Fresh to def: The Black Cool and the Continual passages of time and faint thresholds of memory, in Gideon Appah’s Forgotten, Nudes, Landscapes
an afrovisualism essay by Justin Smith
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Gideon’s artworks are continuously imaginative. The figures he paints in his scenes play out as they are, both abstract and fragmented across time. Their faces are often obscured with the eyes and lips mostly visible. Each composition with roughly applied acrylic layers of forgotten yet vibrant passages of time, brown skinned figures decked out in suits or aptly nude at times. His displays of people are surreal, and landscapes are dream-like, representing his nostalgic recollections of growing up in West Africa and reckoning with its cinema and political climate of decades past.
The exhibition displays a series of characters in both public, intimate, and still moments. Two Men Having A Smoke and Roxy 2 embody the continuum of The Black Cool, particularly in the phrase “fresh to def.” Being fresh to death, which is admiration of one’s swag and style presently in the moment across time to no perceived end, this exhibition considers the continuum as a passage of time and memory. The characters are smoking as a social exchange, posted up against cars and pulling up at the theater, settling in their comfort and leisure. These men lingering around in duos and groups are enveloped in a nightlife that feels seemingly endless.
Not only as a form of leisure, smoking is the slow burn of life passing by surrounding these characters. In Cecilia (2022) a triptych plays out her scene as she stands alone in a half opened black and white striped gown, flicks a cigarette, while looking down. The woman’s gesture, holding the dimly lit cigarette with one hand, letting it burn, opens up for quiet, yet deep contemplation and possibly an enduring nightly blues.
Left to right: Roxy 2, 2020-21, oil and acrylic on canvas. Cecilia (Triptych), 2020-21, oil and acrylic on canvas. Two Men Having a Smoke, 2020-21, oil and acrylic on canvas. Exhibition view Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, Markel Center, Gallery 3, Gideon Appah: Forgotten, Nudes, Landscapes, (Feb 19, 2022 – Jun 19, 2022). Photos: David Hale.
As curator Amber Esseiva threads fresh to death as a narrative arc, as an ecosystem – Blaring motors and bright headlights of the cars pulling up to the chatter and murmur in front of the cinemas with lit marquees, and frequent orange flickers of cigarette lighters – are a part of this surrealistic ecosystem. These arcs portray cinematic stories going from fresh-to-death, their character arcs showcase transitions as facets of life, a continual awareness of mortality while also intending to escape their brooding realities.
In the scenes like the ones Gideon portrays are lived experiences, dream sequences, and thresholds of time passing by reflecting the films like the illuminated pink Roxy Cinema and Rex Theater signage as markers in time. These theaters were converging points of Ghanaian social life, as frequent places of nostalgia in their golden days, Appah is time-capsuling these buildings as relevant cultural landmarks.
Malik Sidibe’s Aprés le studio, le voyage à France (1972) his black and white color palette is an intuitive choice. The character is a celebration of Mali’s budding independence. Barkley Hendricks What’s Going On 1974 is a visual-sonic callback to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Hendricks intentionally limits his palette accentuating the presence of these characters in a world of their own, whether they’re in Ebony and Drum magazines, or Motown-era album covers. Each artist’s minimal color palettes, distinctive postures, and cinematic framings echo a resonance of black pride gradually into the 1960s – 1980s. Sidibe [Nigerian], Hendricks [African American], and Appah [Ghanaian] these scenes are reflective displays of the Black Cool in how these portraits parallel each other decades apart, yet are held together by an Afrodiasporic lineage.
Left to right: Malick Sidibé, Aprés le Studio, le Voyage à France, 1972, Gelatin Silver Print. Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Rex Cinema, Ghana photos courtesy of Jennifer Anne Blaylock. Barkley L. Hendricks, What’s Going On, 1974
Considering the effects of time on memory on these faint thresholds, day to night/life and death are not fixed points, but are indeed natural continuations. In these works, a glimmer of hope remains that these places or people aren’t forlorn souls once inhabited, but are reminders of times worth celebrating and remembering, while also given the capacity to imagine and dream up new worlds, with no bounds.