Installation view: Utopian Imagination, in the Ford Foundation Gallery (photo by Sebastian Bach)

It is fitting that the initial trio of exhibitions that inaugurated the Ford Foundation’s gallery end where it began: on the theme of Utopian Imagination. The previous shows, first Perilous Bodies, and then Radical Love in turn, set the table by instilling a sense of crisis for the varied calamities that threaten human life and agency, and then suggesting that an untrammeled, overweeningly lush care for the self and the other might save us. Utopian Imagination picks up where they left off, still very much using curator Jaishri Abichandani’s considered strategy of weaving a conceptual skein out of the work of artists of color (with an emphasis on women artists) across a range of ethnicities, nationalities, gender expressions, and physical abilities. I’ve made the point before that the trilogy has included artists whose work doesn’t aesthetically or intellectually keep pace with other artists in the show, but in this instance there is a vision so encompassing that this exhibition feels the most holistically realized.

Zak Ové “Nubian Return” (2011) Mixed media including 70s Rootstein mannequin, aircraft fuselage, telephone box shelter, metal signage, 98 ½ x 59 x 15 ¾ inches (courtesy of Zak Ové Studio and Vigo Gallery, London)

Most of the pieces here show bodies, human bodies, in some state of flux, or movement away from this world, into what a physicist might term an entirely different inertial frame of reference — a place where different rules apply.

In Yinka Shonibare’s piece “Cloud 9” (1999–2000) we see an arrival: there’s an astronaut on what one might suppose to be the moon, but he’s dressed in Dutch wax fabrics decorating his space suit, as if African people had launched him into the vast beyond. Zak Ové’s “Sky Lark” (2017) depicts what that trip out to the stars might look like in the test phase, where a dark-skinned figure with a face like a tribal mask extends his arms like a bird outside the cockpit of an air ship topped with horns. Ové’s “Nubian Return” (2011) extends this narrative, showing what those who have found a place of expansive agency — in which they have more fully realized their capacity for beauty — might look like if they returned to this sodden earth. The vehicle consists of riveted metal and metal adornments with a body serenely at peace in its center — technology buttressing the human, not overwhelming it.

Installation view (detail), Firelei Báez, “Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities)” (2019), mirrored walls, two paintings in oil and acrylic on panel, each: 114 x 78 x 1 1/2 inches (courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York, photo by Christopher Burke Studios)

In the rest of the show the body is transformed. Firelei Báez does the best work of hers that I’ve seen yet in “Adjusting the Moon (The right to non-imperative clarities)” (2019) a mirrored duo of raucously colored figures who have burst their skins and have become creatures of pure efflorescence. Mikael Owunna’s photographs (such as “Infinite Essence: James” [2018]) take the human body back to its origins, literalizing it as star stuff, with the glowing fluorescence of galaxies shining all over the skin of his figures. Cannupa Hanska Luger gives us an earth that looks denuded of other life, except for two agents, spirits, avatars who are magpie colored, walk on two legs, and may be reclaiming the land that was lost to greed and dehumanizing colonizing practices. Finally, Saks Afridi has some pristinely lovely photographs and a hovering minaret that anchor an elaborate story (told through different media platforms) of how alien creatures in wondrous vehicles came to the planet with good in one hand and evil in the other.

Mikael Owunna, “James” (2018) Infinite Essence series, Aluminum metal print40 x 40 x 2 inches (courtesy of the artist)

Cannupa Hanska Luger, “The One Who Checks & The One Who Balances. Navajo Nation” (2018) (photo: Chip Thomas for Return of the Warrior Twins mural-Ginger Dunni) part of “Future Ancestral Technologies: araxooxí,” installation (2018-19) video, ceramic, steel, wool, felt, fiber, found objects

The whole exhibition imagines that our best selves have yet to be. They are on the horizon and the people who have been most oppressed, most ignored, most belittled and rejected will lead us all there. And this is a very human story at its essence: it’s those who are hungriest to find freedom who gain escape velocity.

Saks Afridi, “Sighting #3” (2019) Vibrachrome print on aluminum 48 x 36 inches Private Collection (photo courtesy of the artist)

Utopian Imagination continues at the Ford Foundation Gallery (320 East 43rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through December 7. The exhibition was curated by Jaishri Abichandani.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...