Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo has experienced a meteoric rise in the art world over the past year. Known for large-scale portraits of Black subjects rendered in bold, gestural strokes, Boafo has only gained momentum in 2020. Recently, in April 2020, he donated a painting, Aurore Iradukunda (2020), to an online benefit auction supporting the Museum of the African Diaspora during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The painting sold in early May for $190,000, nearly six times its $35,000 estimate.
Meanwhile, Boafo, who just celebrated his 36th birthday, has been busy in the studio with a new body of work. Currently living in his hometown of Accra, Ghana, he’s preparing for his first solo exhibition with Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which was originally scheduled to open in June, but has been postponed to September due to COVID-19.
In his work, Boafo celebrates Blackness in all its multitudes, as his sitters shine from backgrounds painted bright yellow or emerald green. “I wanted to paint the Black diaspora, or Black people, the way I see them,” Boafo said in a recent interview. In Kofi (2019), for example, a man looks out at the viewer inquisitively, his head cocked to the side with a slight smile on his face.
The finger-painted swirls of blue, brown, and pink that make up the sitter’s face pulsate, contrasting with the smooth electric blue that surrounds him. Boafo’s signature is easily overlooked on the collar of the man’s black turtleneck, but the artist’s hand is apparent throughout. Across his work, Boafo inserts admirable members of the African diaspora into traditions of European portraiture, with a distinctive, contemporary style of his own.
Using his fingers to paint his subjects’ bodies and brushes for their clothes and the background, Boafo has diverged from the academic traditions he learned at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design in Accra. “I know how to use a brush—my precision, color, arrangement, everything is accurate. I have so much control,” Boafo explained.
“I got to a point where I wanted more expressions, and in order to do that, I had to use tools that I don’t have control over.”
Boafo first used his fingers to paint when his friend asked him to be in a music video; at the time, he was still primarily using brushes. “I didn’t want to show my technique on camera, so I did a quick sketch beforehand, and then I used my fingers during the video,” Boafo recalled.
“After the video, when everyone had left, I saw some elements in the painting that I wanted in my work.” Boafo would revisit this method around 2017, while pursuing his MFA at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
Confronting body politics in Vienna
Boafo relocated to Vienna in 2014 to join artist Sunanda Mesquita, who is now his wife. Seeking a more robust art scene, he was initially optimistic about his prospects in the new city.
“I thought that Europe, or the West more broadly, is more open to painting—that it’s a career that your parents will not discourage you from going into,” Boafo said.
“But then when I arrived, I had a very difficult time because spaces rejected me, saying they don’t show African painting.” Moving from a predominantly Black country to a white one, Boafo became hyperaware of the ways Black people are perceived and treated in white spaces.
He channeled his frustrations into “Body Politics,” the series of paintings that would lead to his first big break as an artist.One such work, Reflection 1 (2018), is a self-portrait of the artist sitting naked with his knee raised to his chest, gazing at his mirrored reflection. It portrays a tender moment of introspection; a glimpse, perhaps, into Boafo’s attempts to reconcile with the stereotypes pushed onto him. With his face turned away from the viewer, we can only see Boafo through his reflection.In another piece from “Body Politics,” Homegoing (2018), a Black man steps forward in a dynamic contrapposto pose and looks downward like the Farnese Hercules. Instead of a flayed lion skin under his arm, Boafo’s protagonist carries a copy of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016).
Covering approximately 250 years of familial history between two half-sisters, the novel is set in both Ghana and the United States; its title refers to the belief that death allowed the spirits of enslaved peoples to return to Africa.
Like Gyasi, Boafo prioritizes the rich and multifaceted stories of the African diaspora, centering people who have long been left on the margins of painting.
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