model says to the photographer in fashion or portrait shoots, indicating what sort of look they’re going to give, a self-fashioning that they control. On the other hand, the series also references how photography, as art and everyday practice, has limited the Black subject, forcing a particular reading of them through the technology of the image. Can you talk a bit about that work and its relationship to the Black Fantastic?
Yes, it’s doing all of those things. The title of that series, How Do You Want Me?, is an open-ended invitation. How would you, how would you like me to be? How can I make myself? But it’s also an acknowledgment of the sometimes subjugated role that the Black figure has been placed in, in front of the camera. We can think about police mugshot photos, about apartheid passport photos. We can look even further back to Africa and the Caribbean where, from the late 19th century onwards, the camera is really used as a weapon to constrain African people and typify them through ethnographic-style imagery as underdeveloped or savage. So there’s one sense that How Do You Want Me? is an acknowledgment of a powerlessness of the Black figure in front of the camera.
However, that question also implies an awareness of the camera, an ability to self-fashion in front of the camera. We can think about different lineages of fashion modeling, about photography in clubs, about people posing joyously in straight clubs and queer clubs and different social environments. We can also think about family photos, or about the importance of the studio photography practice that took place in postindependence Africa with Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso and other figures like that.
So, yes, Hew Locke is speaking to these very rich traditions and how Black people have understood themselves as being oppressed or made victim by a lens and how they’ve used a lens as a means to assert their visibility, to assert their own self-fashioning, their own demands and insistence. He’s thinking about that in relation to how he dresses up and how he takes these self-portraits not as himself, but as these extraordinary, garlanded, decorative figures. The question itself — “How do you want me?” — opens up all this territory.
That’s what I love so much about the series, the way it flips those power relations in so many different ways. On the one hand, the viewer or the photographer is telling him how they/we want him, but his self-fashioned portrait actually determines for us how they/we will want him. He makes his self-definition, not our definition of him, the object of our desire, which I think is at least part of the powerful work that the Black Fantastic achieves.
I would agree with that reading completely. The viewer or photographer doesn’t get to answer the title’s question. Locke does. He’s the artist and creator of that moment. And there, he’s absolutely doing the work of the Black Fantastic. He’s conjuring that world, and we get to look at it, we get to respond to it, and we get to think about it.
The thing I love most about a lot of the work [in the exhibition] is that it often sits outside the rules of engagement. Locke’s photographs absolutely do that. They are predicated on the idea: “How do you want me?” But as you say, look, by the time we see the photos, we’re already beyond that. He’s already taken us off to somewhere new. And that’s the realm of the Black Fantastic.
What would you like people to take away from the book or the exhibition?
The ambition of the show and the book is to have a conversation about Black creative work that begins from, or at least is informed by, artists who are attuned to speculation, attuned to the fashioning or refashioning of the self and of the culture that we live in. All of these works recognize Black capaciousness, speculation, dreaming, and possibility in a world where we are often taken as very limited figures.
In this extraordinary time that we’re in, there is extraordinary creative work that’s offering us ways to navigate towards being, kinship, connection with history, and connection with people. And that’s the Black Fantastic, which is offering us new ways to see and understand how Black people carry being and belonging in and across their history and collective memory. And I think partly that’s because they’re trying to find ways to collapse time and gather together different sets of cultural references from history and memory, to forge new possibilities for seeing Black presence within long histories that are open to psychological interiority, imagination, poetry, and world-building.
Eric Newman is a writer, critic, and researcher whose work explores questions of race, belonging, identity, and utopian imagination in 20th-century queer American culture.