TIE Podcast Preview: Ekow Eshun on Afrofuturism, Black Speculative Thought, and In the Black Fantastic

Black woman wearing a VR headset, representative of the Black fantastic

In honor of Black History Month, the latest episode of the TIE Podcast brings Alexia Hudson-Ward into conversation with Ekow Eshun, author of In the Black Fantastic (2022), for an enlightening discussion of the concept of the Black fantastic as a new way of understanding and reframing the Black experience.

Listen to the full conversation below:

TIE Podcast · Ekow Eshun on Afrofuturism, Black Speculative Thought, and In the Black Fantastic

Described by The Guardian as a “cultural polymath,” Ekow Eshun is a writer and curator who currently serves as chairman of the commissioning group for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, the foremost public art project in the UK, and was formerly director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. He has authored the award-winning books Black Gold of the Sun (2005) and Africa State of Mind (2020), the BBC documentary Dark Matter: A History of the Afrofuture (in addition to serving as presenter), chapters on artists including Kehinde Wiley and Wangechi Mutu, and essays for The New York TimesFinancial TimesThe Guardian, and The Observer. He is a member of the advisory board of Liquid Blackness: Journal of Aesthetics and Black Studies and holds an honorary doctorate from London Metropolitan University.

Ekow’s most recent book, which serves as a companion piece to the 2022 art exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, weaves together fables, myths, music, film, science fiction, and speculative fiction from across the African diaspora and spanning multiple creative disciplines to explore Black culture and lived experiences through varied knowledge systems, demonstrating the freedom inherent to Black speculative thought and how it can inform everyday realities. Using the myth of the Flying Africans as a lens to examine how real stories can be mythologized and take on greater meaning as they are reconstituted through new imaginaries, Ekow astutely pinpoints humanity’s existing mythical reality, one structured by the myth of race as a biological construct (which it is not). The Black fantastic challenges this foundational myth, offering subversive and alternative possibilities of being—alterities, he argues, that act as a form of resistance. Ekow touches on a multitude of contemporary cultural productions, including Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon (1977), Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade (2016), and the film Black Panther (2018), directed by Ryan Coogler, to highlight the Black fantastic’s power to undercut reductive racialized binaries, which have long restricted Black flourishing. Amid ongoing threats to DEI efforts, Ekow underscores the power of inclusivity, as exemplified by the Black fantastic, and how it offers hope for the future.

We hope you’ll enjoy this lively conversation.

Here is a quick peek inside the episode:

On what the “Black fantastic” entails:

“I think about the Black fantastic as a way of seeing … There is something that is taking place across a number of creative disciplines … We see some Black practitioners reaching beyond the everyday, reaching beyond the quotidian, reaching beyond the parameters of what we’ve been told is the reality of our existence and thinking speculatively, thinking into possibility, thinking into interiority, and into dreaming, thinking about the fantastic. The fantastic here, when I use that term, is to do with I suppose thinking within realms of fantasy, science fictional, speculative, mythological, metaphoric, and using those modes of thinking, imagining, and dreaming to then consider and speculate on what our lived realities as Black people is, and how we might reframe our seeing and understanding of what that means. By drawing on myth, by drawing on the speculative, by drawing on the science fictional, we offer another framework to understand the racialized everyday, and to put into context sometimes the strangeness, sometimes the absurdity, sometimes the fraughtness of what it is to walk through the world as a Black person.”

On how Black artists have transcended Westernized notions of “progress”:

“I think part of the goal for me is, how do you break down the paradigms? How do you break down the binaries that position Black and white, sophisticated versus savage, civilization versus barbarism, progress versus un-progress. The reason I mention this is because historically, those kinds of binaries have also been used as a means to confine Black flourishing, Black dreaming, Black progress. We can go all the way back to the Enlightenment. … European Enlightenment forms the basis really for modern Western thought—notions of tolerance, democracy, openness, liberalism, that modern Western nations are built upon. And yet, simultaneous to the development of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and then into the nineteenth century, we also have the evolution of scientific racism. We also have the evolution of a whole set of ideas that insist that people of color, people of African origin, are innately underdeveloped, are innately under human, uncivilized in comparison to the forces of Enlightenment values … So … for me the sort of reclaiming of what we might call supernatural or speculative, even, is about saying … that there’s more than one way to read how to look at the world. … This is really more about saying, when we actually look at the ways of seeing that, let’s say, different African peoples have historically developed and cultivated, we don’t see underdevelopment. We see simply another framework for holding space, holding time, holding relations across people, another framework, another way of gathering and holding knowledge.”

Watch the video interview here:

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.