A weightless body emerges from a sky saturated in pale colours, with a white sun and dozens of bodies floating in strange positions: the work, by Ivorian artist Pascal Konan, was presented by 193 Gallery entitled Seul face au monde (Alone Against the World).
Konan’s work and others were displayed at Somerset House in London, where the 11th edition of the Contemporary African art fair 1-54 (62 exhibitors, 170 artists) created by Moroccan artist Touria El-Glaoui was held.
Whatever their specificity or scope, art fairs the world over are ephemeral snapshots of creative activity. While their purpose is essentially commercial, they nevertheless provide a glimpse of the concerns, anxieties and hopes of a portion of humanity at a particular moment in time.
The trend that emerged last year, with a strong presence of “Black portraits”, seems to have been considerably amplified this year.
The body, and more specifically the Black body, is the central recurring figure in the majority of the galleries exhibiting at this edition of 1-54. Women’s bodies, men’s bodies, whole bodies, amputated bodies, colonised bodies, assumed bodies, transformed bodies, magnified bodies, constrained bodies, everyday bodies – the list could be extended ad infinitum as there are so many ways of representing our carnal envelope.
More so as contemporary artists do not shy away from any particular medium: while painting dominates, the body is also approached through photography, collage, weaving, drawing and, more rarely, sculpture. Some feel free to mix the means of expression, as embroidery invites itself into painting, or painting imposes itself on photography.
This abundance of realistic bodies is no doubt due to fashion – the commercial success of painters such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye from the UK and Amoako Boaffo from Ghana may well have inspired some designers.
It may also be a case of catching up. For years, the Black body was excluded from the history of art dominated by the West. It was placed on its periphery, sometimes as a subaltern subject, sometimes as an exoticised and eroticised projection of Western travelling artists, as the 2019 exhibition “The Black Model from Géricault to Matisse” at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay clearly showed. Henceforth, with strength and determination, the Black individual is no longer an object but a subject, asserting himself and proudly proclaiming his existence.
Returning the gaze
Presented by the Éric Dupont gallery, Beninese artist Roméo Mivekannin takes a similar approach with his series on “models from the history of art”. Taking on famous paintings from history such as Felix Vallotton’s Le repos des modèles (Models at Rest, from 1905), or Benjamin Constant’s Janissaire et Eunuque (Janissary and Eunuch, from 1876), the artist reinterprets them in his own way, giving a new perspective to those who have been deprived of one.
“Often, these paintings are projections of the West onto the East, and the Africans depicted in them play only a secondary role,” says Mivekannin.
“As I often feel that I’m both from here and elsewhere, I wanted to tell a counter-history, to show how the cliché is constructed.”
For the bodies he paints, basing them on old models, he has often given them his own face.
“Most of them are self-portraits; there’s something of me in the gaze,” he explains. I try to show that gaze rather than [just] a dominated body.”
Many painters seek out this kind of vision, which expresses pride, independence, freedom and sometimes doubt, with varying degrees of success. This is particularly true of Ugandan painter Stacey Gillian Abe (Galerie Unit London), whose portraits of indigo women are embellished with fine embroidery.
The same is true of Giana de Dier (Galerie Krystel Ann Art), an artist born in Panama in 1980, whose collages pay tribute to the Afro-Caribbean community employed in the construction of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century.
Often, if not most of the time, the body represented is political. It tells a story of oppression – racial, patriarchal – and asserts itself in all its resilience.
Sankara, Fela, Mandela, Nkrumah…
In his series Icons in the White House, Nigerian artist Ayogu Kingsley (born 1994) goes as far as to depict great figures from African or African-American history such as Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Winnie Mandela and Malcolm X.
On the same canvas, he dares to bring together Thomas Sankara, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Kwame Nkrumah. It’s a kind of a posteriori celebration of universally celebrated figures that is hardly revolutionary today.
Other artists use body painting to stir up trouble and question our relationship with the world, with others and with history. In a wry pastiche of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson (1632), Congolese artist Amani Bodo’s Anatomy Lesson on the Growth of Africa (Galerie Primo Marella) depicts white surgeons dissecting an African statuette.
At the online gallery The African Art Hub (TAAH), Nigerian artist Ibrahim Bamidele also draws on European codes – those of the sacred icon – by integrating albino figures into strange biblical scenes set against a backdrop saturated with wax. Sometimes the approach is gentler, as with South Africa’s Leila Rose Fanner, who depicts flower-headed women in dreamlike paintings that give pride of place to nature and spirituality (Faerie Tales Series, Galerie Carole Kvasnevski).
In most cases, the artists are asserting themselves as individuals, demanding dignity and recognition. What about sex or physical violence? Although these themes dominate our present, they are hardly represented here. The 1-54 fair remains very tame, even politically correct.
So many bodies gathered in the aisles of Somerset House inevitably make artists who work with abstraction look original. This is particularly true of Moroccan artist Amine El Gotaibi (MCC gallery, Marrakech), who has placed 12 geometric metal structures in the courtyard of the building, inspired by the shape of pomegranate seeds.
Entitled Illuminate the Light, the work lights up when night falls – another way of going against the stereotypes of “darkness” that are often attached to the image of the continent.
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