Review: “Soul of Black Folks” by Amoako Boafo at MoAD

For the artist, however, there is just as much value in what we don’t see. We don’t see Boafo’s long journey before he rose to fame. While living and working in Vienna, the artist recalls: “I received comments suggesting that my work was too dark, either ‘too much this’ or ‘too much that’. Comments that if I want to have a career then I should rethink the subjects I paint, which I did for a while.

Although Boako stopped painting black subjects for a time, for him painting self-portraits and portraits of those close to him was important. It was a question he had to resolve on his own – about identity and the story told through the skin.

“There is a vulnerability,” says Ossei-Mensah. “It’s a statement that we all need to start looking at ourselves. The work begins with the individual looking at himself in the mirror. For me, looking at Boafo’s work in the context of its hyper-commercialization, I am called to reflect on the effect that the politics of representation has had on my own career, and the unforeseen taxes that result from it.

Amoako Boafo, “Reflection I”, 2018; oil on paper. (Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

In his private studio work, shrouded in celebrity from the outside world, Boafo remains anchored by the time he spent painting before being famous. As he puts it, “I understand how fast my career has been, and for most people they thought it just happened. But I did the groundwork, so I was ready for it. People assume it’s an overnight success, but in reality, it’s been simmering for a while.

Boafo’s concern is not so much the money he doesn’t earn on secondary sales; what worries him is his heritage. The turnaround can have a negative impact on the long-term interest of researchers and museums in his art. This is where the MoAD comes in. By hosting this exhibition, which will soon be filmed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, the MoAD gives an institutional stamp of legitimacy to Boafo’s career.

Elena Gross, director of exhibitions and curatorial affairs at MoAD, acknowledges: “People talk about this meteoric rise as an immediate and emerging celebrity, but then things can change and you want to make sure that this artist and the he impact of their work does not get lost.

Boafo’s concern about the short horizon of his legacy reflects concerns academics and activists have about the politics of representation. After this brief moment of institutional attention, DCI initiatives and inclusive marketing campaigns, the question remains: will it last?

Painting of a dark-skinned man in a white turtleneck.
Amoako Boafo, “White on White”, 2019; oil on paper. (Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

Just as Boafo’s portraits represent black life, they provide a meta-representation of the rise and anticipated fall of representational politics. As Ossei-Mensah and Boafo agree, “The show is not the end, but the first important part of the journey towards building a new canon that celebrates the contribution of artists from the African diaspora. In addition, it illustrates the breadth and depth of [Boafo’s] artistic practices are varied, dynamic and will stand the test of time.

Whether or not Boafo’s artistic legacy materializes remains to be seen. Perhaps the answer to this question ultimately rests in the hands of institutions as much as those of the artist. What I do know, however, is that this moment will define the decades to come – I can feel it on my skin.

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