Bring In the Black Fantastic to your classroom
Curated by Ekow Eshun, In the Black Fantastic is a Hayward Gallery exhibition of 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora, who question our knowledge of the world.
In July, as part of Apple’s Festival of Learning, exhibition curator Ekow Eshun gave a special insight to In the Black Fantastic to an online audience of teachers and educators around the globe.
Eshun sat down with author and educator Jeffrey Boakye to discuss some of the themes of the exhibition; aspects which may provide jumping off points for teachers looking to bring In the Black Fantastic into the classroom.
On this page we share some key moments of their discussion that can help spark new conversations with your students. We also share some prompts for teachers drawn from teachers who attended our Teacher Twilight exploring the exhibition. Even if you can’t make it to the exhibition, you can still engage in these important conversations and concepts with your students, using In the Black Fantastic as a starting point.
Start by watching the virtual tour of the exhibition in the video below.
The racialised everyday
There's a phrase you use, ‘the racialised everyday’. And we have the fantasy of In the Black Fantastic. Looking at those two ideas, is there a tension between them, and how they sit in this exhibition?
What I mean, by ‘the racialised everyday’ is, I suppose, the predicate for this exhibition. Which is that race itself is a social construct, race itself has no basis in scientific fact, beyond the only difference between people of different colours being the colour of their skin. There’s nothing biological or genetic beneath that. Nevertheless, race remains the governing idea of our collective lives, of our society. And it comes with all sorts of hierarchies, of prejudices or presumptions, around who can speak with authority, who can hold space, who has agency or power autonomy in that society. This is the racialised everyday. We collectively – wittingly and unwittingly – conspire to imagine ourselves different, when genetically, physically we’re all similar.
The question within that is how do you, as a person of colour, navigate a space which, because of these beliefs, has demarcated you as different, and in many ways as inferior, or other, or alien?
This is how we come to my proposition: the Black Fantastic. Here artists and creative figures of all kinds, are trying to look beyond the racialised everyday and to offer, or assert, new spaces, new ways of looking and seeing and being, that give Black people space, autonomy; that honour our imaginative reach, that honour our creative potential. And at the most simple level, acknowledge us, embrace us as human, fully whole, fully worthy of sharing space within the world.
In what ways do you conform to the racialised everyday in your classrooms? How can you confront this narrative with your students?
You have these tensions within the exhibition; being visible, being invisible; being in pain, being powerful. Is there something about the Black lived experience, if we talk about Blackness as one thing, that actually fosters more ways of seeing, more ways of being, more creativity?
In the early 20th century the great African American sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term ‘double consciousness’. This meant, to see the world twice over as a Black person. Once through your own eyes, once also through a society that looked at you, as he put it, with hatred and contempt. So as well as seeing the world through your own eyes, you also see it through white eyes, through mainstream society. For Du Bois this was a heritage of burden, of pain really.
I think double consciousness, this dual gaze, is really fundamental to Black experience. The way a number of artists in this show articulate that, is as a heritage of possibility. There's a super-power, in being able to see the world with nuance, with complexity, with duality. To see the world twice over, to see the world as a layered proposition. However difficult that is, it gives you a power to be able to navigate and negotiate space, and then make work through it that speaks of Blackness. Not just as it's categorised or caricatured, or characterised in the mainstream, but to take this history of pain and prejudice that we are all inheritors of, and use that as some of the soil upon which to grow beautiful flowers.
The merging of past and future
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Is this something that you feel educators should latch on to, the emotional truth of a particular context?
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.
How can we reimagine our history, the one learned in school, to include new possibilities and perspectives?
‘The past isn't done. It’s never done, there's always room for more.’
Collage and collapsing of time
Within the exhibition, I see a lot of collage. And when I think about what you’ve just said, and what this means in terms of shaping a curriculum there's a lot to be said for mining existing context, mining existing myths and folklore and legend, and in doing imaginative work of making something new.
Yes. How do we gather these histories? How do we gather these stories? One of the ways we do that is not through a linear presentation, but through a collapsing of time. Through a layering, through a collaging, that brings together fact, and memory, and sense impression, and colour, and beauty, and pain, and horror. And brings those together in these forms, in collage work.
So with Wangechi Mutu, she works in film, she works in 2D collages, and the collages sometimes reference African myth, but also when you look closely at them, the reference points for them come from all sorts of disparate sources. Because what she's trying to do the whole time is offer a story that comes out of this collapsing and holding together of different impressions, and references, and archive, and memories.
Using the concept of collage, how can you encourage your students to draw on different ideas, sources and histories to build a more complete picture of key learning topics? How does this enrich the subject area?
For a lot of teachers, the curriculum presents itself as being very fixed and being very true and unshakable, and what you're showing in this curation of art, is that it can be shaken. It can be interrogated. It can be pieced together in new and exciting ways. Is this a utopian push? Are you pushing towards a vision for a better future here?
Some of the artists definitely have a tendency towards the utopian. We can look at the work of Cauleen Smith, and her installation is definitely about conjuring a space with all these different visual references, and these objects. Her tendency is definitely towards thinking about the utopian space. But from other artists there’s a darker proposition in play, a proposition where pain is more explicitly the case. Such as Kara Walker who has created a film that uses shadow puppets; an apparently naive form, but she's using it to talk about racial violence, of lynchings. It's very difficult, sometimes troubled territory.
Yet all of these are about inviting us not to think about Blackness as a singular narrative. But to look at what's going on in a particular image and think where might this take us to in terms of a further conversation? There isn’t a finished form to the interpretation which you can bring to these works. There isn't a single way of reading Cauleen Smith’s work. So I hope what they offer is a way to expand conversation to lead into further roots of inquiry, further scholarship even, or just further creative inspiration.
Questions & Answers
Following on from this conversation, Eshun and Boakye fielded questions from the online audience of Apple Educators.
Can you give us some insights into the curatorial process? How did you get up to 11 artists to take part, and do you think teachers and students can curate for impacts in the same way?
There's actually no mystery to curating. Essentially, I'm exploring an idea; I'm exploring an idea of what we do with propositions of race. What we do with fantasy and the fantastic as its own that can look seriously at those propositions. This is a conversation that can take place in a number of different forms or mediums.
What would this show look like if it wasn’t in the Hayward Gallery? Could you do a show like this in a classroom? I would say yes, because you're not reliant on the art works. Even before this was an exhibition, my initial process when this was a project was to look around me at what’s happening in culture. I referenced Beyonce’s Lemonade earlier, but equally Black Panther; when Black Panther comes out that's a big moment in the culture.
We can also look at different books. There's a series by an African American science fiction writer called N.K. Jemisin, called The Broken Earth, which are fantastic, extraordinary, rich works. All of these areas – film music, literature – are a basis for exploration of a territory. You don't actually need the white walls of a gallery. You just need to say let's devote some physical or mental space to thinking aloud about what these people are exploring. What happens when we start to draw links between those? Where does that take us? Where does that take us, imaginatively or creatively?
The different perspectives and narratives we tell our students are embedded in our curriculum, so showing students how it's all a construct, is an important part of anti-racist teaching. However, teachers presenting these different perspectives are often seen to be ‘going rogue’. So, how can we push this more into the mainstream, or into expected behaviour of teachers?
In many ways this exhibition is counter-mainstream. It's showing things that haven't been shown before and that in itself is disruptive. I love the idea of being true to the emotion and I think a key thing we can learn from the exhibition is the freedom given to mine history, to mine heritages, to bring forward a collage of things that you think are important. The artists have done this; they’ve brought elements they think are important and have combined them in imaginative and creative ways to create powerful art. Even if you take a subject like science that seems to be very much like, ‘this is the way it is’, there are still narratives in science that can be lifted and mined. There are stories, there are moments, and people. So perhaps we present this as a spirit of exploration.
I think that's true. I tend not to think about this as anti-racist, in terms of being a repost or a reply to the mainstream, to mainstream thinking, or academia. I think about it more as being deeply in the context within which we look at work. So if we're looking seriously at any given thing we can expand the context within which we discuss that. If we introduce race into discussions around obvious archetypal terms in Othello for example, we’re allowed to go quite broad, we're allowed to go quite deep. And it turns out from there you can jump to, let’s say, the work of Cauleen Smith.
It’s not about undermining a text. It's thinking about the hierarchy of resonances or influences that we bring to the reading of that text. In the same way, talking about the Black Fantastic as a way of seeing, it's not about an order, it's not about a genre, it's not about a movement. It's more about saying what happens if we look through the eyes of different creative figures whose work as perceptive artists allows us to see with another layer, or with another layer of nuance, into how they see.
Did you find it easier to get more artists involved once you had the first few, and how might you suggest we can integrate these artists in the classroom to represent inclusion and diversity in our schools?
Most of the artists I approached were pretty enthusiastic because though they're successful artists, this was an interesting context to be shown in for them, one that they hadn't been seen in before. Some of the artists are reasonably young and at an early stage in their careers. A number of them have established practices that go back decades. But there's more yet to be gained from inquiry into their work and as soon as you start looking at one work, or one set of work, or one artist, that always leads you somewhere else. So all of this is a conversation, it's an introduction, it's certainly not an end point. It's just about saying, look, here are worlds, here are universes, here is possibility and that continues to unfold beyond this exhibition.
We hope this exhibition can prove a useful jumping off point for all educators to ignite conversations and creativity in your classrooms, and offer a means for you to explore new perspectives with your students.
Header image credit: Installation view of Nick Cave works within In the Black Fantastic at Hayward Gallery, 2022. Copyright the artist. Photo: Zeinab Batchelor, Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery.