Whitehot Magazine

Tafa: Of Echoes and Memories at Pictor Gallery

Tafa, Protest Song: Double Synthesis, oil on canvas and police shield, 38 x 96 in. Photo Courtesy: Oko Nyaku

Tafa: Of Echoes and Memories

Pictor Gallery

January 31 through February 25, 2023


The painter Tafa, is a social griot who compels us to face society and its struggles, pains, scars and celebrations. His excellent artwork depends on a double approach: the suggestion or depiction of figurative effects heightened by the inclusion of abstract effect. 

Tafa’s themes incorporate a broad range of tropes, including sports, music and marches all with sociopolitical undertones. The combination of abstract and figurative stylistic effects, along with a varied group of issues, makes Tafa an artist of note.  

Inevitably, as an artist living and painting in Harlem, and being born in Ghana with its colonial past and being the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence, observing racial prejudice in NY and living it reflects succinctly in his work.  

This now is a time of fierce politics in art, most often generated by troubling experience in light of gender, race, class.  

One example is the openly political work called “Protest March: Double Synthesis,” row upon row of faceless anonymous protesters holding signs without messages. But the significant object in this simple but affecting sculpture/painting is an actual police shield with the word “Police” emblazoned on the front. The effect of the shield is startlingly provocative, infusing as it does the tactical power of law enforcement, even in the face of thousands of dissenters. After the shock of seeing the shield, an aggressive artifact meant to contain those in opposition,  the work is a general description of anger and containment, not bound so much specificity as by the general notion of conflict, its elements of opposition and possible violence. It is hard today to make a genuinely effective political work of art without succumbing to excessive rhetoric or a too highly pitched assertion. But Tafa, shifting his focus from the general to the specific, is able to portray political struggle in symbolic terms.  

Tafa, Spirit Exaltation, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in. Photo Courtesy: Oko Nyaku

In “Spirit Exaltation” Tafa at first appears to direct himself entirely toward abstraction. The field of the canvas is entirely filled with golden, slightly orange color, painted in slight waves that just barely move beyond the flat level of the canvas. The only image breaking into this sea of lush monochromatic color is a thin brown line situated two-thirds of the way up the canvas. Then, if the viewer looks closely enough, thin streaks of white delineate a body delicately in the middle of the canvas, and the brown circle becomes a head. So the initial impression of an abstract work is graciously transformed into the suggestion of a full figure in a pose of exuberance gliding off the face of the canvas. 

In “Cellist for CPF,” Tafa engages in a luxurious mass of colorful abstraction; in theme and expression. The forms lack sharply defined boundaries. But the vivid colors, roughly joined by their ragged edges, result in a sea of emotion and humanity. Tafa clearly makes use of abstraction in this work; it is a preferred device of his. The picture is composed of a bright mass of yellow on the left and, to the right, a series of jagged blue green forms that descend the side of the painting. On the bottom left, we find a squarish expanse of grayish-white, while to the right, at the very low part of the painting, we see an ungoverned splotch of brown, shading into a dull red as the shape moves across to the right. The composition, with its emphasis on brightness is about as close to the visual representation of melodic celebration as we might find. The CPF in the title stands for Central Park Five, which lends a socially poignant twist to the piece as in most of Tafa’s paintings. 

Tafa, Balophone Song for Sankara, oil and enamel on canvas, 40 x 40 in. Photo courtesy: Oko Nyaku

In the long run, strong artists like Tafa will continue to make use of what has become a global repertoire suited not only to the cultures that originated them, but also to anyone from anywhere who has the gift of using the techniques well. Tafa belongs to a current group of artists from all over who has the gift to do so. His paintings, those discussed in this review, embrace a broad view, stylistic and thematic, as defined by a New  York City context and a sharp understanding of politics on a the broadest level. His love of painting’s ability to encapsulate form, matter, and time, both abstractly and representationally, make him a memorable and gifted painter. WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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