At no point in the history of painting has the black body been so exalted, fetishized, or scrutinised. I believed the matter to be one driven by colonial guilt, the attrition of white mythological power, and, in lieu of a more hybrid and global grasp of humanity, the need for revisionism. This greater inclusivity is certainly the case, but so is the ongoing commodification of black life. Black portraiture, today, is a double-edged sword, as promising and inspiring as it remains inextricably bonded to centuries of othering and exclusion. That racism is on the rise at precisely the point at which we enshrine a globally inclusive humanity should alert us to a persistently perverse paradox. Blackness is now revered and valued, true, but it is also still feared, it’s economy and exchange idolatrous.
Ley Mboramwe was born and raised in Kinshasa. He later went on to study at the Academie des Beaux Arts, known for its rich legacy of artists and cultural workers. Since moving to Cape Town, his work has evolved and he has focused on painting. His current work is imbued with these varied art practices and the traditions he immerses himself in. Present in the forms depicted and in his titling, Mboramwe locates his paintings in a conversation around nationhood, belonging and experience.
Born and raised in Kenya, self-taught artist Nedia Were currently lives and work in Nairobi city. Nedia Were has harnessed his creative practice with a specific focus on oil painting and portraiture. Were’s artwork is a visual response to the discourse surrounding representation of African figures within the Visual Art realm especially within learning institutions and Art History.
Oloruntobi Aina is a contemporary visual artist who lives and works in Ibadan, Nigeria. He obtained a National Certificate in Fine Arts from Federal College Of Education, Osiele, Abeokuta, Ogun State,Nigeria, and later received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the prestigious Obafemi Awolowo University. The artist is continually pursuing his creative practice as a painter, while his signature style displays branches and twigs onto figures as an attempt to reconcile with his subjects with nature.
I, however, err on the side of optimism.As the director of Eclectica, Shamiela Tyer, notes – ‘Everybody is looking at us’ – that is, at black bodies. Then again, we have always been spectacularised and objectified. The difference concerns the ethics of seeing – Are black bodies being seen differently? And, in the case of black art and black artists, can we declare that a new world is upon us? Certainly, the prevailing view is that Contemporary African Art has assumed centre stage as a globally viable asset. As the leading patron in the arts, Lady Linda Wong Davies, has noted, China too is following the new tastemakers in the West. Given that blackness is primarily an Atlantic matter – the triadic interface of Africa, Europe, and the Americas – this interest from and across the East is salutary.
The dominant iteration in Contemporary African Art is portraiture, a genre and tradition primarily the province of white men in power. Its ubiquity today is immensely instructive, because now it is no longer power – the economy of patronage – which dictates portraiture, but a democratic instinct and desire to embrace the lives of others – black lives in particular. Moreover, as Tyer notes, it is not the classical genre of portraiture that prevails but its distinctive morphing, notably, ‘the freshness or boldness of the palettes’. Today, in African and diasporic paintings by black artists, there is undoubtedly a marked colour saturation – ‘something different in the way the black body is rendered’.