See the Best of Black Figuration Widely Surveyed at Kunstmuseum Basel |

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See the Best of Black Figuration Widely Surveyed at Kunstmuseum Basel

“Art constitutes one of the rare locations where acts of transcendence can take place and have a wide-ranging and transformative impact,” bell hooks wrote in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, adding that “aesthetics nurture the spirit and provide ways of rethinking and healing psychic wounds inflicted by assault from the forces of imperialist, racist, and sexist dominations.”

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“When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting” engages with these ways of rethinking and healing. The exhibition, on view at Kunstmuseum Basel, presents a panoramic view of Black figurative painting, having originally been produced for and by the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, where it was shown from November 2022 to September 2023. Koyo Kouoh curated the exhibition both in South Africa and here with her team, so the Swiss iteration is much the same. “We think that it’s a canon that is so accessible… we didn’t want to translate or dilute or augment it—we wanted it to be as comprehensive as possible,” Kouoh has stated.

Esiri Erheriene-Essi, The Birthday Party, 2021. Courtesy of Jorge M. Pérez Collection, Miami

The exhibition title inverts Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries “When They See Us”, shifting the vision from other (they) to self (we). Note that this heightened visibility and agency is, similarly, embraced in Tate Britain’s show “Now You See Us: Women Artists In Britain 1520–1920.” Rather than focusing on the legacy of colonialism, racism and violence inflicted on the Black figure, the exhibition explicitly highlights a celebratory outlook, uplifting global artists whose works are imbued with a sense of community, strength, and pleasure. The galleries are not arranged by chronology, nor are the artists grouped by country. It is a boon to be able to examine the art without any preconceptions, although this can also create a certain rudderlessness.

More than 150 works are split into six sections: Triumph and Emancipation, Sensuality, Spirituality, The Everyday, Joy and Revelry and Repose. The themes are loose enough that there is no shoehorning. Among the selections, there are “big” players to relish—Toyin Ojih OdutolaKehinde WileyLynette Yiadom-Boakye—but the greatest enjoyment comes from discovering new names.

Michael Armitage, You, Who Are Still Alive, 2022. Photo credit: Max Ehrengruber © beim Künstler / the artist

On the museum’s ground floor, visitors come face-to-face with a work by Chéri Chérin, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Obama Revolution (2009) is a canvas spotlighting the namesake presidential couple surrounded by Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, among a wider cast of characters—a summoning of past political power come to champion the present.

Nearby, South African Katlego Tlabela’s Tableau Vivant III: Oasis (2020) highlights economic power in the form of Black leisure. The painting showcases a lavish property, including a white Modernist house, a Louis Vuitton bag flung next to a tennis court and artworks stating “We The Blacks Must Rise” and “We Want the Whole Thing.” On the right side of the canvas, a Black figure hoists himself from the pool as an older white butler holds out a silver tray. This starkly contrasts with a painting by another South African artist, Gavin Jantjes Quielty at Tea (1981), in which a bowtied Black figure is compliantly positioned with a white cloth over his forearm, a domestic serving white men.

Cassi Namoda, To Live Long Is To See Much (Ritual Bathers III), 2020. Courtesy of Jorge M. Pérez Collection, Miami

On the second floor, a dense timeline unspools across multiple walls—Kouoh dubs it “the brain”—as a historical anchor for the exhibition. This agglomeration cites everything from the Haitian Revolution (1804) to the establishment of Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa (1943) to the inauguration of the African American museum in Philadelphia (1976) to the end of apartheid in South Africa (1994) to the first Marrakech Biennale (2005) to Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday in the US (2022). Beyond the timeline, visitors can peruse crucial texts by Black writers and thinkers: Mapping Black Europe and The Black Atlantic, published by university presses, as well as art tomes like Black Futures, Black Masculinities, The New Black Vanguard and iconic writings from Audre Lorde.

SEE ALSO: ICA Boston Presents the First North American Survey of Firelei Báez’s Powerfully Layered Work

The dilemma between clinging to the canon and shrugging off European tradition plays out in a handful of works. Benin-born artist Roméo Mivekannin’s Le modèle noir, d’après Félix Vallotton (2019), explicitly namechecks the Swiss-French artist associated with Les Nabis, who painted the portrait of a Black woman, Aïcha, in 1922. Elsewhere, Devan Shimoyama’s The Abduction of Ganymede is a neon, glittered, and sequinned interpretation of classical mythology turned into a queer kitsch fantasia, outmaneuvering the original 1635 oil painting The Abduction of Ganymede by Rembrandt.

Depictions of Black personhood in the exhibition vary widely. Melanin is shown as a spectrum that defies definition. Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover’s Coloured People (1984) is a bodiless, faceless dotted mishmash entirely stripped of human representation. Rhodesian Kingsley Sambo’s squiggly figures in School Child (1972) are simply gestural. Bahamian-American Lavar Munroe’s pink-skinned figures in The Most Vulnerable Amongst Us (Sip Sip) (2019) are almost sci-fi or otherworldly. By contrast, Yoyo Lander’s I Can’t Keep Making the Same Mistakes (2021) revels in the beauty of a multitoned, multilayered approach in watercolor variants.

Zandile Tshabalala, Two Reclining Women, 2020. Courtesy of the Maduna Collection, © Zandile Tshabalala Studio

Although gender isn’t a distinguished theme here, the depictions of women throughout the exhibition are especially wonderful. Standouts include South African Cinthia Sifa Mulanga’s Wait Your Turn – Competitive Sisterhood (2021), in which a group of women perfect their looks in the archways of a large apartment, a quiet solo portrait The Reader (1939) by American painter William H. Johnson, and queenly poses in South African Zandile Tshabalala’s stylish Two Reclining Women (2020).

What feels important about the exhibition, and ones like it, is the necessary broadening of global references. Objectively, the statistics of representation for Black artists in the art world remain disheartening in both museum collections and on the market, barring a very tiny handful of blockbuster names. This exhibition is a welcome refuge from that reality.


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