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In the Black Fantastic: The Merging of Past and Future
Curated by Ekow Eshun, In the Black Fantastic was a Hayward Gallery (London, UK) exhibition of 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora, who question our knowledge of the world. As part of Apple’s Festival of Learning in 2022, exhibition curator Ekow Eshun gave a special insight to In the Black Fantastic to an online audience of educators. Eshun sat down with author and educator Jeffrey Boakye to discuss some of the themes of the exhibition.
Here is an extract of their conversation about 'the merging of past and future', together with a prompts for further thinking, discussion and action. (Reproduced with kind permission of the Southbank Centre)
The Merging of Past and Future
Jeffrey Boakye: That notion of superpower really jumps out to me, because there is a common theme here of artists who are really exploring art, and really pushing at the boundaries of creativity. And it is really moving. You talk a lot about myth, folklore, legend – a look to the past. And then we've got futurism and possibility, that goes the other way. Is that something you considered when curating the exhibition?
Ekow Eshun: You’ll be very familiar with the creative genre Afrofuturism – a field of ideas, of artworks, of thinking, that thinks about Black people in relation to science fiction. This was something I wanted to cover. But what struck me was that right now you can look across Black creative practice in all mediums and see artists simultaneously look into the past, and look into the future. So, consider Beyonce’s Lemonade, a film about her music, her being vulnerable, about difficult personal relationships, but at some points it plunges into the past. At certain points some of the symbolism in the film deliberately references African cultural myths.
There's a moment where Beyonce plunges into a room filled with water, which is a reference to African myths of water deities. There's a scene where Beyonce references a particular folktale based on historical fact and the legend of The Fine Africans, which is a myth of enslaved African people who fly back across the ocean from enslavement to Africa in the early 19th century. These things are layered into something like Lemonade. You don't have to know all of that to appreciate the visuals of it, but it speaks to how so many different creative figures are really addressing and embracing these collective sets of histories. They’re recognising that part of our collective legacy is to do with historical fact, but also to do with constructed ideas of myth, of shared histories. And they’re recognising no distinction between looking back, or looking forward. And this is some of the territory that we can occupy and explore.
Jeffrey Boakye: That's interesting because, with my teacher hat on, it sounds like the possibility of going forward is the exciting stuff. What can you create? How can we go forward with new ideas? But I'm hearing an equal level of joy and play in exploring the past.
Ekow Eshun: Yes, because the past isn't done. It’s never done, there's always room for more. Think about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, one of the most significant books of the 20th century. Beloved is based on real events. It's based on the real story of a woman who kills her child rather than surrender her to slavery. But Morrison is really clear that the story is not an attempt to retell the real events of that. She uses that as inspiration. Morrison talks about how she wanted to write books that were emotionally true, but free of some of the encumbrances of documentary, of realism, of trying to stick to one version of events. She wanted to create her own version and she felt this was the emotional truth; this is the real point that you're trying to get to.
Jeffrey Boakye: Is this something that you feel educators should latch on to, the emotional truth of a particular context?
Ekow Eshun: Well, sticking with Morrison for a minute. She felt that when it comes to history, when it comes to archived histories of Black presence, the official record is not necessarily something you can trust, because the official record also has its own bias attached to it in terms of how Black people are described or discussed. So when looking to the past she felt that it was important to assert one's own agency, to assert the role of imagination, and to tell stories out of the past, which then offer us a way to further root ourselves in the present, root our way into the future. So, the past becomes not simply a passive field, which we plod through, but it becomes a fertile territory for us to tell new stories, for us to use as inspiration. That's why with this exhibition there's this blurring between historical fact, and imagined reality, because all of these are part of a territory within which we can tell stories about who we are.
What other present day popular and cultural references use this 'superpower' of dual sight to challenge the racialised everyday and bring together the past and present?
How can we reimagine our history, the one learned in school, to include new possibilities and perspectives?
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