By BYRON ARMSTRONG, June 2023
Benny Bing is a contemporary Nigerian-Canadian artist who explores themes of identity, gender, and Blackness through an examination of beauty, self-love, and human connection. His figurative paintings explore those themes through a vibrant color scheme and pay homage to the matriarchal family structure of his childhood memory. Although Bing has been painting large-scale portraits of the Black figure since 2015, A D E L A N I: We Own The Crown and 2018's Women of Colour collection (2018) — both responses to the lack of Black female subjects in contemporary art at the time — seemed to shift his focus to women exclusively by centering Black femininity through his unique lens of empowerment. He followed that up with one of his most popular series, BLOOM (2020), which displayed an evolution in the artist’s style through fresh renditions of inspirational Black women within his circle. Stateside, Bing’s work has been a part of notable institutional exhibits including Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms — the first internationally touring exhibition devoted to Rockwell’s iconic depictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — at the New York Historical Society (2018), The Henry Ford Museum (2018), The George Washington University Museum (2019), and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts.
Bing's latest series of work "Cradle to Hold Me" launched June 15th at the Steelcase Worklife Center, an untraditional gallery space that aligns with his work on the Board of Directors at Artscape, a not-for-profit urban development organization that makes space for artists and creativity through housing, studio space, and collaborations with local businesses. In Toronto, an old money conservative-protestant tradition continues to dictate what goes into commercial galleries and institutions. Since that’s usually based on what wealthy “old guard” collectors deem as valuable, non-profit funding in the form of donor-based arts programming, grants, or private sector branding initiatives has slowly become the lifeblood of working artists in the city. As such, it’s become incumbent on artists here to be industrious and avant-garde in the ways their work is seen and sold. And so, here we are on the 24th floor of an office tower in the heart of Toronto’s financial district; sipping gin and tonics as Bing guides a core group of collectors and supporters on a tour of the collection.
The series began during COVID, a two-year process inspired by the “COVID Baby” pregnancies in Bing’s circle of friends, which also eventually extended to him. While in the shadow of George Floyd protests and calls for racial justice, Bing was also hearing horror stories about the challenges of navigating anti-Black racism in healthcare related to Black maternal health. Thinking heavily about “legacy” at the time inspired his research into the issue, which was assisted by interviewing the subjects of his works about their experiences. Motherhood calls back to the idea of legacy, and it’s also the first place most of us learn the language of love. In keeping with that thinking, Bing sought to illuminate his subjects in a way that rejected the trauma surrounding the topic. His brilliant use of color instead leans into compassionate, glowing images of Black motherhood that upend the very stereotypes that lead to Black women being unheard or disbelieved by medical practitioners — factors that have led to Black women in North America being three times more likely to perish from pregnancy-related causes than White women. In the United States, “breeding farms” were a hallmark of the American slave trade, where even a Black woman’s womb was a vehicle for commerce outside of her control. The current wave of anti-abortion legislation taking agency over a woman’s right to reproduce is nothing new — it is the tortured wailing of a bad cover band playing an even worse original band’s old hits.
Framing the Black mother figure in each painting are Adinkra symbols, Ghanian sigils representative of traditional beliefs, knowledge, and life experience. These Black women are based on living subjects interviewed by Bing for the collection, and they have been monumentalized within circular frames surrounded by powerful West African symbology representative of living concepts like love, femininity, nurturing, and even death. In a way, he speaks to the circle of life and its beginnings with a woman. With Cradle to Hold Me, Benny Bing’s paintings illustrate how legacy involves looking back while simultaneously looking forward within a continuous circle of life. He has documented Black motherhood through a contemporary lens that draws on a spiritual connection to “the Motherland”, which brings a conversation about legacy full circle. Africa’s legacy is its people. Slavery’s legacy is anti-Black racism. The legacy of anti-Black racism within the context of Black maternal health is higher rates of death among Black women and their unborn children. Bing threads these connecting histories and themes into his work, going back to Africa itself. In doing so, he’s made room for a discussion about a more hopeful future — one that is literally being carried into existence by Black mothers — that recognizes how the threads of the past continue to affect those mothers today. WM
Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrongview all articles from this author