Critics’ Picks

Albert Adams, Abu Ghraib Figure, 2004, oil on canvas, 50 x 40".

Albert Adams, Abu Ghraib Figure, 2004, oil on canvas, 50 x 40".


Albert Adams

Wits Art Museum
Corner of Bertha and Jorrison Streets University of Witwatersrand
April 2–May 25, 2019

A relatively unknown figure, the late Albert Adams (1929–2006) nevertheless stands in the pantheon of South African artists, quietly stoking the flame. Commemorating what would be his ninetieth birthday, WAM, in collaboration with SMAC Gallery, has opened the doors for researchers to start excavating the bounty Adams left behind. Including works such as the triptych South Africa 1958-59 (Deposition), 1959, and Descent from the Cross, 1955, to later output like The Captive, 1982, and his stark charcoal “Celebration” drawings, 2001, curator Marilyn Martin’s show, subtitled “An Invincible Spirit,” will likely introduce viewers to a five-decade oeuvre whose eclectic and provocative expressionism claims painting, drawing, and etching, a corpus that hinges on the terrors of humanity and its captive imagination.

Because of the racist laws that prevented “non-white” persons from attending art classes at the universities, Adams left South Africa in the early-’50s to study at the Slade School of Art in London. As a student activist during the segregation, he followed a dangerous path that landed him in apartheid jails, but also bolstered his commitment to social justice in his art, which tends toward morbid, frantic portraits that often appear unfinished. Pictures like Descent from the Cross and South Africa 1958-59 (Deposition) take biblical imagery and concerns as analogous to black people’s social alienation under apartheid. Adams inflects paintings like Abu Ghraib Figure, 2004, whose cruciform subject lies bluely in a bleak cell, with ecclesiastical iconography to underscore the seemingly eternal theme of discrimination and abusive institutionalization.