Cover Image: In the Black Fantastic

In the Black Fantastic

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Member Reviews

Beautifully illustrated, I enjoyed learning about many artists with whom I was unfamiliar.  Highly readable, I think this is an important book and I will gladly recommend it to others.  5 Stars
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Thank you to MIT Press and to NetGalley for access to this eARC.

The Black Fantastic is a parallel universe, the entrance to which is mediated by visionary creatives: fiction writers, painters, sculptors, poets, filmmakers, artists, musicians, dancers, and even politicians. It’s an umbrella term that does not find the distinctions between, say, Afrofuturism, Afrojujuism, and Africanfuturism, at all problematic, or even challenging. It’s the Black Imaginary, existing quite apart from whiteness, never defined or limited by it. It’s African mythology with its arms around Africa, encompassing its Diaspora, and imagining their future.

In The Black Fantastic was published to expand on the exhibition by the same name which ran at the Hayward Gallery, London, UK, from June to September 2022. Ekow Eshun was the curator of this, the UK’s first major show featuring art by the following Black creators: Nick Cave, Sedrick Chisom, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Rashad Newsome, Chris Ofili, Tabita Rezaire, Cauleen Smith, Lina Iris Viktor, and Kara Walker. Linkages, an important Black value, are an important part of the work: across time, space, and artistic genre.

In the book, through essays and using pictures, the theme of the Black Fantastic is shown across Africa and the Diaspora; from music (Beyonce, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane) to writing (Octavia E. Butler, Nnedi Okorafor); on album covers (GZA, Osibisa, Herbie Hancock), and in paintings (Bob Thompson, Jeff Donaldson, Alma Woodsey Thomas); in the story of the Afronauts, from Nkoloso’s vision, to its descendant works (Christine de Middel’s book, sculpture by Gerald Machona, Yinka Onibare).

It’s impossible for me to write about this volume without using superlatives. It’s a journey, a revelation, a vision, and still, also, an everyday reference book for a creative language. It’s a way into a way of seeing the world and the creative output of Black people in new ways, as part of a whole. It’s an entire way of reimagining the future (“THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE” — Alisha Wormsley).

Read/Don’t read: Absolutely READ. Buy a copy to drool over, and to show off, or start conversations.
Also read: Black Futures by Kimberly Drew, Jenna Wortham.
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In the Black Fantastic by Ekow Eshun. MIT Press, 2022.  
Thank you HarperCollins for providing an e-book copy through NetGalley.  
 
Rating: 1-5 (5 being a starred review) 5
Format: Hardcover
Genre: Nonfiction: Arts
 
Synopsis 
In the Black Fantastic is an illustrative and inspirational deep dive into Black fantastical media, whether tackling the portrayal of conjure and other African-based magic, imagining Afronauts in the depth of space, or evoking emotional memories of the African American past, from slavery to the present. Each chapter tackles a specific theme and openings with an article detailing past artists and current pieces as well as elaborating on historical and cultural nuances that Black fantastical media depicts. There can be many different interpretations of the artwork, and it is interesting to read about them, but also see and produce interpretations yourself. Some chapters consist of a short article and pages of images and illustrations Black fantasy, science fiction, and genre-defying artwork. This book is definitely a coffee table book, as you will not get through the entire thing easily or quickly (nor should you), and the images are so illuminating that you will want to show it off to guests in your house. In the Black Fantastic is a stunning collection of Black imagination that highlights the historical, cultural, artistic, political, and creative minds of Black artists from both past, present, and possibly future, establishing itself as a work of art that readers/artists will revisit over and over again for both inspiration, thoughtful expression, and analytical creativity, all within the context of the Black creative mind. 
 
Who Would I Recommend This To: If you liked Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty by Kahran and Regis Bethencourt, then this book read like a more expansive version of it, encompassing a wide range of artists and styles. People who like Black art and culture and coffee table books will also want to check this title out.
 
Review Date: October 7th, 2022
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Definitely not what I expected when I requested this book, but it’s quite interesting and features a lot of art and photography
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Ekow Eshun's In the Black Fantastic shares a collection of artworks that utilize mythology and speculative fiction to engage questions of race and identity. Related to, though distinct from, Afrofuturism, this framework questions binary assumptions of fact and fiction. The artists tackle the catastrophic trauma caused by the fictional advent of race on the African diaspora with new fictions of their own, fictions that offer opportunities for connection, healing, and inspiration.

The three main essays are by Ekow Eshun ("The Art of the Black Fantastic"), Kameelah L. Martin ("Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics, Conjure Feminism, and the Arts"), and Michelle D. Commander ("In Populated Air: Flying Africans, Technology & the Future.") These essays cover a wide range of media, including music, literature, film, photography, architecture, and art. They're all excellently written, Martin's essay in particular was fascinating. In between the essays are reproductions of the artworks from the exhibition, some explained, some simply labeled with artist, title, and date.

What is missing from all of these essays are confirmations of the Black Fantastic viewpoint from any of the artists represented in the book. These artists are entirely divorced from their individual backgrounds, artistic lineages and movements. I suspect that since they from very different backgrounds and periods in the 20th and 21st century, they may have differing opinions about how well the label "Black Fantastic" suits their visions. I also am left wondering how some artworks, which seem to me to be very reality-grounded and un-fantastic, are supposed to fit into this vision of the Fantastic. Since the essays only sporadically mention the artworks in the book, and many go unexplained either in the essays or in the captions for the images, it feels as if there is something missing from the overall experience. 

These are minor quibbles; the book is interesting, the writing is good, and the art is incredible. If you have a chance to see the show before it comes down in September 2022, or if you have a chance to read this book, do it.
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I received a copy of this e-book as a ARC, so not all of the pictures were legible on my screen. That said, the text around the art was well- researched and imaginative. I plan on suggesting it as part of my exploration on Black Speculative Fiction.
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A mesmerizing and captivating book exploring and highlighting art, history, folklore and tradition from across the African diaspora. This book is designed to get lost in, there is no shortage of beautiful art to observe and it certainly makes you wish you could have seen the London exhibition at the Heyward Gallery! Thanks to this book, I now have a long list of artists to look up, research, share and appreciate. This would make a wonderful coffee table book and addition to any home.
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What physical form might Black utopia take? What are the legacies of Afrofuturism? Who are the TRAUMAnauts? Are there seducing and compelling alternatives to Western visions of progress? How can fantasy, myth and fiction address racism and injustice? Or even give new perspectives on ecology and gender identity?

In the Black Fantastic is a collection of works by artists from the African diaspora whose imagination revisits dominant portrayals of the past, reclaims narratives about the future and engages with the inequities of today’s society. The fantastical element shouldn’t be confused with escapism. The strange and eccentric Black Fantastic deploys myth and spiritual practices to make emerge new visions of Black possibility. It’s about summoning different cultural traditions to confront the racialised every day and expand the visual spectrum of Black experiences. 

In the Black Fantastic is a brilliant book. Because of the colour illustrations of exciting art and because of the quality of the essays. In Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics, Feminism and the Arts, Kameelah L. Martin explores the cultural importance of Black women’s speculative interventions, transmission of Ancestral memory and knowledge. Michelle D. Commander’s essay In Populated Air: Flying Africans, Technology & the Future encapsulates the soul of the book by bringing together folklore of the African diaspora and a sharp questioning of Western modernity that suggests the need for what Amiri Baraka calls “spiritually-oriented Black technologies”.

I was also particularly moved by a text in which Ekow Eshun explains how journeys across sea and space -a familiar element of the Black speculative imaginary- not only grapple with a world that treats Black people as alien and Other but is also often used as a metaphor to help revisit the “founding trauma” or the Middle Passage.
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