African Art Rocks London


Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, No. 101

Agbodjélou photographs the people of Porto-Novo, Benin (formerly the Republic of Dahomey), in a studio that has been the family business for decades. He chooses as his subjects friends, family and studio customers. Using only daylight, he often poses them against backgrounds of locally designed, brightly patterned Dutch imported textiles. For many of the subjects, having him take their photograph is part of a family tradition.


Captions by Valerie Gladstone

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, No. 311

Agbodjélou's subjects take great care with their dress and, as this woman has done, bring items associated with their lives, like the plates in which she serves food. Instead of posing her against a patterned background, he chooses to have her sit in front of a rose-colored wall where natural light plays off her skin and allows the rooster pattern on her dress to stand out.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, No. 130


These two children display a great seriousness because their family has impressed on them the honor of being photographed by so important a man as Agbodjélou. Either he or their parents dressed them in white skirts, to offset the fabric worn around their necks and chests. The design in the background is especially striking with its patterns of eyes.

Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, No. 025


The Ivorian painter was living in Abidjan when civil war broke out in 2010 and 2011. Diarrassouba spent much of his time hidden in a basement studio. In his brutal and tumultuous paintings, he captures the violence and insanity that engulfed his country. Hollow-eyed figures stare out from this canvas, in their hands guns and on their heads helmets. The blood-red background indicates the ramifications of their rage.

Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, No. 01


Diarrassouba's figures have some resemblance to those of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but they exist in his own distinctive world, where no man can count himself safe and every semblance of ordinary life has been thrown to the wind. With bright colors and wildly juxtaposed shapes and letters, he conveys the loneliness and fear that are a consequence of that chaos, not unlike that depicted by Picasso in Guernica.

Nnenna Okore, 'Echi Di Ime'


Okore employs ordinary media, like magazines and newspapers, to highlight consumerism and the excessive wastefulness in today's society. Inspired by the concept of growth and metamorphosis, she also uses fabric. "I am fascinated and often surprised," the Nigerian-born artist says, "by material transformations that result from amassment, layering and multiplicity of smaller parts and units." She created the brilliantly colored Echi Di Ime with clay and burlap, an explosion of raw energy.

Nnenna Okore, 'Emissaries'


In Emissaries, a row of dyed red-and-black burlap and yarn hangs suspended from the ceiling, each one like a mysterious, delicate and lacy figure. One would love to see them caught in a breeze. Made with repetitive and labor-intensive techniques, like weaving, twisting, sewing, dyeing, waxing and rolling, Okore's sculptures explore rich earthly colors, textures and formations and often resemble architectural structures. 

Owusu-Ankomah, 'Back Into the Future'


Now based in Germany, Owusu-Ankomah studied fine arts at Ghanatta College in Accra. In his new show, "Microcron — Kusum (Secret Signs — Hidden Meanings)," he returns to his central motif, where monumental figures move within a maze of symbolic signs. Buried beneath the symbols in his black-and-white Back Into the Future, a powerful muscled man quizzically takes in his surroundings. 

Owusu-Ankomah 'Kumum No. 1'


In the brilliant-blue Kumum No. 1, the hero appears to be moving forward through the symbols, his hand out as if wishing to touch and understand their mystery. He combines visual signs of his own invention with the lexicon of adinkra symbols, which represent particular concepts used by the Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana. In the Akan language, kusum refers to sacred sites involved in the secret performances of mystery rites.

Baudouin Mouanda, Untitled No. 1


Mouanda photographs the subcultures of urban Congo in the cities of Libreville and Brazzaville. In the series La Sapologie (2008), Mouanda examines the lives of sapeurs (members of the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), who have emerged in Africa and the Diaspora over the past 25 years. Mostly young men, they have been compared to Parisian dandies of the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

Baudouin Mouanda, Untitled No. 2


Sapeurs dress flamboyantly in expensive designer clothes and affect outrageous mannerisms, their lifestyles in stark contrast with the poor circumstances in which they live. Their fantasies are not simply a way to escape reality but a rebuke to a society beset by adversities. Unafraid to break with tradition, they find in their playacting a way to challenge the status quo.

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