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While protests rage globally and the manifestations of the #BlackLivesMatter movement are multiplying, African-American artists persevere in creating works that reflect their experiences as black men and women in a white world as a process of catharsis. The act of painting, making movies or taking photographs itself becomes a fight, a fight to remember that change is possible. 

In parallel to the campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people, these artists seek to represent their struggles, those of their community and those of their forebears with clarity and nuance, demonstrating that identity shapes work, but also that work can heal and transform identities.

Related articles: "Talking About Race"-The life and work of Henry Taylor-21 Black Female Painters


 

Analogous Colors, 2020, by Titus Kaphar for Time magazine, June 15, 2020. Courtesy Time. © Titus Kaphar

 

A black mother holds her child: a white silhouette - it is a deliberate cut in the canvas - without connotations or identity. Eyes closed and furrowed brow in heavy suffering. The cover image of Time magazine’s latest issue, “TIME Special Report: Speak Their Names,” features a new painting by artist Titus Kaphar. The image, titled Analogous Colors, highlights the idea of loss: the mother’s loss, the community’s loss, the increasingly insistent crumbling of the concepts of justice, equity, brotherhood. Like so many other artists, Titus Kaphar (b. 1976), who reconfigures the work of Classic and Renaissance painters to include the African-American subject, has been struggling with what to do in response to the George Floyd protests. “This black mother understands the fire. Black mothers understand despair. I can change nothing in this world, but in paint, I can realize her. That brings me solace … not hope, but solace. She walks me through the flames of rage”, has stated Kaphar.

 

      

Patrick Martinez, Racism Doesn’t Rest During A Pandemic Pee Chee (No Justice No Peace), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Charles James Gallery; Deana Lawson, Chief, 2019 Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Los-Angeles based artist Patrick Martinez (b. 1980), in one of his latest pieces Racism Doesn’t Rest During A Pandemic Pee Chee (No Justice No Peace), paints a tribute to the victims of police brutality which is sincere and useful, not merely beautiful. Once for all: white and black are not analogous, they do not correspond, especially in the eyes of law enforcement. British film director and video artist Steve McQueen (b. 1969) knows it very well. After 12 Years a Slave (2013) - the story of Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man sold into slavery - McQueen dedicated his new films, selected for the 73rd edition of Cannes Film Festival, to the memory of George Floyd, and all the other black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen. Quoting reggae star Bob Marley: a small axe against the big tree. 

 

Richard Butler-Bowdon, Blue Paul/ Black Paul, 2016, © EBONY/CURATED Cape Town

 

Khari Turner, Frustrations of Golden Gates, 2020, Oil, acrylic, charcoal and ink on paper, 53 × 48 in 134.6 × 121.9 cm, Courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner LA

 

The new and recent portraits of photographer Deana Lawson (b.1979), presented at Kunsthalle Basel for “Centropy” exhibit (9th June - 11th October 2020) act like a powerful axe, carrying a political message. Lawson explores contemporary black life and African diaspora in a regal, intimate and sensual way. Black folks captured as “godlike beings” in their domestic environment, a Brazilian favela or a Jamaican Field. A triumphant and tender visual resistance which challenges hegemonic racist images or a complex, fractured mirror that subverts the cannons of a deeply Eurocentric genre, like the paintings and collages of contemporary African identities realized by South African born Richard Butler Bowdon (b. 1957). Butler Bowdon’s contra-historical portraits create magnetic and unconventional narratives that invite the viewer into the otherness, the world of Africans in Africa or, perennially, living in exile. “Africanah” new narrative - paraphrasing the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s illuminating book Americanah.  

 

Raelis Vasquez, The Future and its Circumstances, 2018, Oil on canvas, 46” x 58”. Courtesy the artist.

 

Amoako Boafo, All in white, 2018, Oil on paper, 100x70cm. Courtesy the artist.

 

Nkechi Ebubedike, Mask Untitled II, 2019, © TAFETA London

 

Also young African-American artists’ vision is rapidly growing, sharping and developing. Patrick Alston, Khari Turner and Raelis Vasquez - whose recent works are now featured in the online exhibition “One Way Ticket” by Steve Turner gallery in LA - represent the troubled current moment. Alston’s The Anomaly Of The Polysemic Negro (2018), a black lattice of acrylic, enamel, graphite, gouache on canvas, blows up the constraints of common language and triggers the psychology of color, through mature gestural mark-making, tending to Graffiti. “My work is a diary of struggle and overcoming struggle. I’m exploring the history of black defeat, black revolutions, and black accomplishments coalescing through mark-making, realism, and expressionism”, writes emergent artist Khari Turner. His sculptures and wide noses, thicker lips and gold teeth on paper illustrate social issues and reaffirms the necessity of being different, separate but equal, despite race and color. Raelis Vasquez’s highly emotional paintings really try to solve a problem: the problem of being a Dominican Republic immigrant of African descent, living in The United States; they try to mend the tear of trauma and involuntary displacement. If some African-American artists approach art almost therapeutically, others, like Ghanaian “hot new artist” Amoako Boafo (b. 1984), decide to celebrate and spiritually elevate the black life. His bold Diaspora Series (ongoing) is full of nerve, laughter and vitality. The Bright Girls of Nigerian-American artist Nkechi Ebubedike (b. 1984), under the weight of contemporary pressures and desperate conditions, “smile without cues, they choose to find light”.

Cover image: Analogous Colors, 2020 by Titus Kaphar for Time magazine, June 15, 2020. Courtesy Time. © Titus Kaphar.

Written by Petra Chiodi    

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