Whitehot Magazine

The New Black Portraiture

Atanda Adebayo, Heads up High, 2021, Charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 90 cm.

Everything is beautiful and nothing hurt

Keyes Art Mile

Through November 14, 2021

By PETRA MASON and JAMES SEY November, 2021

Portraiture has been a staple genre of painting for hundreds of years. Representations of the self have been, from the beginning, beset by ideology and power struggles. In the Italian Renaissance, for example, portraying a rich patron in a flattering light, emphasising their heroic or saintly qualities, was a form of painterly fiction that was a necessary expedient for the survival of the patronised artist doing the portrait. 

Similarly, and closer to home, portraits of dignified colonial officials or idealised African military leaders perform much the same function, offering an often faithfully representational but entirely unrealistic view of their subjects and emphasising an unspoken network of power relations behind the portrait. 

Such painterly portrayals are rarely representationally ‘true’. They are driven by a specific set of interests, a particular understanding of the subject/s and their circumstances, a set of artistic choices about colour, light and composition which frame the subject in a way which serves those interests. I would argue that the same is true of photographic portraits, in particular their contemporary descendant, the Instagram selfie, which notoriously manipulates all of these elements to serve up its subject’s ‘best life’. 

The recent highly successful ArtJoburg Open City weekend featured only two curated group exhibitions at different city venues for this unique format. One was an innovative and fresh group photographic show, not coincidentally also focused on portraiture. But perhaps the true standout exhibition of the entire event was Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt, the first meaningful South African-staged group exhibition of pan-African black portrait painting. 

Despite its antiquity, the genre is proving incredibly popular among younger artists across the African continent. This surge of interest is for a medium that enables artists to reimagine and re-present black experience in a way that affords agency and power to the creators and their subjects, drawn often from their own everyday lives. 

As the independent curators of this fascinating show, Anelisa Mangcu and Jana Terblanche, point out, African portraiture has veered between dystopian and utopian visions, often tapping in to an Afrofuturist fantasy vision of subjects standing somewhat outside a social reality often less desirable than its imagined versions.

The recent turn to depicting everyday identities is a refreshing and important art historical turn therefore, one which the curators represent skillfully and subtly across a range of African artists, countries and portraiture approaches.  the title of the show tips a hat to the Afrofuturist influence on much African portraiture, using an ambiguous quote from Sci-Fi writer Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel Slaughterhouse Five. Throughout the curatorial intention is to represent black experience fully, aiming to “accentuate the complexity and duality of black identity in modern culture; at once a site for trauma and unfettered joy. The agency of the African story is returned to African makers. This exhibition celebrates the cultural differences of a multifaceted continent, but also looks for moments of camaraderie and connection,” as the curators put it.  

Craig Cameron-Mackintosh, Kitso, 2021, Oil on Italian Cotton, 50 x 40 cm.

The exhibiting artists are drawn from all over sub-Saharan Africa, including DRC, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, as well as a good range of emerging and more established South African artists who are working in the same idiom. Mongezi Gum’s depiction of celebratory township life, with an homage to the master of the field George Pemba, sits alongside a subtle chiaroscuro portrait by Craig Cameron-Mackintosh. A joyfully colourful and dapper subject is painted in a field of flowers by Nigeria’s Atanda Quadri Adebayo, while the DRC’s Zemba Luzamba’s paints an ironic portrait of two grimly suited businessmen or politicians arm-wrestling across a table. While much of the marvellously diverse work on show depicts domestic and lived realties, a more abstract and challenging view of the genre of portraiture itself is intriguingly presented by South Africa’s Lulama Wolf.  

Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts is still on show at Keyes Art Mile until 14 November.  For sales & enquiries, email everythingexhibition@gmail.com. WM


Petra Mason

Cultural historian and vintage photography book author published by Rizzoli New York. Founder Obscure Studio and ArtHit. Whitehot arts and culture contributor since 2016.

Photography by (c) Thekiso Mokhele / Obscure Studio


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