In Review

In the Black Fantastic review: ‘a magnificent experience’

Reality is reshaped into ‘something rich and strange’ at this ‘intoxicating’ Hayward Gallery show

This exhibition showcases 11 artists from the African diaspora “who use fantasy, myth and fiction to address racism and injustice”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. Each artist is granted the amount of space equivalent to that normally taken up by an entire solo presentation, so that they have “space to breathe, and to sing”; while a “judicious selection also allows for echoes and connections throughout”.

The show incorporates video, painting, sculpture, collage, and even costume design, and the effect is little short of mesmerising. All of the art here is “wildly imaginative”, from a series of “lifesize” papier-mâché sculptures by the Kenyan-American Wangechi Mutu to the “sumptuous” selfportraits of Liberian-British artist Lina Iris Viktor, in which she depicts herself as the prophetess Sibyl foretelling “the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade”. It is “a magnificent experience, spectacular from first to last”.

In this show, decorative flourish comes at the expense of nuance and clarity, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. The American artist Nick Cave, for instance, makes “sound suits” – “human-sized wearable sculptures covered in sequins, buttons and flowers”. These “look like carnival costumes” but apparently commemorate the deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police: one, dedicated to George Floyd, is adorned in an “ornate and busy manner”, leaving “no detail left undecorated”. “How the sculpture refers to the death remains unclear.”

Far worse, though, is the British Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili’s life-sized sculpture Annunciation, depicting “a black Angel Gabriel raping a golden Virgin Mary”. “You don’t need to be a fierce Catholic to find it graceless and sick.” It is the nadir of a confused and “neurotic” exhibition.

This show is a response to the long history of black suffering in the West, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. So it’s hardly surprising that some works on display are upsetting. Kara Walker’s “retro, animated cut-paper silhouettes” depict “atrocities by white supremacists” to a ragtime soundtrack, while the Confederate battle flag “looms” large in a picture by the Philadelphia-born artist Sedrick Chisom.

Yet generally the exhibition is “anything but sombre”. Instead, it is defined by its emphasis on “visual fabulousness”, privileging jubilant colour and “party spirit” over historical recrimination. The upbeat atmosphere is evident everywhere from Cave’s colourful suits to Hew Locke’s Ambassadors, four sculptures of “exuberantly attired horsemen” he has “festooned with glittering objects”. The artists here are intent on “reshaping reality into something rich and strange”, and the result is an “intoxicating” show.

Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (southbankcentre.co.uk). Until 18 September

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