Artist Keba Konte, whose exhibit 888 Pieces of We is currently up at the Oakland Art Gallery, describes the work on display as an expression of his journey, a reflection of his life. Pure autobiography. After two years in art school, I find this explanation both refreshing and frustrating. Nobody's talking about Duchamp, thankfully, but I don't believe any artist's work can be adequately explained in terms of their own life story. I find it more worthwhile to discuss this exhibit, featuring 888 photographs transferred onto wood, copper, and other surfaces, in terms of the photographic traditions it both upends and upholds.
Nearly 1,000 of Konte's sculptural images are arranged together like a mosaic on the gallery's purple and brown walls: faded out afros and wide smiles, tight hugs, dignified poses and youthful antics. A recurring image of a tile with double eights references Konte's birthday, August 8, a symbol of wealth and abundance. Many images reference photography's role in everyday life. We see Konte's school picture from 1979. Each student's individual head shot is reprinted on a white rectangle in a Brady Bunch-like arrangement of separate squares. School pictures measure the passing of time and become the authoritative records of particular grades. No matter how you changed your hair or lost weight later in the semester, your school picture defines who you were that year.
Photo-booth strips, a man holding a manual camera, a kitchen scene with a refrigerator covered with family snapshots further reference the central role photography can play in creating identities and relationships. A photograph transferred onto the back of an ironing board suggests the simultaneity of daily chores and picture-taking. We weren't paying attention, it was a day like any other, and look there's a picture of it.
As contemporary photography becomes increasingly immaterial, consisting of pixels on a screen or data on a memory card, Konte takes it in the opposite direction. By transferring photographic images onto tactile surfaces, he restores the photograph's physical presence. There's an implied reverence in this act, similar to the way that, nowadays, we only print our very favorite photographs, leaving the others for a digital slideshow or deleting them altogether. Konte's process says something. These moments, in their everyday-ness, in the way they seemed to happen so quickly, were important. How personal they were, how overlooked they might have been. Maybe it is about autobiography after all.
888 Pieces of We is on display at the Oakland Art Gallery through September 8, 2008. The gallery is located at 199 Kahn's Alley in the Oakland City Center. For more information, call 510.637.0395.