Over the last couple of years, Amoako Boafo has risen to become a household name in the art world, even landing on Page Six, with his art included in auctions, art fairs, art galleries, private sales and even in a high profile fashion collaboration with Kim Jones for Dior menswear. Amidst the buzz, what are his characteristic portraits really trying to tell us?
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
It is probably impossible for anyone who is not Black to truly understand the experience of Blackness in this world. Yet Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, who is known for creating portraits of Black joy, subjectivity and self-determination, while questioning presumptive notions of being Black, has become both an art market darling and celebrity for doing so.
Over the past two years, Boafo’s art witnessed a meteoric rise in the art world, experiencing great interest following increasing demand for Black artists.
In 2018, African American artist Kehinde Wiley, following the high profile unveiling of his portrait of former US President Barack Obama, discovered Boafo’s Instagram account. Wiley who is known to be a “longtime supporter of emerging artists from Sub-Saharan Africa” contacted the artist to buy a work. Wiley also sent an email to the four galleries representing his work—Stephen Friedman, in London; Templon, in Paris; Sean Kelly, in New York; and Roberts Projects, in Los Angeles—“tipping them off to what he thought was a real find”.
In January 2019, Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, exhibited the Black Diaspora series”, Boafo’s first solo exhibition in America, followed by a group show at Jeffrey Deitch in the same city. By December that same year, Boafo was all the rage when he made his debut at Art Basel Miami Beach with Chicago-based Somali-French art gallerist Mariane Ibrahim. His artworks at the fair sold out rapidly and subsequently, the Rubell Museum named him its first artist-in-residence.
At Art Basel Miami Beach, Boafo was honoured with a dinner at Faena Hotel, attended by celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Joan Smalls, and Karolina Kurkova, and covered by Page Six. The artist arrived at the dinner two hours late, wearing designer wear and surrounded by friends, influencers and hangers-on. “Almost anywhere that I walk, I don’t manage to look at anything because people want to talk and give congratulations,” Boafo said.
Nonetheless, the art market demand and celebrity level attention are not the most interesting aspects of the artist. It is his artistic explorations of “self-reflection” and “self-celebration”, concepts typically not associated with Black identity that are most noteworthy. In fact, as noted in Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Black body is traditionally viewed in America as an entity to be destroyed, but Boafo’s vivid portraits present Black people in complete in ownership of their body and world, exuding both casual and brazen attitudes. In doing so, his works shed light on an altogether different reality, one that exists in the world, yet is not often awarded much attention. His art is best described as “gloriously textured, large-scale portraits of stylish Black men and women is a succinct representation of the zeitgeist, in more ways than one.”
His 2019 artwork titled Cobalt Blue Earring is a 210 × 170 cm oil on canvas featuring a Black woman clad in the most exuberant yellow turtleneck and pants with bright blue earrings, a white purse, red lipstick, umber skin and fashionable hair. She is standing casually, almost slouched, staring at the viewer with an unabashed entitlement. The woman, who is painted against a field of dark green, displays an unmistakable swagger, a confidence bordering on arrogance, that does not seem out of sync with her identity and physicality.
This is characteristic of most of his art: “Accentuated and elevated figures are often isolated on single colour backgrounds, their gaze the focal point, to disrupt observations from canonical viewership. The poses are serene and the skin luminous, his tableau vivants place the figures at a higher recognition, both physically in regards to the size and spiritually in terms of their grandeur.”
Cobalt Blue Earring also showcases Boafo’s signature texturing in various parts, thanks to his “wild finger painting”. His brushstrokes are “thick and gestural, the contours of the body almost soften into abstraction”.
This sense of freedom, confidence and wildness in his paintings are inspired by the renowned Austrian artist Egon Schiele (1890–1918). Boafo who, like Schiele, is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, explained this specific influence on his art: “I just want my paintings to be as free as possible, and Schiele gave me that vibe—the strokes, characters, and composition.”
Paradoxically, the freedom espoused in his art is lost in the market machinations surrounding them. Boafo’s paintings have become somewhat of an obsession amongst flippers, heading to auction 23 times in 2020 with 13 out of 23 paintings selling for prices exceeding US$80,000, with six passing US$200,000. In July, his painting Joy in Purple (2019) sold for US$668,000 at Phillips, more than nine times its US$70,000 high estimate. Reportedly, many more works have traded hands privately last year with prices exceeding US$200,000.
Despite his disappointing encounters with flippers, Boafo seems to be holding steady, almost as brazenly optimistic and determined as the subjects of his paintings. In addition to a solo show at Mariana Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago last year, Boafo melded art with fashion in a collaboration with Dior Men’s Artistic Director Kim Jones for the label’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection, featuring his typical colour combinations, graphic prints, patterns and textured brushstrokes as embroideries, knitwear and more. It seems this Black artist’s joy and self-determination will not be quelled.
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