Annan Affotey has an affinity for bold, bright colors that set his subjects apart from the negative space framing their figures. Through gestural strokes that sweep across the canvas, the Ghanaian artist renders intimate portraits of his friends, family members, and the occasional public figure who, through distinctly red eyes, look directly at the viewer, a decision that’s both aesthetic and cultural.
“When I moved to the U.S. from Ghana, I was often questioned why my eyes were red and whether it meant I hadn’t slept or was doing drugs, neither of which was true. And it became a symbol for misinterpreted identities,” he says. That experience was complicated further by cultural expectations, which Affotey explains to Colossal:
I want the subject to have a direct conversation with the viewer, something I couldn’t do myself a few years ago. I am a shy person and when I first moved to the United States I would often look down when talking with people. In Ghana, looking down indicates shyness or respect. After being in the U.S. for a while, I finally came out of my shell and became more accustomed to looking people directly in the eye.
Currently living and working in Oxford, the artist prefers to surround his subjects with impasto strokes because of the liveliness they generate beyond the figures’ expressions. “I use textures in my paintings for several reasons. One reason is to portray energy or emotion centered around my subject,” he says. “I (also) use many textures so that people who can’t see will still have the opportunity to feel the canvas, brush strokes and feel a story from that.”
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Interview: Arinze Stanley Speaks to the Indelible Impact of Police Brutality and How Extreme Emotion is the Key to Change
For the past few years, Nigerian artist Arinze Stanley (previously) has been at the forefront of hyperrealism with his powerful and sometimes surreal portraits that are arresting in size and emotion, which he discusses in a new interview supported by Colossal Members. His charcoal-and-graphite works are rendered in stunning detail and bear broader political messages, particularly in relation to state-sanctioned violence and his own experiences suffering from police and military brutality.
What people don’t recognize about Bullets and Denim is that the artwork shows emotion on all parts, but if you have a gunshot to your head, you should be dead, right? Well, these people in the photo are not dead. That encapsulates the concept of endurance in general. Even as we try to stitch the patches of our reality, I want people to see that, that we’ve had it to the head. Enough is enough. It’s a visual representation of enough is enough because from here onwards is death.
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert joined Stanley for a conversation in March 2021 about how he brings his subjects to points of extreme frustration, the ways his drawings resonate with different audiences around the globe, and how he envisions his artworks as catalysts for meaningful change.
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The lengthy exposure times required by 19th Century photography were not conducive to newborns and fidgety toddlers, a problem many mothers tried to remedy by cloaking themselves in fabric and hiding behind furniture. As a result, those Victorian-era portraits, while capturing an endearing stage of life, are often spectral and slightly unnerving, shadowed by phantom limbs and textile silhouettes that closely resemble an inanimate backdrop despite their lively features.
This desire for disguise informs the multi-media works of Philadelphia-area artist Sarah Detweiler, whose ongoing series Hidden Mother is on view at Paradigm Gallery through May 22. Depicted without children, Detweiler’s portraits subvert the original photographs to instead draw attention to the figures otherwise purposely relegated to the background. Fabrics rendered with a combination of oil, acrylic, gouache, watercolor, and embroidered elements further confront traditional notions of femininity and motherhood by literally cloaking the women in materials long associated with domesticity.
Because the artist has a personal relationship with each subject, the textiles, motifs, and colors all evoke specific aspects of their personalities and distinct experiences, resulting in idiosyncratic portraits tethered only by their shared identity. “In maintaining the anonymity,” a statement about the series says, Detweiler “preserves a universal relatability—the woman under the shroud could be you, your mother, your friend.”
If you’re not in Philadelphia, you can take a virtual tour of the sold-out exhibition, and watch this Q&A with Detweiler for a deeper dive into the series, which is available as a limited-edition print set on Paradigm’s site. Head to Instagram to see more of the artist’s process, including some of the original photographs that informed the portraits shown here.
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Amy Sherald plumbs the multitudes of Black leisure in The Great American Fact, a series of arresting portraits that are currently on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles. From a woman resting on a bicycle to two surfers readying for the water, the oil-based paintings observe moments of respite and pleasure at a monumental scale, sometimes spanning nearly nine feet across.
Although she surrounds her subjects with vivid patches of color and portrays them wearing bright garments, Sherald (previously) continues to render her subjects’ skin in her signature grayscale, which she’s described in recent years as a way to have the figures read “in a universal way, where they could become a part of the mainstream art historical narrative.” This new series also features elements synonymous with American culture, including a white picket fence, Barbie T-shirt, and retro convertible.
The collection’s title draws on the work of Anna Julia Cooper, an educator who in 1892 wrote A Voice From the South by a Black Woman of the South. In the classic Black feminist text, Cooper described Black people as “‘the great American fact’; the one objective reality on which scholars sharpened their wits, and at which orators and statesmen fired their eloquence.” This understanding structures Sherald’s work and provides guideposts for considering “public Blackness,” particularly as the Georgia-born artist portrays figures with rich personal lives full of ease, relaxation, and joy. When much of Black life historically has centered around grappling with injustice and social issues, Sherald’s turn inward provides a nuanced view of her subjects.
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From a single sheet of white paper, Kanako Abe (previously) carves exquisite silhouettes of children and young adults who are awash in seas of fish or occupied by quiet campouts. She utilizes the traditional Japanese art form called Kirie—which translates to cut picture—a technique that Abe begins with a sketch before slicing the delicate material with a variety of knives. “I don’t have a chance to change the design once I start cutting, so I find it challenging,” the Seattle-based artist says. “I have to think of the right patterns, controlling negative space, and make sure all the lines are connected so the art won’t fall apart once it’s finished.” A single piece can take anywhere from six to 60 hours to complete.
Abe shifted to full-time in 2020 and now balances her practice between commissions and ongoing personal projects, a few of which she’ll be sharing soon on Instagram. No matter the context, each artwork reflects a broader connection to nature and its ability to provide an escape from the complications and heartbreak of the current moment. “I find the process of art-making is a way for me to meditate on everyday thoughts and emotions, and it’s much easier for me to express complex feelings or emotions visually than verbally,” she tells Colossal. “The cycle of nature teaches us about the power of letting go or accept things as they are and that there’s a silver lining in everything.”
If you’re in San Francisco, you can see Abe’s intricate portraits at her September solo show at Rare Device. She’ll also be included in a group exhibition at Today’s Gallery in Ehime, Japan, which opens in December.
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Malmö, Sweden-based artist Miles Johnston portrays subjects whose figures are in states of flux, whether through fragmented bodies, multiplied faces, or limbs contorted into impossible positions. Often depicting Johnston (previously) or his partner, the graphite portraits distort typical anatomy in a way that balances the familiar with the unknown and visualizes the thoughts and emotions otherwise hidden inside the mind.
Whether set against a trippy backdrop or quiet beach, each piece portrays the experience of the body “through a kind of internal metaphorical language,” the artist says. He explains further:
We don’t directly experience the actual biochemical facts of what is happening in our bodies, hormones secreting, weird little proteins and neurons doing whatever it is they do. Instead, we have a whole language of expressions like stomach tied up in knots, feeling empty, torn in two, burning with anger, etc… I’m aiming for this sort of naive direct representation of what things feel like instead of a literal representation of how they look from the outside.
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Editor's Picks: Craft
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.