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.
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.
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
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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