‘Our future together is golden,’ were the aspiring last words of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston’s resignation speech. The sentiments of Johnston’s utterance were strangely echoed in the ambition of Ekow Eshun’s exhibition, ‘In the Black Fantastic’ at London’s Hayward Gallery. It opened in the days leading up to Johnson’s resignation; an exhibition saturated with dreams of ‘levelling up’, of transformative spaces where alternative, less unjust, decolonial futures were envisioned. Like Johnston’s vision for Brexit, the propositions of 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora signalled leaving Africa behind. Like the promises that spilt from Johnson’s lips, they were impractical whimsies. And like Johnson’s dark vision, they were articulated with joyous spectacle, from first to last. But, they were art and so, presumably, not expected, as Johnson’s promises were, to be believed.
The Black Fantastic was billed as emerging from what it was not, Afrofuturism, a term coined considerably after its heyday, a cross-cultural psychedelic steampunk, identifiable in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, homeland to Marvel Comic superhero Black Panther (Stan Lee 1966), and in music, in a conduit from visionary jazz bandleader Sun Ra to George Clinton’s P-Funk collective. A fusion sound that prevailed in the US in the 1970s. The exhibition derived its title from a more defined tendency expounded in Richard Iton’s 2010 book,’ In Search of The Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in The Post–Civil Rights Era’, concerning the peril of marginalised people of African descent, using culture to challenge power narratives but often being drawn into and becoming complicit in presiding race myths. Iton notes that the political disenfranchisement of people of colour goes hand in hand with over-employment in popular culture. Popular culture then is deployed to evidence opportunity, as in another political speech, Barack Obama’s inauguration, when the president-elect paraphrased a Sam Cooke Lyric ‘It’s been a long, a long time coming,’ flipping the second part of the couplet to be, ‘change has come to America.’ Obama’s adaptation destabilised the temporal syntax of the original, suggesting that America was essentially now transformed. The exhibition’s Black Fantastic was, like Obama’s confident pronouncement, not a thing happening or even a thing that happened, finally becoming tangible, but the longstanding bifurcation of factions in a diasporic populous experiencing equality.
Black Fantastic was then a strange choice for the exhibition’s title, so close to a text that critiques the displacement of social progress into its cultural simulacra. According to Iton, the ‘science of beauty that forecloses substantive political engagement (…) a key brick in the wall of modernity and one of the cornerstones of the racialised edifice that has so effectively contained and restricted black life chances.’
The exhibition wilfully overlooked modern colonial asymmetry with its differential access to empowered citizenship. The show’s programme instead speculates to affirm a move from a pan-African mentality to one that is pan-diasporic. In this way, the featured artists were enlisted to celebrate the physical fissure from what Donald Trump would no doubt have typed the ‘shit-hole’ continent. And turn the unspeakable conditions of the ‘middle passage’ into something intangible, a one-way highway to new and glamorised life. For example, shimmering are Ellen Gallagher’s painted references to the abhorrent practice of dumping enslaved human cargo overboard in the Atlantic. On these fabulous canvases, the imagination of horrific cruelty is limpid grey-green.
The only representation of the racial violence that welcomed enforced immigrants and their descendants was Kara Walker’s charming stop-motion shadow puppet show ‘Prince McVeigh and the Turner Blasphemies’ (2021), bringing an uneasy beauty to the most gruesome racist events. Quaint sanitisation makes James Byrd Jr’s murder on June 7, 1998, when he was dragged behind a pickup truck, seem like the work of errant children (see my essay The Pink of Blood for more on this approach to memory in relation to the work of Philip Guston). Art provides a different order of critique to that of Marcus Garvey when by quoting the popular song lyric to ‘West Indies Blues’ (Edgar Dowell, Clarence & Spencer Williams 1923) in his Liberty Hall speech of 1924, he used this gentle referent to disavow the US as a ‘home’ of any sort for people of African descent. By contrast, the exhibition artworks could not be more at home than they were in The Heyward’s beautiful spaces, where they are awarded the liberty of reconfiguring the past to suit the institution. They were dreams conceived so you could do with them what you will.
The world in the movie ‘The Railway Children Return’ (Morgan Matthews 2022) is similarly a place that can be bent by the protagonist’s determination. Released soon after the Heyward exhibition opened, the movie connects with the same zeitgeist. The audience experiences a more equal future reflected in a distorted past. Enslavement, racial prejudice, violence, and segregation are anomalies, involving only a handful of misguided fellows and balanced by positive interactions. Audiences need a basic knowledge of history to approach the exhibition and the movie and understand what these cultural outputs could be telling them. The movie has a bright sheen shared with the exhibition’s Afrofuturism, at times wistful, nostalgic and fantastical, operating across bewildering temporal and spatial multiplicities. For the movie, these are amplified in this relationship to its predecessor, ‘The Railway Children’ (Lionel Jeffries 1970).
The new movie repeats the earlier film’s narrative, transporting three town children, siblings, to live in the countryside, close to a railway line. The railway motif is a metaphor for both separation and progress. Between a remake and a sequel, ‘The Railway Children Return’ plays with time on several levels, compressing the actual gap between the original, released in 1970 and set in 1905, and the Return, set in 1943, into a truncated period. The effect of temporal distortion is amplified by importing Jenny Agutter to replay herself as the character Roberta, unnaturally aged. Unlike its predecessor’s clear-cut moral stance, in the Children’s new world, petty theft, aggression, underage drinking, abuse of regulations, and retaliation are normalised. Body types are stereotyped and open to ridicule. The oldest of the children, Lilly (Beau Gadsdon), is a Boris Johnson-like leader, brazen and guiltless, above the law. In the Children’s world, rules, and those who enforce them, are either corrupt or wishy-washy, to be flouted, abused, and disregarded.
Disregard extends beyond the movie’s obfuscated temporal collapsing to encompass history more generally. The film references but does not acknowledge, The Battle of Bamber Bridge. In this incident, enforcement was not a childish game. The Battle escalated from racial tension in a Lancashire pub to a stand-off between African American soldiers and US Military Police. A soldier, William Crossland, was shot dead, and seven other African American soldiers and two MP were seriously wounded. Later, 32 soldiers were convicted of mutiny, although the convictions were subsequently commuted or overturned. The movie only hints at this conflict and its tensions when the Children witness a soldier singled out by MPs in a George Floyd-like incident. Later a senior military commander of colour intervenes in the story. In reality, at the time, such high-ranking people were only white. Black personnel coming to the UK were primarily consigned to menial service and supply roles. The way the racist narrative is presented espouses the past’s power disparities as quaint and hapless, easily subverted by mischief, flitching, and lies. According to the movie’s implied perspective on the future, the viewer’s present, such attitudes would be extinct. Persecution, in the form of approbation against African American soldiers socially mixing with local women, is fleetingly shown. The relaxed mood of such glimpsed encounters implies that participants in such configurations regarded military deployment as an opportunity for pleasure. In this way, the African Americans are simultaneously presented as emasculated, too vain, too debauched, and, so, too weak for front-line duties, and, because the encounters must be subdued by the MPs, as threatening.
Threat is iterated in Railway Children Return’s main action concerning an underage African American deserter, Abe (KJ Aikens). The Children find him hiding with a leg wound. At first, he professes to be a mature agent on a covert subversive mission. Ultimately, he confesses to his boyhood and his fugitive status. Like the Children, Abe is homesick. He has been oppressed and subjected to the seemingly random abuse of his army superiors. These are seen in a flash of supervised labour accompanied by derogatory language. Abe too embodies the dual character of menace and weakness, transforming from soldier to refugee in need of protection and from untrustworthy enemy to one who acknowledges vulnerability and naivety. In this way, Abe presents as a microcosm of the narrative of the transatlantic crossing in the Black Fantastic, integration and integrity alongside buried trauma.
Racist hostility in the movie is presented as an appendage imported alongside Abe and his compatriots. Not until he is transformed, becoming safe and disconnected from the other African American military personnel, does he becomes a boy, not ‘boy’. Abe supports multiple racial ambiguities, victimhood, subject to skin colour prejudice, violence, and oppression, ethnic migrant status, and failed integration. Abe can never be invisible — not least in the exclusively white rural North of the period. Like the self, described by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin White Mask, Abe ‘came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning (…) to attain to the source of the world’ but finds he is an ‘object in the midst of other objects.’
Abe becomes an object for arrangements made on his behalf. He is finally shipped back home, answering the eternal question that follows accent and skin colour, ‘where you from?’ The “Railway Children” of the movie title designates the three evacuees and Abe as a proxy found on the railway line. The title’s “Return” is crucial, highlighting the crisis of origins. Before Abe can return, he is infantilised, stripped of agency, ensuring that there is no complexity in his backward journey to his mother. The movie enacts what the exhibition problematises. What community can the black subject aspire to integrate with when heritage is fissured and history selective? The Black fantastic proclaims the Pan-Africa, Nation of Islam, or Rastafarian Zion definitions of home as flawed. Afrofuturism opposes the latter’s affiliation with reggae and, by extension, Jamaica’s guarded homophobia and all unified identities in favour of differentiated communities in evolution. Such communities embrace the inclusivity of disco-funk with its elite protected spaces. These cultural moments distinguish sharply between the conception of African bloodlines and the celebration of rupture.
Motivation for the Black Fantstic’s programme can be found in an earlier text by curator Eshun, where he traces his family history back to the Ashanti region of Ghana. There he finds a truth, ‘less straightforward than a fixed, rooted return.’ He notes that certain myths of white racial superiority were fermented in Africa in connection with an ingrained trade in enslaved people, preceding and superseding the British regime of exploiting the indigenous trade and exporting already enslaved people. Eshun’s ancestors were active traders, inconvenient ties Eshun might wish to unbind. Lilly discovers the truth of Abe’s predicament and the lies he has told to cover it up in a decisive scene. Betraying the trust of her host family, she steals supplies and provisions and climbs out the window to deliver them to Abe. She still believes he is a spy on a covert mission. The mission turns out to be to return home. The first generation taken away knows where they are from. If children don’t know where they are going, they will end up, like Abe, back at their point of departure.
In the Black Fantastic was at London, Heyward Gallery 29 June to 18 September 2022.
The Railway Children Return was released in the UK in July and in the US and Australia in September 2022.