“Yellow Turtleneck” (2018) by Amoako Boafo

 

AFTER MOVING TO VIENNA, Amoako Boafo began a new portrait series. The work grew less out of inspiration and more out of motivation. Boafo found the Austrian capital generally unreceptive to black people and the art scene was just as challenging. The portrait series served as a means of self preservation—a celebration of his identity and blackness.

The Black Diaspora portraits center black subjectivity. He paints real people. Most of them he knows, others he knows of and holds in high regard. Roberts Projects in Los Angeles is currently presenting the series. In describing his work, the gallery states that Boafo seeks to “create a new vernacular, reframing his own experience and that of his subjects to include a more variegated understanding of the black experience.”

“I See Me” is Boafo’s first show with Roberts Projects. The gallery said “a friend of the gallery” brought the up-and-coming artist’s work to its attention. It turns out the friend was Kehinde Wiley. Roberts Projects is one of the galleries that represents Wiley, the critically recognized artist who painted President Barack Obama’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Boafo said Wiley found him on Instagram. He was sufficiently impressed with the work of the fellow portrait artist that he purchased one of his paintings and put in a good word for him.

The gallery and Boafo arranged the exhibition essentially by email and then the artist shipped his paintings ahead and traveled to Los Angeles in time for the installation of the show. Roberts Projects said future projects and exhibitions with the artist are in the works.

Boafo’s paintings have been exhibited in Ghana, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, and at “Rethinking Afropolitan: The Ethnics of Black Atlantic Masculinities,” a 2017 conference at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is studying for his MFA at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and is currently in Accra on an academic break. I reached out to Boafo to discuss the exhibition at Roberts Projects. He said, “It’s been greatly overwhelming.” In an interview by email, Boafo talked about how his art studies began, the focus of his work, and making space for himself and other artists in Vienna.

 

CULTURE TYPE: Tell me about your practice. What are the themes or issues you address?

AMOAKO BOAFO: The primary idea of my practice is representation, documenting, celebrating and showing new ways to approach blackness. I was doing childhood memories before I moved to Vienna. The first theme I touched a few weeks after my arrival in Vienna was Expectations. Then I did Claiming the Space, Body Politics, Detoxing Masculinity, Diary, Pillow Talk (which then turned into the Talk series), and now I am doing Diaspora.

What does “I See Me,” the title of the exhibition mean? Tell me about the people you portray in your work.

Since I moved to Vienna the struggle has been different from what I had in Ghana. The stereotype is very aggressive. Their ideas about black people were very offensive and there was no way around it. They still plant bad imagery of black people with the little ones (children). I want people to see me. I want to be seen, not the stereotype.

Most of the characters are people that share the same ideas as me. Others are also people that I find strength in—how they celebrate/live their blackness. “I See Me” explains the characters that I portray. It is one of the things that is very visible in my work, that I want to be able to tell my story myself. I want to be able validate myself.

‘I See Me’ explains the characters that I portray. It is one of the things that is very visible in my work, that I want to be able to tell my story myself. I want to be able validate myself.


Installation view of “Amoako Boafo: I See Me” (Jan. 12-Feb. 16, 2019), Roberts Projects, Los Angeles | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

Are all the works in the Roberts exhibition from your Black Diaspora series?

All of them are except for “Reflection 1,” which is from Body Politics. I personally think it fits in the Diaspora series as well.

How would you describe the Diaspora series?

It’s first a celebration of blackness and second a form of documentation.

You mentioned the portraits in the exhibition feature people you draw strength from. On your website it looks like you have Black Diaspora portraits of Thelma Golden (“Green Shoes,” 2017) and Maya Angelou (“Red Dress,” 2017). Is that right? Say more about them.

I draw strength and inspiration from the community. I like very much people that create space for other people to exist and Thelma happens to be one of them. Actually, the “Red Dress” is also Thelma, but it happens to look like Maya Angelou, which is amazing. I am [usually] not so keen on shedding light on known figures. I am more for the so-called unknown.

Have you always painted portraits?

Yes. [Portraits were] a favorite during my studies in Ghana and still are after my diploma in 2007 until now.

Do you work in any other mediums beyond painting?

I have tried few other mediums like sculpting, drawing, and photography. But, for me, painting is the medium [where] I can best express myself.

How does color function in your work?
I am not sure how a poet will explain to you how words function or a musician explaining sound. I can’t find the right words to explain how colors function in my work. All I know is it plays a vital role.

I understand it is hard to explain how you use color. Maybe you could talk about a specific work and describe your subject, the meaning behind the work and your choice/use of color.

My choice of colors I cannot explain because it’s just organic and, most of the time, I just get it right. Tonica is a character I have been painting for some time. (A London DJ of Jamaican heritage, Tonica Hunter has collaborated with collectives in Vienna.) Her vision of what blackness is, her expressions, it’s those things that give her that strong character. For me, painting her with the turtleneck over her mouth has multiple meanings. What I can say with that is she need not say anything, as her actions speak for her. There are some colors that just look right with the figures and sometimes it’s a feeling.

Who are the artists whose work resonates with you?
Lynnette Yiadom-Boakye, Jordan Casteel, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Jennifer Packer, Kehinde Wiley, Derek Fordjour, and Kerry James Marshall, just to mention few.

 


AMOAKO BOAFO, “Tonica Hunter,” 2017 (oil on canvas, 31.50 x 35.42 inches / 80 x 90 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

What was your experience with art growing up? How did you decide to become an artist?

Art has really never been a part of my life growing up, because no Ghanaian parents would encourage their children to study art since it will not bring them stable income. For me, drawing was one way to avoid a beating or getting into any trouble. Instead of running around, I will just sit home and draw. That’s how it started.

After high school, I decided to study art, even though I knew the outcome. But that did not happen, because my mum did not have the money to pay. So I stayed home from the year 2000 until 2004. I was doing sports. I played lawn tennis. During that time I saved a bit.

Then my mum got a new job and the person she works for sees me coming all the time to help and wondered why I come around all the time. I told him and he asked what I wanted to do. I had some time to think about it. I had never imagined art as a tool for making money. I was only thinking what I would enjoy and love to do when I am old. Drawing was one of the things that came to mind. So I told him and that’s how I ended up in art school.

I had never imagined art as a tool for making money. I was only thinking what I would enjoy and love to do when I am old.

Where was your mother working? What kind of job? Do you mean that her boss paid for you to go to school?

My mum was working as house help. Yes. Her boss paid for the first semester fees.

What were you doing between 2007 and 2014, between finishing your diploma in Accra and moving to Vienna?

I did nothing apart from painting and hustling for spaces to show. …I moved to Vienna because I thought I could start my artist career but like I said that was a disaster, I enrolled in the academy not because I saw an opportunity but with the intention of getting to know the art scene.

Why did you choose Vienna?

I followed Sunanda Mesquita (a visual artist and curator) there.

How would you describe fellow artist Sunanda Mesquita? Why did she go to Austria? I am curious, given the isolation you said you experienced. I am wondering about artistic and academic opportunities. What is the attraction to Vienna?

She is a friend, collaborator, mentor, girlfriend, and a wifey. She is Austrian and that is why I ended up there. There were no opportunities in Austria for an artist who is black and from Africa. The first few years was a total disappointment/disaster nothing worked. Almost every gallery said they do not show African art.

I stayed because the education system is good. I paid almost nothing to do my masters, which is amazing. I have enough time and space to experiment and to be productive. For me, these are some of the reasons. I would stay in any space, if I can have enough space to work.

There were no opportunities in Austria for an artist who is black and from Africa. The first few years was a total disappointment/disaster nothing worked. Almost every gallery said they do not show African art.

With We Dey, you have connected with some black artists in Vienna. How would you describe the community of black artists in Vienna?

We Dey was created because of the isolation and disappointment and the need to create a community. I and my partner felt the need to create a space where we don’t always have to beg for white space, a space that we can call our own, where we belong. The black community in Vienna is very small, but slowly growing. It’s still a struggle as the space is very white.

How has your experience studying in Vienna compared with your education in Accra?

I am blessed to have studied already in Ghana. It gave me so much experience and confidence. Vienna gave me freedom, which I did not know how to handle from the beginning because my studies in Ghana were such that you have to follow instruction. But in Vienna, you have all the space to experiment and explore.

When will you complete your Vienna program?

I was thinking this year, but I have a full program until next year 2020 for residencies and exhibitions. I think I will take like a year more.

What are you doing during your break in Accra?

Ghana is home for me and, since I moved, I have not really managed to connect. So, whenever I come home, I try to show something, but space is always a hustle. …I am going to try to relax as much as possible as I have a lot to do in the coming months. But, I will also make time to paint a bit, as it is one of the things that keeps me relaxed. CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

TOP IMAGE: AMOAKO BOAFO, “Yellow Turtleneck,” 2018 (Oil on paper, 39.37 x 43.31 inches / 100 x 110 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

Amoako Boafo’s solo exhibition “I See Me” is on view at Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, from Jan. 12-Feb. 16, 2019

 

FIND MORE about artist Amoako Boafo on his website

FIND MORE about We Dey, a collaborative project aimed at creating space for black artists in Vienna

 


AMOAKO BOAFO, “Boy in Lady Finger Shirt,” 2018 (oil on paper, 39.37 x 27.56 inches / 100 x 70 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 


AMOAKO BOAFO, “Krystal 1,” 2018 (oil on paper, 39.37 x 27.56 inches / 100 x 70 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 


AMOAKO BOAFO, “Reflection 1,” 2018 (oil on paper, 51.18 x 43.31 inches / 130 x 110 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 


Installation view of “Amoako Boafo: I See Me” (Jan. 12-Feb. 16, 2019), Roberts Projects, Los Angeles | Courtesy Roberts Projects
| Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 


AMOAKO BOAFO, “Yellow Dress,” 2018 (oil on paper, 70.87 x 70.87 inches / 180 x 180 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 


AMOAKO BOAFO, “Blue Pullover,” 2018 (oil on canvas, 55.16 x 62.99 inches / 140.0 x 160.0 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 


AMOAKO BOAFO, “Lighter,” 2018 (oil on paper, 59.06 x 55.19 inches / 150.0 x 140.2 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles

 

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