Regenerative Figures: Artistic Conversations of Conteh, White, and Hendricks
In a masterful dialogue, clever banter, colorful tones, and audible calls and responses take place. The best conversations paint a multi-sided exchange of acknowledgement, listening, and nuance brought into the conversation. This is precisely what Alfred Conteh does with his artwork. Conteh positions himself as a recorder of Black Southern life through intimate portraiture. In his depictions, he echoes, responds, and provides nuance to the figures of the past through reexamining social issues. Conteh continues the artistic tradition of Charles White and Barkley Hendricks by including similar visual characteristics, convictions, and views of Black life. Therefore, the figures of White and Hendricks reemerge through Conteh’s artistic conjuring.
Alfred Conteh’s Sociological Explorations in Post-Black Art
Alfred Conteh, a Black contemporary visual artist, hails from the Atlanta area. That area represents a ‘Black Mecca’ yet possesses income disparity and rampant materialism. He records this paradox through the Black people living in Atlanta’s West End–he focuses on social issues–a new form of sociological exploration through portraiture. His signature style evokes emotion through its personal feel, candid expressions, and complex messages. Conteh effectively aestheticizes his images, though they approach harsh realities, the changing landscape of neighborhoods, institutional issues, and the precarious navigation of American socioeconomics. Therefore, he places “economics at the base” of issues facing the Black community.
Although ‘post-black art’, as coined by Thema Golden, contextualizes the era in which Conteh works, his art connects to the work of artists from other eras, such as Charles White and Barkley Hendricks. Post-black art refers to the strategy of conveying Black subject matter in a manner germane to Pre-contemporary Black art. Now, artists have freedom to break the confines of Modernism and certain stylistic conventions to portray Black life. Black art shifts to being defined as art that Black people produce. Nonetheless, Conteh references White and Hendricks while providing artistic nuance to the conversation. In Conteh’s participation in an episode of Studio Noize, he defines his self-appointed responsibility: reflect the experiences of the Black community through creative ingenuity of painting and assemblage. The cyclical nature of the history of racism and exclusionary economics are the cause for the regeneration of stylistic and thematic convictions in Conteh’s work.
Portrayals of Day-To-Day Survival: Alfred Conteh and Charles White
Conteh sources portraits of people on the street to materialize the psychological and economic horrors transposed onto the body. Most notably, his series Two Fronts tackles the idea of the two fronts that Black people deal with: racism and the “social engineering of these factors in Black interactions.” In the exploration of this concept, he blurs lines of the theoretical, the existential, and the real. In this work, he presents figures that represent a moment in time. The historical depiction and treatment of line and value are similar to the work of Charles White.
Charles White, a talented painter, printmaker, and draftsman, was born prior to the Harlem Renaissance and worked through the Black Arts Movement, training artists like Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons. His artistic specialty drew from his superior ability to render “ideal portraits and everyday scenes.” White’s early work embodies the Dubosian idea of propagandistic art–he created “images of dignity” to uplift the race and highlight the hardworking attributes of Black people, combatting the stereotype of the shiftless and lazy Black man. According to Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACAMA), in his images “he extolled dignity, humanity, and heroism in the face of the country’s long history of racial injustice and encouraged his viewers and fellow artists of color to project their own self-worth.” This binds the individual and collective through the historical moments he illustrates such as sharecropping. In White’s mature work, he transitions to allude to structural issues facing the Black community.
White’s commonalities with Conteh are in his genre of Black life and style of emphasis on line and value. For instance, White’s drawing, Harvest Talk, depicts two men, presumably sharecroppers, in a heroic light. They are rendered with strong line, large hands, and brilliant use of value for their skin tone. In his artistic rendering of the two men he holds labor and a hardworking personality in high esteem. Not only does he draw attention to the individuals in this drawing that represent the collective, he includes a large scythe in the middle which, according to the Art Institute of Chicago, is emblematic of the Soviet Union and Socialism. As he transitions to the landscape, White creates a dream-like depiction of the agricultural landscape with loose line and organic shapes. Stylistic elements and the Marxist framework in White’s work reappear in Conteh’s artwork as he coveys that economics determine the personal life of Black people.
In Terrence by Conteh, he includes a prestigious bust of a regular man. The line included in the clothing, skin, and brow of this man indicate age and the unique intricacies of the figure. Similar to White’s treatment and emphasis on line, Conteh communicates that this man is a complex individual yet a collective representation of being Black in America. Not only does he historically render this individual to showcase a time period, but he includes a scaly white texture that is almost cob web-like–a motif throughout the image which connects the past, present, and future together through this man.
This is not the first time that the work of Conteh and White were paralleled. In 2019, Essence Harden and Leigh Railford curated Plumb Line: Charles White and the Contemporary. They featured Conteh’s work because he fit within the theme of “contemporary artists whose work in the realm of black individual and collective life resonates with White’s profound and continuing influence.” Conteh builds on the idea of White’s plumb line, featured in White’s Birmingham Totem, by being an architect for change and a compass navigating the Black experience.
Empowered Aesthetics of Barkley Hendricks and Alfred Conteh
Conteh depicts figures as nonlinear, but cyclical. The striped lines of color on the figures, in Two Fronts, represent a patina that is an amalgamation of figures in the Black community carrying socioeconomic factors on their body that do not change. This retrospective device harkens back to past Black history and visual culture. Therefore, he furthers this concept by assuming similar positions and treatments of the body as present in Barkley Hendricks’ artwork. This is yet another way that these regenerative figures emerge.
Barkley Hendricks, championed photo-realistic Black portraiture through his paintings spanning the Black Arts Movement and the Obama-era. His portraits were political by happenstance as he captured the “unique persona of each sitter” and illustrated cultural semiotics as a Sartorialist. Hendricks’ unique perspective showcased the people of urban Philadelphia assuming Classical art historical references. His work inspires many contemporary artists today, such as Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley.
According to Sotheby’s, Hendricks’ “post-modern depictions of cool, stylish and self-aware black subjects liberated the black body from a white-centered gaze, with subjects gifted with an unprecedented degree of regality, autonomy and self-assertiveness.” For instance, in Bid’ Em In/Slave (Angie), he puts the subject in contrapposto (a Classical balance shift with one weight-bearing leg and the other weight freestanding). The vivid color, ironic t-shirt that says slave, attitudinal posture, and Black Power attire, along with this art historical reference, assumes power in being unapologetically Black despite other existing social structures. Similarly, Conteh pays close attention to the fashion of his models, imitates this contrapposto, and creates empowering statuesque paintings despite the two warring fronts against Blackness.
Conteh Painting a Black Reality
Although Conteh creates during a Post-Black era, he continues the tradition of the thematic and stylistic elements of Charles White and Barkley Hendricks. Conteh tells a story of progress and regression, survival and struggle, beauty and ugliness. In his solo exhibition, Our Reality, at the Kavi Gupta Gallery he pushes the bounds of his painted medium by making the surface have many scratches, acid-like qualities, and an aesthetically damaged canvas to illustrate the juxtaposition in being Black in America. Through Conteh’s painting, he peels back the mythic “decadent veil that supports a false narrative” to expose the regeneration of figures bearing the brunt of structural racism.
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Chenoa Baker is an emerging curator and arts journalist. She provides curating, advertising, employing Google data analytics in her blog content, and research services. Her educational background in Cultural Studies, Art History, and Museum Studies from Chatham University provides a broad base from which to approach collection stewardship and visual critical studies from a critical race methodology. Her writing skills may be confirmed on Sugarcane Magazine, Pulse@ChathamU, and other publications. She especially enjoys exploring the intersection of art, race, and psychology in her work. You may learn more about her services on LinkedIn, Instagram, or by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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