The American artist talks to Dazed about his captivating paintings, which feature in the Hayward Gallery’s new In the Black Fantastic exhibition
As you walk towards the Hayward Gallery, you are greeted with a black and white banner that covers the front of the Southbank Centre, stating, in big, bold letters: “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE. But what if there aren’t?” The American painter Sedrick Chisom envisions a world where Black people have up and left.
The focus of the Hayward’s current exhibition In the Black Fantastic, the tradition of Afrofuturist speculative fiction is often established as a reimagining of Black communities, that creates a connection and convergence of many ancestral pasts. Using ideas such as space travel and imagining lands as meeting points for these ideas, it reclaims ownership of Black identities, gives agency to narratives, ancestries and reasons, and calls for a visualisation of Blackness free from white supremacy. Freedom from categorisation is at the core of Afrofuturism, and this spirit is seen in In the Black Fantastic, which is curated by Ekow Eshun and features, among many other bright stars, the work of Chisom.
But rather than depicting the future world of Black people, set in intergalactic idioms or underwater mythology, in homage to Drexciya – a poignant motif in the Afrofuturist dialogue – Chisom chose to traverse an earth that Black people have purposely left behind. This world is inhabited exclusively by white people who have been overcome with a contagious disease which has divided them into opposing groups: one monstrous, one transforming, but both united in their view that they are superior. These works serve to show that humanity will always find some means of othering or asserting power. But when contexts are removed, will humanity implode ad infinitum? Is the disease a symbol of racism and hatred? How do we combat alt-right racist fantasy? I have many questions from Sedrick; and when asking them, they multiply. Such is the joyful response from viewing good art.
In this interview, I look to unpack the multilayered stories, references and intentions that lead to Chisom’s enigmatic works that resist categorisation and slip through our hands just as soon as you think you’ve grasped it. That is what keeps the magic alive.
Could you tell us about your painting process? I’d love to understand the starting point for these works.
Sedrick Chisom: The larger practice in the work is world-building and it takes the form of painting, writing and a lot of sketching. So the painting in itself starts from two places: there’s a small sketch drawing and then I apply very thin layers of paint to the surface and build it up over time. It really starts with whether there’s a particular sense of atmosphere… For example, does the surface feel as though a figure would be standing on it, or is it a body of water?
I would love to unpack your painting style, can you talk about the intent behind the colour, materiality and style of the work?
Sedrick Chisom: Painting is beautiful, and I am deliberately trying to use ideas of beauty and aesthetics. So, there’s a seductive quality to the painting that I’m trying to achieve through this intense state of layering and the generosity of the surface. I use colour, but I’m trying to push the colour and surface over the edge a bit. But there’s an abject quality to the painting. For example, there are colours that might feel like a sunset, but they are dialled up to the point of feeling a bit wrong. So I think there’s basic attention that comes out of these contradictory feelings where the worlds I am putting together are so dreamy, and they feel like longing and an enchantment. You feel like you want to enter this world that’s like escapism – but it’s also dreadful. So there’s this push and pull between the content creating an enchanted desire to go elsewhere.
Would you consider your work to be political? Can or should political art be beautiful?
Sedrick Chisom: Everything is political because everything’s material. We exist in a material world, in an ecosystem. I don’t think my work is activist in the sense that I am not trying to use my art to be an activist. But I think the ideas in the work are provocative. I think that what I’m trying to get close to is this particular cultural logic that has been embedded within mainstream culture, and within the fringes as well. What do I think the purpose of political art is? I think the best thing that art can do is evoke a mood and I think painting particularly commands a weird attention in the sense. Our attention span is thin and has acclimated to the condition of consumer capital and the news cycle. Art that documents and archives time is revelatory and offers us resources for the future.
In your work, ‘The Fugitives of The Southern Cross Gathered With the Monstrous Races Beneath a Juniper Tree along the Outer Realm of the Savage South’, we see a Blemmye with his foot resting on a human skull, clustered with a trio of men and women with one holding a Confederate flag. Can you unpack this story and the title for the work?
Sedrick Chisom: There’s this elusive quality to the painting. For example, the figure holding a Confederate flag, and the head that is being stepped on by another figure. I don’t want the painting to overdetermine the interpretation. There’s also a sardonic quality for them, it makes you question who is relaying information? What is the position of the voice of the person narrating the title? I’m relaying a history, but there’s a clear point of view or bias and that in itself becomes another content. Who even owns history?
Thinking about world-building again, how did you create this narrative of all of the people of colour leaving the earth? Can we talk about some of the literary influences, because I think of the 1978 novel The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce, and George Yancy, who discusses the idea of whiteness functioning as a parasitic condition. In ‘Removing the Mask of Whiteness’, he argues that whiteness is a site of fragility. It is also a site that has a binary structure. In other words, the logic of whiteness needs the ‘other’, the Black, the wretched, the damned. So, whiteness has a parasitic relational structure. So I wondered about the idea of a race and the apocalyptic nature of your work – these texts and philosophies seem deep-rooted in the narratives you create.
Sedrick Chisom: Oh, I haven’t read that, but I’ve been on that wavelength. I want to check that out. You know, there’s a book by Nell Irvin Painter called The History of White People, that deconstructs and discusses mythology, beauty standards, slavery in Europe, racial science, and the legal stratification of racial lines in the US. I’m interested in this and the cultural logic of the far right like The Turner Diaries, which basically wants to banish and eradicate difference. It’s really just an instruction manual for the alt-right. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a big influence as well as Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is interesting regarding these ideas of travel narrative and nurturing adventurism and imperialism. These sources that are often about apocalypse are often about revolutions, or rearranging the order of society.
How do you see your work positions within the themes of the Black Fantastic, and in relation to the other artists in the show?
Sedrick Chisom: Being among the Afrofuturist tradition, I think one of the larger aspects of the practice is mythmaking and storytelling. There’s definitely an overall philosophy visible in this exhibition. I collage cultural references across different histories and different canons of literature, with culture both high and low. I’m also really trying to advocate for the idea that artists of colour or Black artists do not necessarily need to depict Black bodies. Interestingly, I read an Apollo magazine interview with Hew Locke who features in the show, and realised he’s using the same sources as I am – we have the same collection of books. I think there is, across the diaspora, a certain wavelength that Ekow Eshun was able to capture. It’s humbling to take a step back and realise you're part of a larger thing, a larger dialogue. You're not alone in this conversation. That there are Black people across the Diaspora who have been discussing and considering these issues and to see that play out for itself and overlap in different practices has been great.
In the Black Fantastic is at the Hayward Gallery until September 18, 2022