At first glance, Kojo Marfo’s paintings are striking creations depicting austere faces and fertile foliage. But these works of art are more than pretty pictures: they reveal deeply rooted stories in their allusions to traditional Akan artifacts, carvings and carvings that the artist first encountered in his youth growing up in Ghana. On view at the JD Malat Gallery’s New York pop-up through June 4, her first solo exhibition in the city, “Gatekeepers of Heritage,” illustrates these connections in eight new figurative works.
“I want people to see my work as a reflection of my Akan culture and my struggles in the West,” says Marfo who moved to Brooklyn, New York as a teenager, and now lives and works in London. “When I paint someone, I always look for inspiration to continue and reference African magazines and photos.”
In Stranger #12 (2022), an abstract figure with an oblong face, dilated pupils and saucer-shaped eyes stares at the viewer against a black background. These physical attributes are direct references to akua’baround-headed Ghanaian fertility dolls that older women usually give to young women of childbearing age.
Other works in the exhibition also nod to aspects of African history. Courage (2022) shows two figures on a gray plane. The one on the left wears a ruby red shirt, pearl necklaces and a shiny burgundy glove. It’s hard to miss that last detail, as the subject’s hand sits prominently in the lower corner of the painting. The work, says Marfo, is a commentary on the physical cruelty of Western colonizers in Africa.
“This work is based on historical images of Africa at the height of colonialism”, explains the artist. “If the colonizers thought you were lazy, they would beat you up properly and chop off your hands.” The short arm of the figure on the left represents this brutal act.
Much of Marfo’s desire to tell these stories stems from his childhood on the continent. Born in Ghana in 1980, Marfo showed an interest in imagery from an early age, looking at everything from Akan carvings to Catholic altarpieces. However, he didn’t hone his skills until he was a teenager, when he moved to Brooklyn and began his career as an artist.
As Marfo said QG Thomas Barrie of the magazine in 2020, the painter begins to draw inspiration from various creators – including Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and Francis Bacon – while developing his own self-taught practice. Eventually, Marfo began to incorporate social commentary into his work, always emphasizing the idea that people can better understand themselves through visual language. His work is inherently political, grounded in its subject matter, but the artist’s intention is to converge rather than divide.
“I do my best to make sure that by bringing people together, you become the agent of change,” the painter told CNN earlier this year. “You have to promote understanding.”
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