A New Showcase for Art From the Diaspora

The Gallery of African Art is helping to reshape London's Eurocentric art scene.

"WordPlay" exhibit by Wosene Worke Kosrof at the Gallery of African Art. (Gallery of African Art)
"WordPlay" exhibit by Wosene Worke Kosrof at the Gallery of African Art. (Gallery of African Art)

(The Root) — Cork Street in Mayfair, nestling just behind Savile Row and the sartorial panache of its world-famous bespoke tailors, is without a doubt one of London’s most salubrious streets, internationally renowned for its plethora of opulent, high-end art galleries. Thankfully it now has a most welcome recent addition — one that goes a long way toward adding a much-needed touch of color to an otherwise somewhat monochromatic street canvas.

The Gallery of African Art, the brainchild of owner and director Bendu Cooper, opened last month and is now currently hosting its official launch exhibition, “WordPlay,” by the Ethiopian artist Wosene Worke Kosrof.

A most refreshing and timely complement to the slightly tedious Eurocentric hegemony that has traditionally governed the London art market, the Gallery of African Art — which aims to showcase the best art from the continent and, equally important, the Diaspora — is already making a name for itself with this superbly engaging and subtly provocative show.

Wosene’s paintings — liberally made up of his native Amharic script, some black and white, others imbued with gorgeously sensual orange, red and yellow hues — are a powerful and (albeit at times) challenging visual experience, but one that is thought-provoking and ultimately deeply rewarding on many levels.

Unashamedly rejoicing in the visual beauty of the Amharic script, his paintings connote a clear fascination with languages, their aesthetic potential and the conscious act of cultural translation. “WordPlay” implies that language is a medium of communication but also a tool of immense power.

Fusing abstract Western modernism with traditional African artistic motifs, Wosene beautifully combines several languages — namely the language of abstraction and color-field painting with that of Ethiopian iconographic influences. He successfully combines them in a way that is intricate, textured and layered, yet also respectful of historical relationships. For example, in several of the paintings, he inserts images of traditional African masks to remind the viewer of the seminal and undeniable influence that African art had on venerated Western masters such as Picasso, Braque and Matisse.

In short, “WordPlay” clarifies the complex lineage of Western modernism and the enormous and very tangible debt it owes to Africa. In so doing, Wosene also skillfully and somewhat slyly subverts notions of Western ownership of the artistic canon — itself a highly controversial topic. In these paintings, Wosene gently but also trenchantly critiques the age-old Western appropriation of African art.