By PAUL LASTER, September 2020
Now's the Time: Eight African Painters, on view as part of SCOPE Immersive from September 17 to September 20, features the work of eight contemporary artists from two generations of figurative painters who were born in six different African nations and are represented by galleries in Addis Ababa, Barcelona, Cape Town, London and Nairobi.
The artists in the exhibition include Tizta Berhanu (b. 1991, Ethiopia), Henry 'Mzili' Mujunga (b. 1971, Uganda), Bob-Nosa (b. Bob-Nosa Uwagboe, 1974, Nigeria), Anjel (b. Boris Anje, 1993, Cameroon), Soly Cissé (b. 1969 Senegal), Kelechi Charles Nwaneri (b.1994, Nigeria), Moustapha Baïdi Oumarou (b. 1997, Cameroon) and Salah Elmur (b. 1966, Sudan).
Working in such figurative styles as folk, neo-expressionist, surreal, pop and Afropunk while employing an inventive variety of painting, drawing and collage techniques, these artists have recently been highlighted in solo and group exhibitions in Africa, Europe and the United States and are currently being coveted by collectors from around the world.
Passionately portraying people clustered in acts of comfort and embrace, Tizta Berhanu creates monochromatic paintings composed from expressive brush stokes, which she skillfully applies in a range of ways, while simultaneously separating sections of her multi-toned canvases into beguiling, puzzle-like presentations of color and form.
Henry ’Mzili’ Mujunga’s paints stunning, realistic portraits from a slightly surreal point of view. Bringing together people with seemingly disparate objects in a single frame, he constructs strange narratives, such as the placement of a figure in a beauty salon hair dryer that doubles as an astronaut’s space helmet, which makes it seem as though the subject is dreaming of a reality that might be better than the one he’s currently living.
Boldly capturing anxious characterizations of troubled souls in his textile-collaged, acrylic-layered canvases, which are expressively composed with washes of overlapping colors, impasto brushwork and punctuating spray-painted elements, Bob-Nosa exposes the underbelly of humanity in his deliriously delightful, provocative paintings.
Creating a visual contrast between realistically rendered black bodies (both friends and figures found on social media sites and through Internet searches) and abstract, logo-loaded, colored grounds, Anjel makes Neo-Pop Art paintings that provide spirited insights into his stylish models, while simultaneously pointing out the pervasive influence of consumer culture.
Soly Cissé strikingly blurs the boundaries between the depiction of man and beast in his energetic paintings of closely grouped figures in nightmarish gatherings in cryptic realms, where smeared colors, patterns and words intermingle with ghouls, rats, hyenas, and monkeys in a frighteningly magnificent merger of paints.
Working in an inventive style that he’s dubbed Contemporary Surrealism, Kelechi Charles Nwaneri creates beautifully bizarre portraits of strange figures that seem half-real and half-imagined, with West-African iconography marvelously mixed with scenarios straight out of the history of European modern art to create colorful, new, dreamlike narratives.
Placing stylish, urban figures in the rural realm of the jungle, Moustapha Baïdi Oumarou creates ghostlike portrayals of people passing through time, flatly rendered in silhouette on vibrantly colored grounds that are overlaid with darkened branches with leaves, which surround the silent, fashionable subjects, while abstract flowers playfully float around their bodies like joyous thought balloons.
Making mysterious portrait paintings of symbolic people based on photographs that are completely re-imagined, Saleh Elmur renders his characters not as they are in real life but in the way that he psychologically sees them—with multiple personalities, truncated bodies and shifting features, which he tenderly paints in a naïve, Folk Art style that he intriguingly transforms into something much more sophisticated and complex.
Taken as a whole, these talented painters point to why we should all be paying more attention to contemporary art that’s being made beyond the customary realms—in places where age-old traditions and Western ways can be shuffled by savvy artists who have fascinating stories to tell and are finding fresh and inviting ways to tell them. 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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