The factual and fantastical collide, as a Black woman wearing an ebony helmet mask turns her head to gaze at the viewer even as she strides to our left. The mask embodies sowei, the water spirit and guardian deity of the Sande society, which initiates Liberian girls into womanhood. In most Liberian societies, masks are worn only by men, but the Sande helmet mask is an exception, representing the power and possibilities of women.
We’re mesmerized by the complex large-scale portrait and elaborate backgrounds, composed of 24 karat gold, acrylic, ink, gouache, and copolymer resin, printed on cotton rag paper.
The intricate layering of mediums, imagery, and references in Sixth (2018), from Lina Iris Viktor’s A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred series marries the artist’s exploration of photography, performance, sculpture, painting, and artisanal techniques. Viktor borrows from an array of historical and cultural sources, including astronomy, Aboriginal dream paintings, African textiles, West African and Central African myth, and cosmology.
Sixth is among more than 300 color illustrations featured in Ekow Eshun’s book In the Black Fantastic, to be released September 6, by MIT Press. At $39.95, the sumptuous hardcover shares a wealth of insight into a diverse display of works by leading artists such as Nick Cave, Ellen Gallagher, Kara Walker, Chris Ofili, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleen Smith, Wangechi Mutu, Hew Locke, and Sedrick Chisom, as well as Black representation in film, and pan-Africanism and postcolonialism politics.
“In Viktor’s gilded photographs, the Classical priestess and the abolitionist activist merge into one oracular figure, whose presence foreshadows Liberia’s complex history of migration and colonialism, oppression and emancipation,” Ghanaian-British writer, editor, and curator Eshun writes.
Divided into sections for Invocation, Migration, and Liberation, the book was published to commemorate the exhibition by the same name at the Hayward Gallery in London, on view through September 18.
“What became clear to African people across the diaspora is that the literal skill of riding the air was not the only way in which enslaved or otherwise persecuted people could take control of their bodies or their imaginations,” Michelle D. Commander, a scholar of slavery and memory, Black geographies and mobility, and the speculative arts, writes in her essay, In Populated Air: Flying Africans, Technology, & the Future. “Actively remembering and recreating cultural elements of the past to commemorate forebears – maintaining some control over the range of their psychic mobility – became a significant way to elide Western mores.”
We voyage with the subject of David Uzochukwu’s Uprising (2019), his dreadlocks suspended in air as he looks to our left, emerging from fish Photoshopped to look like a serpent. We’re drawn into magical realism through a photographic narrative of race and migration born from the artist’s Austrian and Nigerian heritage.
“Among many African-descended populations and cultures, the tradition of the living, secular world bleeding into the sacred, supernatural one has always endured as part of a broader cultural epistemology. It should be of no surprise then that the idea of the Black fantastic is deeply embedded in the cultural beliefs and practices of Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti, New Orleans, Mexico, and elsewhere,” scholar, editor, and leader Kameelah L. Martin writes in her essay Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics, Conjure Feminism, and the Arts. “The trauma of enslavement and the experience of the Middle Passage shifted the cosmologies of origin for Africans in bondage.”
We’re confronted by the fungible space between the physical and the psychological through Ruby Okoro’s An Eye For An Eye (2020), where a third eye erupts from the subject’s cheek. The autodidact born in the Enugu State of Nigeria, and raised in Rome and Lagos, brings vibrant color from earlier paintings into his emotional portrait photographs.
In the Black Fantastic transcends time and space, navigating the African diaspora through fable, folklore, science fiction, spiritual traditions, ceremonial pageantry, and Afrofuturism, across genres, histories, geographies.
“At a moment when Black artists are vividly exploring the fantastic across a variety of media, from award-winning novelists working in science fiction and fantasy to the evolution of Black horror and the rise of Black superheroes in television and cinema, In the Black Fantastic provides a timely and invaluable survey of how this cultural turn has been developed by some of the outstanding visual artists of our time,” Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff said in the foreword. “It focuses on cogent and imaginative artworks that are often lyrical, rather than literal, in their approach. They can also be bracingly critical, yet instead of suggesting simple answers or conclusions, the participating artists challenge conventional thinking in a spirit of open-ended questioning.”