(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.
Moreover, a deft use of native symbols and scripts in his canvases is highly reminiscent of the language of musical notation, especially that of jazz patterns, rhythms and improvisations. This results in lending to his work the sheer vibrancy, unrelenting energy and pure joie de vivre of jazz music — be it Parker, Davis or Coltrane. Jazz in itself being a fusion of Western and African music, this further reinforces the notion of cultural and racial métissage at play here.
A product of Africa but having been a resident in the United States for many years, Wosene creates paintings that are a fluid, aesthetically pleasing fusion of cultures and traditions, blending local and universal with great skill and to great effect.
Ultimately, "WordPlay" challenges conceptions of what African art is and what African art can and should be. Wosene is arguably as influenced by Western modernism as by his own Amharic culture and effortlessly oscillates between the two. His artistic practice is evidently enriched, not hindered, by having mastered the dichotomy of his own African upbringing, education and subsequent relocation to the West. Foremost a visual — but also a linguistic and cerebral — treat, this exhibition is very stimulating for all the senses.
With new exhibitions set to showcase some neglected regions of the Diaspora already in the pipeline for next year, I think we can safely be both excited by and confidently optimistic about the contribution that the Gallery of African Art intends to make to the London art scene. It is high time that art of African provenance is afforded such respect as it is given here. This elegant space intends to bestow upon artists of exceptionally high caliber and proven track records a platform to exhibit their work on a prestigious international stage — a boon for the continent and for those who passionately care about the contribution of African art and artists to the global conversation.
To quote Wosene himself, in lines from 1993 that eloquently articulate his ethos but also, I imagine, neatly encapsulate the Gallery of African Art's own convictions: "I believe that art, like language, is communication. It is a primary form of human expression. Life without language or life without art would be no life."
In no uncertain terms, gallery director Cooper should be applauded for the successful execution and sophisticated fulfilment of her vision — one that promises to showcase and celebrate the formidable but hitherto underrepresented artistic prowess and potential of a continent and its people.
The Gallery of African Art is at 9 Cork St., Mayfair, London W1S 3LL. Telephone: +44 (0)207 287 7400. For more information, go to gafraart.com. Wosene Worke Kosrof's "WordPlay" runs until Aug. 23.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He currently blogs on current affairs and culture for the Daily Mail online.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.