From the moment you enter In the Black Fantastic, the blockbuster new exhibition at the Hayward gallery, you can tell it’s something special.
A giant sculpture made up of interlinking forearms stacked to the rafters snakes dramatically across the main concourse; to your left an entire wall is taken up by a kaleidoscopic collage filled with swirls of birds and flowers; and all around a series of amorphous full-body costumes covered in textiles and buttons silently regard you.
Curated by Ekow Eshun, this is a show about black identity in its myriad forms, not quite afrofuturism but a close relative, drawing on history and mythology to imagine a different present and a better future.
While the shadow of George Floyd and the #BlackLivesMatter protests are ever-present, the energy that runs throughout suggests hope rather than despair.
In a room dedicated to Rashaad Newsome, we find a sculpture of a vogueing figure wearing a tribal-style mask. Around the room are portraits of a robotic figure hewn from wood and metal, and a video plays of a similar figure dancing to hip hop while the world burns behind it. The apocalypse is here, but black culture is thriving.
Upstairs are a series of portraits by Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili depicting an afrocentric take on Homer’s Odyssey and the Bible, with a wonderfully sensual sculpture of Mary and the Angel Gabriel filling the centre of the room, the former all buttocks and breasts in highly-polished bronze, the latter craggy and dark.
Elsewhere you can find a video installation featuring the musician Santigold as a pollution-belching, bird-eating, interplanetary factory-monster; and a collection of found objects – pot plants, shells, books, money – framed on all sides by projections of utopian landscapes from four CCTV cameras. I had no idea what that one was about to be quite honest but it’s impressive nonetheless.
The presentation is also immaculate. Lina Iris Viktor’s striking red, gold and blue portraits depicting an imagined Liberian history hang against a rich burgundy backdrop. Tabita Rezaire’s video installation addressing gender fluidity in an intergalactic future, projected onto the four sides of a pyramid, is housed in a darkened, reflective room; Hew Locke’s satirical photographic self portraits, featuring the artist dressed in various sinister costumes (not unlike Nick Cave’s aforementioned Soundsuits) and surrounded by flowers and plastic crowns and tinsel, are a stark contrast to the monochrome print of Guyanese houses that cover the walls.
Among the works by 11 artists from around the world are quotations from black creators. “I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos,” reads one from psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon as you climb the stairs.
In the Black Fantastic is not only timely and important but vital and joyous, hands-down the exhibition of the year so far and one I can’t see being topped.