Cool Intentions

Ayodeji Rotinwa at “Homecoming: Aesthetic of the Cool” at 1957 Gallery

Otis Quaicoe, Kwesi Botchway, and Amoako Boafo. All photos unless noted: Nii Odzenma.

LAST SEPTEMBER, when Artnet published a sweeping account of the dramatic ascent of Amoako Boafo, whose fingerpainted portraits of Black people had apparently cast a spell over the market, it read like the script of a Hollywood blockbuster. Replete with eye-popping prices, secret deals, greedy collectors and curators, and a ballsy move by Boafo himself to seize control of his own work, the profile laid bare the inner workings of a rapacious art market. It also sharply framed the increasing international hunger for contemporary African portraiture and the surge of pressure it creates for the emerging artists producing this work. 

In Accra’s art world, the storm has touched down and then some.

Last month, Gallery 1957 celebrated its fifth anniversary with “Homecoming: Aesthetic of the Cool,” a group show convening Ghana’s most exciting portraitists: Amoako Boafo, Kwesi Botchway, and Otis Quaicoe. All call Accra home and were trained in one of its storied art schools, Ghanatta College of Art and Design.

Launched in 2016 by construction-and-hospitality magnate Marwan Zakhem and named after Ghana’s year of independence, the gallery has quickly become a key purveyor of contemporary art from the continent, operating two locations in Accra and one in London. Leveraging its considerable resources to anoint art-world stars, the gallery is satiating collectors increasingly curious about new art “from Africa” and willing to service that curiosity with the odd wire transfer. It ranks alongside other prominent galleries that are similarly set on bringing their artists to international attention—see Rele Gallery of Nigeria, which recently opened an outpost in Los Angeles; Addis Fine Art, which works with modern and contemporary Ethiopian artists; and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which represents artists (including Boafo) from the continent and its diaspora, and which recently opened an outpost in Paris.

Guests at “Homecoming: Aesthetic of the Cool” at 1957 Gallery. Photo: Ayodeji Rotinwa.

The celebrations kicked off with two openings: first, a private dinner with select collectors, artists, and members of high society, the city’s creative cognoscenti, and one very talkative self-styled billionaire. The table, which covered the breadth of the gallery, was flanked by canvases and full of beautiful white carnations that, upon closer inspection, may have been plastic. Just outside the gallery, a suit was giving marching orders to a battalion of masked waiters in black-and-white who would soon be armed with dishes of lobster, sole, and steak.

Guests, most in off-duty garb, milled about the gallery and dinner table, exchanging air kisses, cooed greetings, and phatic niceties of the sort we hadn’t realized we’d missed under lockdown. The mandated six feet of distance shrunk to two or three; Ghana’s vaccination drive has been on for weeks, so perhaps there was an appetite for a little risk.

Amoako Boafo’s White Blanket, 2021, and Lemon Sundress, 2020.

And the art? It seemed less like the event’s occasion than its pretext.

Guests were quick to break eye contact with the sitters in the life-size paintings by Boafo or Botchway, the former of whom was showing in his hometown for the first time since his $880,971 splash at a Phillips auction in 2019. Boafo has explained in previous interviews that his portraits—of friends and of well-known strangers, such as Toni Morrison—“represent, document, celebrate, and show new ways to approach Blackness.” I suspect this idea—marveled at in Europe and the US—reads differently in a majority-Black country. One had hoped that Quaicoe’s arresting portraits of men in repose (shades of Barkley Hendricks and Amy Sherald)—one of them bearing arms, another maintaining a confrontational stare—would inspire excited, quotable conversation, but that was not quite what happened. Perhaps the guests would have been more animated if they had received the tour Danny Dunson, part of the exhibition’s curatorial team, had treated me to earlier.

Dunson is African American and, to my mind, was brought in to link these works made by Ghanaian artists to Blackness and identity globally—or perhaps, more specifically, to an American context. Dunson was spirited in his walk-through, dressed in a sweeping kaftan worthy of Andre Leon-Talley. When I asked if the upsurge of paintings of mundane Black life by younger African artists was a response to the political, didactic work of an older generation, he mused that seeing Black people in a state of rest was possibly political itself: “How many paintings of white people just doing nothing have been made?” He referenced American art historian Robert Farris Thompson’s 2011 book Aesthetic of the Cool, from which the exhibition took its name.

Thompson reckons that the cool we see in Hollywood and fashion magazines can be traced back to artistic production in West Africa: from the full, pursed lips and calm eyes of Ife bronze heads, to Mambo, to the soukous music and dance that showed up in the 1970s-funk moves of James Brown, to the breakdancing era of early hip-hop. This cool, he posits, originated in West and Central Africa and was transported by tradition-preserving, legacy-affirming people who had been taken by the slave trade and scattered across the Americas, where it morphed into new forms that were often exported back to the continent.

Paintings by Kwesi Botchway. Right: Fancy Pillows, 2021.

Rather than simply painting realist portraits, these artists, Dunson insisted, were contributing to the formulation of Blackness in visual art globally. These paintings aren’t overburdened by the politics of the day regarding Black people; nor are they a celebration of “Black excellence”: an understandable, correctional response to how Black people—especially Africans—are depicted in mass media. It isn’t escapist either, unlike much Afrofuturist art, which elevates Blackness to a mystical “higher plane.” It’s simply unapologetically Black people in ordinary scenes of repose, in moments of unguarded intimacy.

The guests at the second, public opening delivered what those at the first lacked in enthusiasm. They were younger and inarguably cooler—dressed in neon high-top sneakers, Loza Maleomhbo sandals, orange shawls, and easy, relaxed linen pants; they had sayings in Twi on their T-shirts and their dreadlocks packed high in a bun, one lock left loose. Some wore sunglasses, even though we were indoors, and it was 8 PM. Some wore masks,but, apparently, they were no longer a “must-have” accessory. There seemed to be many young artists in attendance—I spotted Yaw Owusu and Afia Prempeh—some recently graduated, others getting a glimpse of what a presentation of their work could look like. This cadre was there to see and be seen, particularly to be seen admiring the art, documenting their time with many selfies and group photos.

Otis Quaicoe’s Ranger I, Ranger II, and Nana, 2021.

Not to say everyone was enamored. When I asked an arts editor what she thought of the work, she shrugged. “They’re portraits.” A curator wondered aloud when Boafo, specifically, might paint something else. A young accountant declared that the paintings were not “mysterious” enough for him. He opined that he much preferred the challenges of abstraction. These sentiments become increasingly common as contemporary portraiture by African painters receives outsize attention from the international market, which is now more interested in it than most locals are. Many accuse these young artists of latching on to trends that will soon fizzle away. They don’t see anything exceptional about these pictures.

But, for me, they don’t have to be exceptional. While courting familiarity, Quiacoe, Botchway, and Boafo depict the ordinary in sophisticated, unexpected ways. Take Quaicoe’s oil-on-canvas series, which stars a cowboy, his face half-covered by a red bandana, looking in different directions in each work. The body is not black but gray, bordered by a shadow. The stare in Ranger II is searing: Wherever you stood, the eyes seem to follow you.

As I mulled over the responses I received earlier and considered my own feelings about the work, Dunson’s pitch came to mind. The paintings he said, are “about how something feels, not about how it looks.”