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Painting Portraits: Two Artists at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair

 Nirit Takele, Studio Visit Adam & Eve, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 63 x 74 3/4 in, 160 x 190 cm. Courtesy Addis Fine Art, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

By PAUL LASTER, May 2019

Relocating from Pioneer Works in Brooklyn to Industria in the West Village, the fifth New York edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which runs through May 5, offers more than 70 artists from Africa and the diaspora exhibiting at 24 galleries.

Standouts at the fair this year include Derrick Adams at Galerie Anne de Villepoix, Frances Goodman at Richard Taittinger Gallery, Hassan Hallaj at Yossi Milo Gallery, Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé at Magnin-A, Adjani Okpu-Egbe at Sulger-Buel Gallery, Ernesto Shikhani at Perve Galeria and Yinka Shonibare and Elias Sime at James Cohan. However, two artists painting portraits at two galleries, which are sharing one booth, is what caught our eye and made us want to learn more about their work.

Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga, Dripping Earth, 2019. Mixed media (oil and tempera) on canvas, 162 x 132 cm. Courtesy Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya 

Ethiopian-Israeli painter Nirit Takele presents symbolic portraits that deal with the struggle of the Jewish-Ethiopian community in Israel at Ethiopia’s Addis Fine Art and Ugandan artist Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga is showing paintings of family and friends that mix reality with fantasy in dreams of space travel at Circle Art Gallery from Kenya. 

An emerging talent, Nirit Takele’s allegorical paintings show the Ethiopian spirit to be both powerful and resilient. Studio Visit Adam & Eve captures a female artist at the easel directing her models to pose nude in the studio like Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. The faceted figures are portrayed in shades of brown as the artist assumes the role of the creator. In Figure x Legs, a woman’s decoratively wrapped body dominates the square shape of the canvas, while Woman in the Red Dress shows a femme fatale beguiling the viewer as she reclines in the painting’s rectangular form.

Nirit Takele, Woman in Red Dress, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 63 x 74 3/4 in, 160 x 190 cm. Courtesy Addis Fine Art, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

A seasoned artist, Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga started out painting in a style dubbed Indigenous Expressionism, but over the past few years he’s shifted to painting more realistically. Dripping Earth depicts a woman in a hair salon transformed into an African astronaut, with the helmet of the hair dryer becoming part of her gear and the distance view of Earth making it seems like she’s already in outer space. Meanwhile, his self-portrait Afronaut seems like a scene straight out of the film Black Panther, with the artist suited up for a trip to another universe, even though a mirror reflection of him and a female friend show that their journey is more likely a fantasy born in the mediated world of their smart phones.

Two African artists at two different stages of their careers, they reveal that issues of identity are a universal subject matter for art, but the way the story is told depends on where the artist both originates and evolves. WM

Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga, Afronaut, 2019. Mixed media (oil and tempera) on canvas, 169 x 129 cm. Courtesy Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya

Nirit Takele, Couple Looking Outside, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 59 1/8 x 59 1/8 in, 150 x 150 cm. Courtesy Addis Fine Art, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga, Travelling Shoes, 2018. Mixed media (oil and tempera) on canvas, 162 x 132 cm. Courtesy Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya

 Nirit Takele, Figure x Legs, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in, 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy Addis Fine Art, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga, Antenatal Trip, 2019. Mixed media (oil and tempera) on canvas, 162 x 132 cm. Courtesy Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya 

  

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.

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