Anything is possible in science fiction. For countless writers, artists and filmmakers, the ability to create new worlds is a chance to shape a future in their own image. That’s why there's so much amazing SF that deals with topics like gender, utopias and sexuality.
Sub-genre Afrofuturism takes aim at the heart of racial injustice, and this exhibition celebrates the Black artists who wield that utopian weapon.
It starts with Nick Cave (not that one) and his wearable sculptures, first created in response to the brutal police murder of Rodney King in LA in 1992. They’re fantastical, glittery, hyper-colour costumes that allow the wearer to transform themselves, to sculpt and define their identity, obscuring their race and gender. They’re defiant, empowering and brazenly loud FU’s to the man.
Wangechi Mutu also makes art to destroy hierarchies, with watery, gloopy collages of hybrid beings that exist behind tropes and stereotypes. Then there’s Hew Locke’s Black warriors on horseback, elaborate militaristic figures that look like statues of future generals, and Tabita Rezaire’s psychedelic mirrored room with its pyramid glistening in the centre.
Best of all downstairs is young American artist Sedrick Chisom’s incredible visions of a post-apocalyptic future earth where all people of colour have left, and the skin of those who remain has started to darken. They’re funny, threatening, imposing paintings, humming with satirical tension.
Defiant, empowering and brazenly loud FU’s to the man
Things just get bigger and bolder upstairs with Chris Ofili’s enormous mythology-inspired paintings of the Odyssey transplanted to Trinidad and Ellen Gallagher’s subaquatic visions of Drexciya, the Black Atlantis. The Ofili works are not him at his best, and his sculpture of Mary and the angel Gabriel here is probably one of the dumbest, ugliest sculptures I’ve ever seen. But Gallagher’s works are awesome, her canvases thrumming with shoals of female creatures, part-fish, part-ritual masks. They wash over you, drenching you in their fictional world. A Renaissance painting of an enslaved African on the shore of a Dutch colony anchors it all back in a grim history.
Nowhere is that history clearer than in Kara Walker’s animation of white supremacist crimes in American history. With stark silhouetted puppets, she recounts acts of unspeakable violence. It’s brutal, shocking, hypnotising.
There’s plenty of art that I don’t like on display here, but the idea of using sci-fi to imagine a future beyond inequality and beyond racism is powerful, affecting and often very, very beautiful. Not because it’s so wildly fictional, but because all this fantasy is kicking against some very harsh realities.