Re:View

“When We See Us is a declaration of love to black life”

with Koyo Kouoh

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When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting comprises an exhibition, publication and discursive programming that explores Black self-representation while celebrating global Black subjectivities and Black Consciousness from varying African and diasporic perspectives. After previewing the show, this week’s Re:View questions the decision to platform Black figuration after many have considered it a tired theme. Brett Murray is a multidisciplinary artist using satire to offer socio-political and economic commentary. In past shows, Murray’s work mocked predators, politicians, oligarchs, sycophants and the corrupt. However during lockdown, the artist was compelled to look closer to home for his subject matter. Shifting from perpetrators to people, Limbo marks Murray’s transition from an accusatory stance to one that is more empathetic. Featured in this week’s Artist Of Interest we look at Murray’s transition from an accusatory stance to a more empathetic one.

Quite the gesture, When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting declaration of loving to Black life

Koyo Kouoh is the executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. In addition to working on the curatorial teams for Documenta 12 and Documenta 13, in London and New York she was the educational and artistic programme of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair for eight consecutive editions. In Dakar she is the founding artistic director of the RAW Material Company, a centre for art, knowledge and society. An international curator and cultural producer, Kouoh has developed numerous art programmes and published widely on contemporary art.

A prolific curator, Kouh describes what she does as being “very much defined by what needs to be done.” Recently completed from her list is the Black figuration group show at Zeitz MOCAA. Titled When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting, the show features more than 200 paintings made by 154 artists from 28 countries.

Taken off Kouoh’s list of this that need to be done, When We See Us is a departure informed by love. Noting the power of knowing to facilitate love Kouoh expresses how lack she felt Black figuration presentations have been recently. “For the past seven years, the whole conversation around Black figuration has been extremely reductant and extremely focused on the now,” says Kouoh, sighing as she sits back in her seat. “It’s a historical art canon that artists have been invested in since long before. The ways in which we understand and read Black figuration right now is incomplete.”

An attempt to widen perspectives and deepen narratives in ways that consider a temporality that goes beyond the current decade, When We See Us also allows audiences to witness a transgenerational conversation between artists. “The oldest artist in the show is Clementine Hunter born in 1887. Born in 1999, Zandile Tshabalala is the youngest artist in the show.” Although Hunter and Tshabalala were born and practiced in different centuries, their visual studies of the outdoors, femme community and solitude mark parallels between their work

More than a home to Black figuration, When We See Us at Zeitz MOCAA is place of rest, a reclamation of representational agency, an ode to painting, and curator’s declaration of love to the medium.

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Ruth Ige. Don't hide your glory, 2022.
Acrylic on canvas. 122 x 122cm. (© Copyright 2022, STEVENSON. All rights reserved)