FRESH TO DEATH
an essay by Forgotten, Nudes, Landscapes curator Amber Esseiva
Fresh to death. A term heard often during my adolescence, used to connote a superlative level of swag and style, an undeniable cool. Whether attributed to the self or another, it was a declaration of inalienable ownership over your public persona. The phrase came back to me, taking on a different meaning, when I encountered the arresting paintings of Ghanaian artist Gideon Appah. Fresh to death here signifies not an excellence in fashion, but a narrative arc—something like stages in a life, states of an ecosystem. Fresh as a quality that persists even when times are funereal—such as when, after the death of a theater, the film keeps rolling, illuminating the empty seats where no one is left to watch the screen.
Such theaters appear in some of the paintings on view in Forgotten, Nudes, Landscapes, though Appah’s cinemas may still be populated by some lingering figures. In fact, an intense interest in the human form in a range of states (whether proudly on display for public view or intimate and unguarded) continues throughout his works: from the dapper, club-going youth in Hyped Teen (2021), to the vulnerable subject portrayed against a vibrant landscape in Nude Boy (2021), to the still, slumped body in A Woman Drowned in Water (2021). This last picture points to another thread that runs throughout the exhibition: a blurring between the living and the dead.
Left to right:1) Girl with a Double Dagger, 2020-21; A Woman Drowned in Water, 2021; The Goodbye, 2021; Skull (Right), 2021. 2) Red Girl I, 2020-21, oil on canvas; Nude Boy, 2021, oil on canvas; The Young Minotaur, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas. 3) Bliss II, 2020-21, oil and acrylic on canvas; Two Men Having a Smoke, 2020-21, oil and acrylic on canvas; Hyped Teen, 2020, 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.
One of the first works on view, ROXY 2 (2021), hearkens back to Ghana’s famous Roxy Cinema, in Accra, the nation’s capital. Rex (2020) recalls the Rex Theater in Accra’s city center. Paintings such as these pay homage to the old cinema houses that have wavered in and out of operation in rhythm with the successions in Ghana’s political life—specifically during Ghana’s struggle for independence from colonial, and then military, rule in the 1950s and ’60s. For these explorations of the rise and fall of Ghanaian cinema and leisure culture in the midst of its battle for democracy, Appah excavated newspaper clippings, movie posters, and other source material dating from the 1950s through the ’80s. Popular Ghanaian films, like The Boy Kumasenu (1952), I Told You So (1970), and Kukurantumi: Road to Accra (1983), also inspired environments and characters portrayed in these works. In tracing these vicissitudes in popular culture, the artist witnesses how taste evolves over time, forming the memories that define a generation.
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
That is to say, in this series and throughout the exhibition, there’s a notion of the cycle of life: the brand new, the dying, the decayed and forgotten. In this vein, it’s notable that many of Appah’s figures are represented smoking—a sign of the nightlife culture that he often takes as his subject, but perhaps also an omen, a sort of memento mori. In film and much mass media, images of smoking have long been associated with empowerment, leisure, and cool. And even though we know how such consumerist images work to manipulate our minds, we might still feel a thrill when we see, onscreen, a cigarette met by flame. Appah fits into a compelling lineage of portraying such fresh-to-death debonair figures—his paintings bring to mind, for instance, the work of the late Malian photographer Malick Sidibé (1935–2016), in which people are likewise captured at their most arresting, vivacious, and out. Sidibé’s subjects seem in pursuit of a life worth living despite circumstances that might interfere; they evidence a sense of cool in the face of uncertainty. A photograph like Aprés le Studio, le Voyage à France (1972) captures these sensibilities and points ahead to the smoking, lively, and well-dressed or disrobed figures in Appah’s work. It’s comforting to look at works by both these artists, from across the decades, and imagine that they portray people at their best, as they’d most like to be remembered, during that one night when we were really happy.
In stark contrast to the nightlife pictures are works by Appah that veer away from the photographer’s flash bulb; they capture the mundane and forgotten moments of life: the dull, unproductive gazing into nothingness, the hours spent laying in bed, bathing. Existence here is solitary, and nothing spectacular takes place; these are people who may leave no trace of themselves upon the earth. When they are gone, they will soon be forgotten. The sum of Appah’s work speaks to this sense of loss. Remembering how the survival of nightlife is bound to the fight for democracy, those earlier pictures memorialize the most visible monuments of both of those things. But now, these later paintings memorialize their most ephemeral ashes.
Some subjects seem to be in the throes of torment: one woman grips two daggers, another may have drowned herself in the bathtub. From one work to the next, it’s as if the built environment that was so important in the cinema paintings has fallen away to reveal a void, leaving objects and people suspended in a sort of nothing. While certain figures are still seen in front of recognizable spaces like clubs, cityscapes, and cabs, others float in abstracted fields of color, or appear against surrealist landscapes. The shift from the familiar to the strange evokes a change in emotional register for the viewer: from the comfort of lucid, waking life in an urban setting to the apprehension of mercurial dreamstates filled with symbolism—men are replaced with giant horned beings, cars become oversized horses. Formally, there is a stark dichotomy; the starry skies and electric hues of Remember Our Stars (2020) have given way to thick, muddier strokes of gold, brown, black, and charcoal in Skull (Right) (2021). But what binds these various styles together is that they are both rooted in Appah’s subjective response to his changing external environment and internal worlds.
Take, also, several large-scale works not included in this exhibition, If We Had a Thousand Years, Another Place, and Melody (all 2020). In each of these, fantasy takes hold. Perspective is skewed so that men appear larger than ships, horses, and mountains; their skin is rendered blue and orange. Mountainscapes are built of rocks in fleshy pink and purple hues. His fauvist, fantastical style here encourages the viewer’s imagination to run wild. The more recent Ten Nudes and a Landscape (2021) and Red Valley (2021) continue from this feeling, stunning our visual sensibilities with skies stained deep red and landscapes like pools of blood and plasma.
As they do in dreams, images recur throughout Appah’s work. The more recent paintings Black Beast (2020-21) and Lonely Stallion (2020-2021) represent larger-than-life horses looming over stark, cloudy landscapes. Horseback riding is a popular pastime on Ghanaian beaches, but the horse has also been a persistent symbol of the subconscious, sometimes representing unbridled freedom. In Appah’s more surreal works, the horse is painted white, perhaps in reference to the purity and spiritual enlightenment with which the absence of pigment has sometimes been associated. There may be the suggestion of triumph over evil, a common theme in Christianity and a significant concern in much of Ghanaian life. The horse, like the car, is also a vehicle to take you elsewhere—away from, or toward, the apocalyptic.
Painted through the uncertain days of 2020 and 2021, this body of work belongs to a time in which many things were lost and abandoned, and much of our sense of life and self had to be reimagined. In times such as these, breakthroughs might take place. The meanings of life and death start to converge and demand new pictorial modes of expression. The idea of a tidy narrative arc transforms into a series of detours that ask us to power up or power down at any given moment, constantly changing states as the climate demands. What we are left with is a fickle sense of persona and an understanding that such a thing can easily fade like a distant memory, however fresh you might feel today.