The American artist talks to Dazed about his captivating paintings, which feature in Hayward Gallery’s new In the Black Fantastic exhibition
As you walk towards the Hayward Gallery, you are greeted by a black and white banner that covers the front of the Southbank Centre, stating, in large bold print: “THERE ARE BLACKS IN THE FUTURE. What if there were none? American painter Sedrick Chisom envisions a world where black people have risen and gone.
The object of the Hayward’s current exhibition In the dark fantasy, the tradition of Afro-Futurist speculative fiction is often established as a reimagining of black communities, which 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 stories, ancestry and reasons, and calls for visualization from the free blackness of white supremacy. Freedom of categorization is at the heart of Afrofuturism, and this spirit is seen in In the dark fantasywhich is hosted by Ekow Eshun and features, among many other shining stars, the work of Chisom.
But rather than portray the future world of black people, set in intergalactic idioms or undersea mythology, in homage to Drexciya – a poignant motif of Afro-futurist dialogue – Chisom chose to walk through a land that black people have deliberately left behind. behind them. This world is inhabited exclusively by white people defeated by a contagious disease that has divided them into opposing groups: one monstrous, the other transforming, but both united in the idea that they are superior. These works serve to show that humanity will always find a way to alter or assert its power. But when contexts are removed, will humanity implode ad infinitum? Is the disease a symbol of racism and hatred? How to fight against the racist fantasies of the alternative right? I have many questions from Sedrick; and when asked, they multiply. This is the joyful response to seeing good art.
In this interview, I seek to unpack the multi-layered stories, references, and intentions that lead to Chisom’s enigmatic works that resist categorization and slip through our hands the moment you think you’ve grasped it. It’s what keeps the magic alive.
Could you tell us about your painting process? I would like to understand the starting point of this work.
Sedrick Chisom: The great work practice is world building and takes the form of painting, writing and lots of sketching. So the painting itself starts from two places: there is a small sketch, then I apply very thin layers of paint to the surface and build them up over time. It really starts with the question of whether there is a particular sense of atmosphere… For example, does the surface make it look like a character is standing on it, or is it a blueprint? ‘water ?
I would like to unpack your style of painting, can you talk about the intention behind the color, materiality and style of the work?
Sedrick Chisom: The painting is beautiful, and I deliberately try to use ideas of beauty and aesthetics. So there is an alluring quality in the painting that I try to achieve through this intense state of layering and the generosity of the surface. I use color, but I try to push the color and the surface a bit overboard. But there is an abject quality in the painting. For example, there are colors that may look like a sunset, but are dialed in to the point of feeling a little off. So I think there’s a fundamental care that comes out of these conflicting feelings where the worlds I create are so dreamy, and they feel like longing and enchantment. You long to enter this world that feels like escapism – but it’s also awful. So there is this push and pull between the content creating an enchanted desire to go somewhere else.
Do you consider your work to be political? Can or should political art be beautiful?
Sedrick Chisom: Everything is political because everything is material. We exist in a material world, in an ecosystem. I don’t think my work is activist in the sense that I’m not trying to use my art to be an activist. But I think the ideas in the work are provocative. I think what I’m trying to get closer to is this particular cultural logic that is rooted in the dominant culture, but also in the margins. In my opinion, what is the purpose of political art? I think the best thing art can do is evoke a mood, and I think painting is particularly attention-grabbing in that sense. Our attention span is thin and has become acclimated to the state of consumer capital and the news cycle. The art that documents and archives time is revealing and offers us resources for the future.
In your work, “The Fugitives of the Southern Cross Gathered with the Monstrous Race Beneath a Juniper Along the Outer Realm of the Savage South,” we see a Blemmaye with his foot resting on a human skull, grouped with a trio of men and women including one holding a Confederate flag. Can you unpack this story and the title of the work?
Sedrick Chisom: There is this elusive quality in painting. For example, the character holding a Confederate flag and the head that another character is stepping on. I don’t want the painting to overdetermine the interpretation. There’s also a subsonic quality to them, that makes you wonder who’s relaying the information? What is the voice position of the person narrating the title? I’m relaying a story, but there’s a clear point of view or bias and that in itself becomes another content. Who even owns the story?
Thinking back to the construction of the world, how did you create this narrative of all people of color leaving the earth? Can we talk about some of the literary influences, because I think of things like Turner’s Diaries and George Yancey, who discusses the idea of whiteness functioning as a parasitic condition. IIn “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 miserable, the damned. Thus, 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 these philosophies seem deeply rooted in the stories you create.
Sedrick Chisom: Oh, I didn’t read that, but II was on this wavelength. I want to check this. You know, there’s a book by Nelson Kenker called white history, which deconstructs and discusses mythology, standards of duty, slavery in Europe, racial science, and the illegal stratification of racial lines in the United States. I’m interested and the cultural logic of the extreme right like Turner’s Diaries, which basically wants to banish and eradicate difference. It’s really just an instruction manual for the alt-right. by Octavia Butler parable of the sower is a big influence as well as heart of darkness. by Coppola Revelation now is interesting when it comes to these travelogue ideas and nurturing adventurism and imperialism. These sources which often speak of apocalypse often speak of revolutions or reorganization of the order of society.
How do you see your working positions within the themes of Black Fantastic, and in relation to the other artists in the series?
Sedrick Chisom: Being part of the Afrofuturist tradition, I think one of the most important aspects of the practice is myth-making and storytelling. There is indeed an overall philosophy visible in this exhibition. I paste cultural references across different histories and different canons of literature, with both high and low culture. I’m also really trying to champion the idea that artists of color or black artists don’t necessarily need to portray black bodies. Interestingly, I read a Apollo magazine interview with Hew Locke who is on the show, and I realized he was using the same sources as me – we have the same collection of books. I think that there is, through the diaspora, a certain wavelength that Ekow Eshun was able to capture. It’s humbling to step back and realize you’re part of a bigger thing, a bigger dialogue. You are not alone in this conversation. The fact that there are black people across the Diaspora who have discussed and looked at these issues and to see this playing out and overlapping in different practices has been great.
In the Black Fantastic is at the Hayward Gallery until September 18, 2022