Black Portraiture is More Than a Market Fad in MoAD’s Amoako Boafo Show

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Painting of dark-skinned man in yellow do-rag.
Amoako Boafo, detail of ‘Seye,’ 2019; oil on canvas. (Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

I must admit that I was at first reluctant to visit Soul of Black Folks, a solo exhibition of paintings by the Ghanian artist Amoako Boafo. His was the headliner for a four-show spectacular reopening of the Museum of the African Diaspora in October 2021. Featuring Billie Zangewa, Sydney Cain and Sam Vernon, the opening day was an amazing celebration of Black artistry across a variety of mediums. But walking around the museum as just one of two Black arts writers in the press preview, I was reminded of the tense politics attending the representation of Black folk.

It’s appropriate that Boafo’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States takes its name from the title of W. E. B. Du Bois’ seminal text, The Souls of Black Folk. Boafo’s Soul of Black Folks, curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, riffs on Du Bois’ text to extend Du Bois’ examination of Black American life across the Atlantic to Africa. While Du Bois predicted the prominence of the color line as the greatest challenge of the 20th (and now, 21st) century, perhaps he also foresaw that the challenge would be met through a medium whose primary grammar is expressed through colors and lines.

Painting of dark-skinned woman on a tan couch.
Amoako Boafo, ‘Green Clutch,’ 2021; phototransfer and oil on canvas. (Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Chicago and Paris)

At first glance, Soul of Black Folks seems pretty straightforward: portraits of Black people, gazing back, rendered in vibrant textural adornment that celebrates their humanity and vitality. Boafo’s particular approach adopts finger painting to render the Black skin of his subjects in intimate fashion.

Critics might wonder, what’s the difference between an Amoako Boafo painting and a painting by another famous Black artist who utilizes portraiture? Jordan Casteel, Amy Sherald or Kehinde Wiley use different color palettes and approaches, but all create portraits of Black people in everyday life gazing back at the viewer. Critics might also say that the political message of Black portraiture is as thin as the paper on which many of Boafo’s oil paintings are made. But what makes Boafo’s work unique it is the moment in which the star of his celebrity has risen: a moment of interest in Black representation and the concurrent accelerated commercialization of Black portraiture.

A wave of art world interest in Black portraiture followed on the heels of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, with big shows opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and taking over Art Basel Miami in the fall of 2021. This “awakening” comes with predominantly white institutions promising to do better about representation and diversity. Boafo’s meteoric rise has coincided with these larger trends to the extent that he has become the poster child of Black portraiture.

Painting of woman covering her lower face with black and white checkered clothing.
Amoako Boafo, ‘Black and White,’ 2018; oil on paper. (Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles; photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

As the value of his paintings shot up, Boafo even centered in some ethically suspect art world drama. In February of 2020, Stefan Simchowitz flipped Boafo’s Lemon Bathing Suit; the L.A. dealer has been called the “Art World’s Patron Satan.” Other portraits made by Boafo have been flipped as well, feeding off his skyrocketing fame. He gained enough notoriety that Jeff Bezos sent his artwork to space.

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

Although Boako stopped painting Black subjects for a while, for him, painting self portraits and portraits of loved ones held significance. It was a question he needed to work out for himself—about identity and the story told through the skin.

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

Framed painting of shirtless man seeing himself in mirror.
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, veiled from the celebrity of the outside world, Boafo remains anchored by the time he spent painting before he was famous. As he puts it, “I understand how rapid my career has been, and for most people, they thought it just happened. But I’ve done the groundwork, so I was ready for it. People assume it’s overnight success but in actuality it’s been cooking for a while.”

Boafo’s concern is not so much about the money he doesn’t earn from secondary sales; what preoccupies him is his legacy. Flipping can negatively impact the long-term interest in his art by scholars and museums. That’s where MoAD comes in. By hosting this exhibition, which will next tour to the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, MoAD provides an institutional stamp of legitimacy on Boafo’s career.

Elena Gross, director of exhibitions and curatorial affairs at MoAD, acknowledges, “People talk about this meteoric rise as yielding an immediate and emerging celebrity, but then, things can shift and you want to ensure that this artist and the impact of their work doesn’t get lost.”

Boafo’s concern about the short horizon of his legacy mirrors the concerns that scholars and activists have about the politics of representation. After this brief moment of institutional attention, DEI initiatives, and inclusive marketing campaigns, the question continues to be: will it last?

Painting of dark-skinned man in 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 metarepresentation of the rise and anticipated fall of the politics of representation. As Ossei-Mensah says and Boafo agrees, “The show is not the end, but the first significant building block in the journey towards building a new canon that celebrates the contribution of artists from the African diaspora. Moreover, it illustrates the breadth and depth of [Boafo’s] artistic practices is varied, dynamic, and will stand the test of time.”

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

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‘Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks’ is on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora through Feb. 27, 2022. Details here.