We catch up with 'In the Black Fantastic' author Ekow Eshun about cosmic paintings, stunning collages, and his wildest dreams for the future of Black art.
Thames & Hudson: Your new book In the Black Fantastic is a kaleidoscopic feat, transcending time, space and genre, and assembling art and imagery across a vast array of artistic mediums. How do you go about putting together a book of this breadth and magnitude?
Ekow Eshun: The idea of the Black fantastic doesn’t describe a movement or a specific genre so much as a way of seeing shared by artists who grapple with the inequities of racialised contemporary society by conjuring new narratives of Black possibility. What I’ve tried to do in the book is to describe that perspective by making connections between work by creative figures from across a range of artforms. So, page by page, you move from Beyoncé’s Black is King to images of these stunning collages by visual artist Lorna Simpson to wild modernist architecture from independence-era Senegal to cosmic paintings from the artist Robert Reed’s Galactic Journal series. It’s quite a trip, but implicitly it makes sense to have these works in conversation. The whole book is about trying to make visible the shared affinities that unite these works.
TH: You mention that the Black fantastic involves a productive tension between the everyday and the extraordinary. How do you experience or express this tension in your own life and work?
EE: For me, this all goes back to the term coined by the African American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois in 1903. DuBois talked of ‘double consciousness’ to describe the ‘peculiar sensation’ of living as a Black person physically within, and psychologically outside white society. For DuBois, double consciousness was the defining criterion of Blackness. It was the bitter proof that Black people would always be excluded from the main body of society, doomed to spend our lives in alienation.
I tend to feel that in addition to the pain inherent to the concept, double consciousness can also be described as a gift of sorts. It offers the ability to view the world with a nuance and complexity less readily accessible to those not obliged to undertake a daily reckoning with their own personhood. Despite the constraints of endemic bigotry, double consciousness is a prompt for Black people to imagine ourselves on our own terms. As the writer Jayna Brown puts it, ‘Unburdened by investments in belonging to a system created to exclude us in the first place, we develop marvellous modes of being in and perceiving the universe.’
TH: Both In the Black Fantastic and Africa State of Mind explore links between the physical and the psychological, between bodily experiences and mental spaces. What interests you the most about this parallel?
EE: I’m fascinated by the terrain that the poet Elizabeth Alexander calls ‘the black interior’ – ‘a metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday’, governed by the ‘power and wild imagination that black people ourselves know we possess’.
TH: Your definition of the Black fantastic includes a ‘sincere, not sardonic’ stance towards African beliefs and cultural practices. Why is this an important distinction to be made?
EE: I tend to think that African beliefs and cultures are worthy of serious consideration as sources of knowledge and creative inspiration. We’re used to dismissing beliefs systems such as Vodou for example as primitive and superstitious. But many artists and writers have found great inspiration in such beliefs. For instance, the author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Haiti in the 1930s, where she was initiated into Vodou. Undergoing secret rites, she had a vision in which, as she wrote, ‘I strode across the heavens with lightning flashing from under my feet, and grumbling thunder following in my wake.’
TH: What are your wildest dreams for the future of Black art and popular culture?
EE: In the Black Fantastic tries to bring together work that shows Black culture at its most wildly imaginative and artistically ambitious. I’ve spent the past couple of years working on this project and it feels like I’m only just beginning. There’s so much more out there to discover.
My wildest dreams? Yet more new ways of seeing. New ways of being. New articulations of Black creativity and audacious Black dreaming.
Interview by Grace Flahive