Photo: CAMH

Amoako Boafo on Showing the World How He Wants to Be Seen

The Ghanaian artist uses his latest exhibition, a debut museum solo show, to spotlight his place -- and the place of African art as a whole -- in the world.

In recent years, African art has become very popular in galleries and museums, and across the global art market. For his solo museum debut, Amoako Boafo wanted to interrogate the space African artists could -- and should -- occupy, so he created a site-specific work that responds to the questions that get raised over hype about art from the continent.

‘Deep Pink Sofa’ shows a crossed-legged individual with a calm and confident look staring into what can be said to be a camera. Once Boafo's exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, (CAMH) where it's currently on view closes, the artwork will be disassembled, never to be featured again. Created for the moment, it has a lasting message.

"I think a lot of people talk about tables, chairs, and sofas and I think they all have the same idea about sitting and relaxing, joining the table,” Boafo tells OkayAfrica. “Whatever is happening to African contemporary art, most people think that it's just a wave and it will just vanish. But I think making that painting, for me, makes me feel like I have arrived.”

He continues: "Yes, I will talk for myself first, but I also think that we've been around for a long time. But now, we have a couch where we are comfortable. We are around, and we are not going anywhere."

The piece is one of 30 paintings created by Boafo between 2016 and 2022, featured in his exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. It's an expansion of the show that opened at San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora earlier this year.

An image of Amoako Boafo's portrait of Beyonce and Jay Z against a yellow background

The title of Amoako Boafo's exhibition is a spin on Pan-African civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois' 'The Souls of Black Folk.'

Photo: CAMH

Titled 'Soul of Black Folks,' the show is curated by cultural critic Larry Ossei-Mensah. The selected works highlight topics of concern that interest Boafo, including constant resistance against systemic oppression, the active combatting of anti-Black rhetoric, the commodification of Black bodies in the media, and COVID-19.

The exhibition’s title is a spin on Pan-African civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois' 'The Souls of Black Folk,' the seminal book that contains several essays on race, and examines how Black people view themselves and how the world views them. Boafo tells OkayAfrica, Ossei-Mensah "wanted to connect what [Du Bois] did as a scholar and what I am doing now as a visual artist." Of note, the American sociologist, socialist, and historian is buried in Osu, a neighborhood in the capital of Ghana, where Boafo was born and raised.

The current exhibition adds to the growing list of career milestones for arguably one of the most sought-after artists internationally.

Amoako Boafo says the exhibition shows that the depth, consistency, and maturity, as much as the color palette of his work has grown.

Photo: CAMH

The Accra-born, Vienna-based artist, who left a career in tennis to pursue art professionally, is known for his vibrant use of color and thick improvisational gestures, focusing on the complexities of Black life globally, Black joy, and the Black gaze. His Black Diaspora portraits, which consist of accentuated and elevated figures often isolated on single-color backgrounds, have made him a favorite in the art world. His paint-dipped finger's signature style -- of friends, family members, and celebrities -- crafts these works.

In 2020, he made history as the first African artist to collaborate with French Luxury house Dior on their 2021 Men's Spring/Summer collection. Three paintings of his were also launched into space aboard Jeff Bezos’ rocket ship in 2021. Adding a solo museum exhibition to his resume only solidifies his place in the art world and further fans the flame for what yet is still to come. "Having that is an amazing thing, and to be alive to experience that," he says, "but I think one museum show is not enough."

There are more spaces where Boafo wants to show and share his work. "A lot of work has to be done to have more spaces and not just institutions in Europe, but I also think showing in institutions here on the [African] continent is also something that I am looking forward to do."

The themes of Boafo's practice stem from a personal place. One of his most notable works is 'Body Politics.' It details his experiences of discrimination arising from his nationality and race when he first moved to Vienna, where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts. "I think the thing with discrimination and stereotype is that people have a position of what Blackness is for them, and they have a box for it" he says. "A lot of work has been done to change that perception, so I needed to do it differently because most of the time people be screaming and shouting. And I don't see anything wrong with that because that's the way they want to maybe explain or deal with the situation. In my case, I wanted them to know what I am talking about instead of complaining about how they see me. I wanted to show them how they should see me."

'Body Politics' inadvertently marked the beginning of his ascent in the art world. Some three years after his relocation to the capital of Austria, he was awarded the jury prize at the 2017 Walter Koschatzky Art Award.

Boafo is also a Ghanatta College of Art and Design alum in his home country. He won Best Abstract Painter of the Year and Best Portrait Painter of the Year in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

A 2018 discovery of Boafo's work on Instagram by African-American portrait painter Kehinde Wiley (known for, amongst other things, his portrait of the former American president, Barack Obama) kick-started the mainstreaming of him and his craft. Wiley bought a painting and became an advocate of his work by introducing Boafo to his galleries.

He has since won the STRABAG Art award International in 2019, and his works are in private and public collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Rubell Museum, and the Albertina Museum in Vienna, where he lives.

In the light of presenting works created over the past five years in his museum debut, how would he say his craft has evolved over the years? “I think one thing which is very clear in my work is the depth, consistency, and maturity. As much as I will say that my color palette has grown,” states Boafo. “My way of playing with the tones and details have also changed. There’s more abstraction in that figuration. That’s also another growth that I am looking forward to exploring.”

“I think in general, it’s not just figuration or portraiture. It’s like, you know, all the elements – figuration, portraiture, landscape, abstraction. They are all in one element,” Boafo adds.

He will be in Ghana in December to open his artists’ residence, where he will collaborate with many artists for a group show as part of its opening. The space is for "artists to come and experiment, explore and grow with their work," says Boafo. The Deep Pink Sofa may not be there but he envisions it to be a welcoming space, nonetheless.

Photo Credit: Brendan Jaccarino

Vic Mensa's 'SKIN + MASKS' Exhibit Puts a Spotlight on the Diaspora's Most Talented Artists

We spoke to rapper Vic Mensa about SKINS + MASKS, his group exhibition which features a number of talented artists from the diaspora.

With the curation of his debut exhibition, rapper Vic Mensa is imagining creativity, expression, and identity free of the white gaze.

Presented by the Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, Mensa's SKINS + MASKS features art pieces by a collective of visual artists from the diaspora. The group exhibition, which opened last month, is inspired by Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks and centers on Black experiences with the goal of decolonizing Black art beyond the politics of visibility.

Mensa's father is from Ghana, and his roots are well represented in the exhibition. SKINS + MASKS features a number of rising artists from Ghana, including Accra-based talents like Foster Sakyiamah and Elizabeth Sekyiamah. (Elizabeth is the inaugural winner of the Judith-Ellen Prize, an annual prize dedicated to supporting emerging women artists within Africa and the Diaspora.)

Mensa first became aware of the work of the siblings when he visited the West African country earlier this year. He also met painters from other parts of the continent during his stay and started working with “so many people” off the spark of Ghana’s art movement.

“The art scene in Accra is electric. It’s magic. It’s on fire. That’s one of the things that has captivated me most about what I would say is the cultural revolution, upheaval going on in Ghana right now,” Mensa told OkayAfrica. “Some of the world’s premier painters and curators and art personalities are coming out of Ghana right now."

Mensa's exhibition also spotlights African artists from South Africa, the United States of America, and United Kingdom, with names like Dada Khanyisa,Joshua Donkor,Ndidi Emefiele, Andrea Coleman, and more taking center stage.

“I think our greatest tools of revolution are creativity,” Mensa said. “Our music, dance, art — those acts are revolutionary in and of themselves and a way many of us process our imaginations.”

Vic Mensa holding painting

Photo Credit: Brendan Jaccarino

The pieces by the artists explore understanding and expressing Black identity from the perspective of individual reality. One standout piece is Khanyisa’s ‘Wonder Where I’d Be Had I Not Placed Desirability at the Forefront of My Identity. The piece is a stunning and somewhat depressing sculptural painting that addresses individuals prioritizing how other people see them.

A popular rapper in the United States, Mensa is known for using his platform as an artist and activist to draw attention to social issues, especially those affecting marginalized communities. He also has a history of inspiring individuals to think critically about socio-political issues through the power of music and visual arts, while blending elements from his upbringing to the continent.

“If you look at the performances that were employed in the show, I combined a style of dance and music from the ghettos of Chicago called Footwork and juke music with the Djembe and like [a] futuristic African mask," Mensa said. "I think the drums themselves are a living breathing representation of an unbreakable African identity... Those intrinsic modes of communication and expression to me encapsulate and accomplish the goal of an unbreakable identity beyond only existing in proximity to whiteness.”

All proceeds from the ‘SKIN + MASKS’ exhibition will go to SaveMoneySaveLife, the Chicago-based non-profit organization Mensa founded. The non-profit will use the money to fund an arts program in Accra that will help create infrastructure and provide resources to emerging artists.

“There are so many talented artists in Ghana... and often, [what] separates access to industry and capital at the end of the day is resources and information,” Mensa said. “Same way where I live in Chicago, we as African people in America, in Ghana, and everywhere are just boundlessly talented, and wherever possible, I want to be able to provide resources and opportunities for those that don’t have [them.]”

In addition to everything he’s got going on, he is also “working on addressing [the] enormous divide and lack of collaboration between Black American artists and artists on the [African] continent.”

He mentioned the experiences of meeting fans of his music, and that of his friends, and the realization that they usually perform all over the world but hardly do so in Africa. Mensa's first performance in Ghana came only this year, despite the fact the West African country is his father's homeland.

Mensa says that he and other people around the world are “really trying” to create a global coalition that would encourage Black artists to regularly perform on the continent via “some type of festival.”

“I recognize that with privilege comes responsibility and also [an] opportunity,” Mensa said. “And so I am taking that on to help break down those misunderstandings between Black people on and off the [African] continent.”

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