The Exhibitionist: In the Black Fantastic

By Ed Vaizey

2 years ago

The Hayward’s show is a shot in the arm for more diversity in the visual arts, says Ed Vaizey

Open now at the Hayward Gallery, In the Black Fantastic is an exhibition of contemporary artists from the African diaspora

Ekow Eshun, the former director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and a well-known curator, critic and writer, has curated a fantastic show that opened recently at London’s Hayward Gallery. In the Black Fantastic is on for the rest of the summer, and you should go and see it. It is indeed fantastic – and extraordinary. 

Featuring 11 artists from the African diaspora, it draws on science fiction, myth, spiritual traditions and the engaging concept of ‘Afrofuturism’ (that’s a word to drop at the next dinner party). The show covers painting, photography, sculpture, video and mixed media, and is somewhat immersive. 

Nick Cave artwork, In the Black Fantastic

Nick Cave

Many of the artists are, of course, very well known. The most high profile, certainly at the moment, is Hew Locke, an incredible artist who has just been made a Royal Academician. His amazing installation The Procession is currently on show at Tate Britain as well, covering the entire length of the entrance hall. It is what the title says – a huge procession of vibrantly and colourfully clothed life-sized dummies marching through the building, inviting us all to walk alongside them into an enlarged vision of an imagined future. Although they are static and dumb, in reality they feel alive and exuberant. You will need to keep going back. 

It’s no surprise to see Locke leading at the Hayward, but there are other superb artists on show as well. Chris Ofili is a Turner Prize winner and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. Ofili’s work is often built up in layers of paint, resin, glitter, dung and other materials to create a collage. Yes, he is the artist forever famous for the use of elephant dung, but his art is terrific.

Sedrick Chisom, In the Black Fantastic

Sedrick Chisom

Other artists include Nick Cave (no, not that one, this one makes wearable mixed media soundsuits), Sedrick Chisom (tapestry-like landscape paintings), Ellen Gallagher (an abstract and multimedia artist) and Wangechi Mutu (amazing collage painting,) Rashaad Newsome (sculpture and video), Tabita Rezaire (one of the youngest artists on display with video work in which she features), Cauleen Smith (a multimedia artist), Lina Iris Viktor (incredible paintings) and Kara Walker (striking silhouettes). Although this is an exhibition of established artists, and worthwhile entirely on its own terms, the curation of course makes a wider, important point. Many years ago, when I was culture minister, I went to see Lenny Henry star in the Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre. I noticed as soon I sat down that the audience was very different. And the fact that I noticed was a problem – for me. I realised in an instant – and it was a kind of Damascene conversion – that I lived in a bubble. I always saw people that looked like me on stage and thought nothing of it. That night the audience was different because they had come to see someone who looked like them – and that was still far too rare an occasion. 

I had a meeting with Lenny Henry soon after, and we began a campaign to increase diversity in the arts – film, theatre, television. We had a lot of meetings and raised the profile of the issue. It’s still an ongoing debate, although recently it’s been diverted down the rabbit hole of a completely unnecessary culture war. The same battle also needs to be fought in the visual arts, though here we have also made significant progress. But there is still so much more we need to do to ensure that the work of brilliant and established artists is seen more often. 

In the Black Fantastic, until 18 September 2022.

Main image: Tate Photography, Joe Humprhys


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