A victory of the imagination over the conceptual: In the Black Fantastic revisited
“These artists offer other ways of seeing,” explains Ekow Eshun, curator of In the dark fantasy, and from the moment you push open the heavy swinging doors of the Hayward, you see what he means. Outside, a world of utilitarian gray concrete; inside, a dynamic team of invaders from planet Zog shimmering like Technicolor Pearly Kings in luminous shells of pearls, sequins and buttons.
The kind of thing a nimble-fingered alien might invent if his spaceship crashes into a haberdashery department, Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits” make Ziggy Stardust look Earthbound (see below). Raised with seven brothers by a single mother in Missouri, Cave learned early on how to pimp second-hand clothes, and his suits are superbly tailored. Slightly larger than life to accommodate performers – he’s a former member of Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater – when they’re vacant they have the benevolent presence of ministering spirits. Cave premiered after seeing footage of the LAPD beating of Rodney King that sparked the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Feeling vulnerable as a black American man, instead of revolting, he builds a protective shell. The handful of examples collected here are just a small sample of the more than 500 he has made since. They are called “Soundsuits” because of the noises they make when worn; when silent, they make a visual splash.
‘Soundsuit’, 2014, by Nick Cave. Credit: © Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Mandrake Hotel Collection
Cave is one of 11 artists from the African diaspora who have each been assigned a room to reimagine our imperfect world in images. Fortunately, there are few words. Tabita Rezaire’s film installation “Ultra Wet – Recapitulation” (2017) suggesting that “sexuality is a construct” is as preachy as this exhibit is, and Sedrick Chisom’s titles – “The Entirely Preventable Death of Mighty Whitey , The Last Drunk Dionysian Hero, AKA The Wholly Tragic Birth of Fragile Narcissus’ (2020) is an example of this – as verbose.
Chisom lets his titles speak on his images; Wangechi Mutu believes in the power of art alone “to imbue truth with a kind of magic…so that it can seep into the psyches of more people, including those who disbelieve the same things as you”. Her visual language is surrealism, the privileged jargon of psychic infiltration: she sticks it to man through collage. Cutting pages from porn magazines and engineering textbooks, she cooks up a mash-up of monstrous cyborgs, attacking the objectification of black women by vandalizing Western myths of female beauty. The results are terrifying from afar, worse up close when you see eyes and lips implanted with breasts and buttocks and gaping mouths stuffed full of mechanical parts. Francis Bacon would have approved; she too was inspired by illustrations of illnesses in medical textbooks.
In Mutu’s ‘The Screamer island dreamer’ (2014), the mythical Nguva who haunts the East African coast in human form luring unsuspecting victims to their deaths is shown in her true colors as a spiny sea monster with prehensile teeth that gnaws to drag its prey to an aquatic grave. Mermaids are a theme; it must be something in the water. Chris Ofili moves the myth of Ulysses and Calypso to Trinidad – where he now lives – the music’s native island that shares a name with the nymph of Ogygia. Reimagining Homer’s enchantress as the fish-tailed African aquatic spirit Mami Wata, he depicts her in a series of recent paintings in meandering hand-to-hand combat with a black Ulysses. In a life-size bronze, he gives the Annunciation a similar treatment, envisioning the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary as an erotic coupling of aroused supernatural beings. If it’s supposed to shock, it’s not; it just looks kitsch. Remove the elephant dung from Ofili and there’s not much left.
Ellen Gallagher’s bedroom is like an aquarium with windows to magical underwater worlds. His series of monumental watercolors “Watery Ecstatic” evokes an aquatic coral-colored ecosphere illuminated with mysterious forms of marine life, the watercolor saved from haziness by the addition of crisp detail in precisely cut paper. Her 2019 series of large oils, “Ecstatic Draft of Fishes,” has a paler palette of pinks and grayish greens dispersed in clouds of shimmering bubbles. Taking Turner’s “slave ship” as its starting point, it envisions the unborn babies of drowned pregnant slaves learning to breathe underwater and wandering the ocean floor as silvery specters evoking figures of African fangs.
In a calmer register than the rest of the series, Gallagher’s imagery resonates longer. Like Cave’s “Soundsuits”, his paintings combine exquisite craftsmanship with oblique meaning, representing a victory of the imagination over the conceptual. It is the general absence of post-modern irony in this exhibition that makes it so invigorating; for an edgy Western audience, that’s fantastic in itself.