Review of African-Expressionist, Kojo Marfo’s Dreaming of Identity
Until July 17, JD Malat Gallery, 30 Davies St, Mayfair, London, W1K 4NB
In search of artists originally from outside Europe and the US, I came across the exhibition Dreaming of Identity by self-taught artist Kojo Marfo (1980) at JD Malat in London. This exhibition, which includes fifteen large-scale paintings, is Marfo’s first solo exhibition in the UK at a leading gallery. The gallery’s founder, Jean-David Malat and a committee of judges discovered Marfo’s work through an open-call exhibition, Isolation Mastered, which was hosted by Malat during the pandemic last year to support aspiring artists. While the world paused and people were forced into quarantine, Marfo stayed productive creating colorful art. Dreaming of Identity presents a vibrant body of work through a series of nine individual portraits titled Strangers and a series of six family portraits. The exhibition is a reflection of Marfo’s African heritage and his observation of the different cultures and people he has encountered throughout his nomadic life.
Born in Ghana and with a stay in the US, where he worked as a butcher, before moving to the UK in 1999, Marfo has been exposed to a multitude of cultures that have influenced his creativity and, ultimately, the way he sees the world. In his home country, he developed his interest in the visual arts through traditional Akan artifacts, sculptures, and carvings, which strongly influence the subject matter in his paintings. His cultural background allowed him to create his unique style. The artist says, “I want people to see my work as a reflection of my Akan culture and my struggles living in the West.” Marfo’s figurative abstractions of the black image along with flowers, textiles and rich colors are visual references of the social and geographic fabric that makes Africa and one which the artist wishes the general public in the West would get to know.
Walking into the gallery, I quickly noticed the continuation of the chequered floor tiles in black and white, as seen in the family portrait placed in direct view at the end wall of the main gallery room. I made my way through the exhibition counterclockwise, starting with the individual images and ending with the family portraits. The paintings from the individual portrait series are all in half-portrait format facing forward and have a solid, rich-colored background with no depth for the eye to wander off to as if the artist was trying to confront the viewer with the question of identity immediately. Stranger #1 depicts an individual, with its stoic frontal gaze and patchy face, resembling vitiligo, wears a pink and blue flower crown and large hoop earrings that decorate the stretched earlobes with an additional ring on the nose. The garment is a rich royal blue, and it wraps the body, not allowing the arms to be visible. The garment runs up the neck with ruffles in pink and purple, giving the figure an elegant elongated neck. The contrast of the blue against the mustard yellow background makes the large-scale painting so vibrant, full of life, which balances the stoic face not giving a sign of emotion. As I stood there, visually analyzing the individual portraits, I realized I was left with so much ambiguity. Despite the apparent rich influence of the Ghanian culture, which was detected by the faces that reflect the Afkan wood-carved mask and the stretched earlobes, I couldn’t read the gender or ethnicity of the individuals. Which presented the question, who am I? We subjectively go around the world placing people in boxes depending on where they stand in relation to our personal experiences, so when a painting depicts figures with multi-colored skins and no gender signifiers, we become intrigued to learn more of where they come from as a way to understand them and ourselves better.
The exhibition catalog states that the portraits are "not intended to be portraits of single individual human beings but represent universal humanity with elements drawn from many cultures and time periods." The multicultural symbolism created by the renaissance ruff collars from Britain, as seen throughout the paintings, sacred cows from India and fertility dolls from Ghana, prevalent in the family portraits, challenge how the viewer reads the images. As I made my way across to the paintings depicting social gatherings, that is where the evident celebration of different cultures was visible. The family portraits invite the viewer to enter its space by the visual illusion created by the chequered floor that runs into the physical space. Like the individual portraits, the figures in the painting titled Noble face straight forward with stoic gazes. However, these are full-body portraits with more dimensions. The family, which consists of the parents and a child, wear long dresses with ruffles around the neck and are placed on the right side of the painting next to a black dog in side-profile placed on the lower left side and a cow fully decorated with necklaces and red and purple patches on the face peeks from behind the parents staring directly at the viewer. A small brown bird rests on a flowering branch used as a brooch on the chest of one of the parent figures. Like the figures in the individual portraits, this family also has flowers decorating their heads and hoop earrings placed through their enlarged earlobes. The child has brown skin with peachy patches, which differentiate from the parents' black and white patchy faces. Everyone besides the dog stares directly at the viewer with no display of emotion. If it wasn't for the vibrant and joyful color palette, the composition could be a little intimidating.
Every individual piece in this exhibition is majestic on its own and even more beautiful when viewed altogether. In times when cultures seem to all blend together due to globalization, it's refreshing to see an artist that celebrates and preserves his Akan culture through his work while also celebrating the cultures of others across the globe. Dreaming of Identity is an exhibition that invites the viewers to reflect on their own identity and the shared human experience.