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George Hughes, The Politics of Identity, January 26-March 3, 2018

George Afedzi Hughes, The Politics of Identity

George Afedzi Hughes uses painting and performance art to focus on the turbulence of colonialism and to highlight parallels between that violent history and contemporary global conflicts. The Politics of Identity includes two separate bodies of work: Social Predation from the early part of the 21st century and The Politics of Identity, his most recent work. The older canvases emphasize the tragedy of such history, with images of animal/human body parts, scientific notations and military metaphors. In contrast, the newer paintings address ostensibly positive roles and identities derived from contact between colonial regimes and developing economies. Hughes’ project interprets the spectacle of information, knowledge, and subjectivity through a systematic yet accessible iconography.

More personal and introspective than Hughes’ later work, the paintings from the Social Predation series include photos of the artist and his family, original poetry, and imaginary objects inspired by the military barracks that served as his studio. Using aggressive brush strokes and meticulously rendered schematics, the artist maps the connections and interconnections between himself, his family and the places he called home during that time. The expressive mark-making and powerful colors suggest a spontaneity and even an urgency in their creation. One cannot help but imagine the artist before the canvases, shifting between dynamic, gestural brush strokes and finely rendered diagrams. Compositionally, these canvases do not present a clear sense of space or depth, however the large size and dramatic verticality of the paintings recall the “truth” of Western history paintings. Surrounding the photographs of Hughes and his family are massive faces inspired by traditional African sculpture. The masks look out from the canvases and past the viewer, tying together the ancient and recent pasts and drawing further connection between himself and his ancestry. Like the complex diagrams of interconnectivity in the paintings, his stratum of symbols and surfaces requires time and attention to absorb and decipher.

The newer works in the front gallery are more focused, both formally and symbolically. Hughes has deliberately limited the elements, drawing the viewer into the paintings very quickly. There is a clarity to the compositions, with many of the canvases using horizon lines and perspective to place the objects, as well as the viewer, into a clear spatial relationship. Green has replaced red as the dominant color and the smooth surfaces force the viewer to focus much more on the objects and figures themselves rather than the gestural marks used to render them. The artist’s symbolic language remains intact, including animals, anatomy, soccer balls, bananas, and barcodes, but here they are both distilled and amplified. The barcodes no longer include numbers, allowing the forms to simultaneously reference an irresistible consumer culture as well as a catastrophic incarceration system. For the paintings in The Politics of Identity, Hughes seems to both comment and critique from a different vantage point, perhaps from a greater distance.

George Afedzi Hughes is an Associate Professor of Painting at SUNY Buffalo. Born in Ghana, Hughes studied painting at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, College of Art, where he earned a BA in Fine Art and an MA in Art Education. After graduation he spent two years in France and England painting and the artworks created during this tour culminated in a major solo exhibition at the Artists Alliance Gallery in Accra, Ghana. Shortly after, Hughes settled in the United States where he received an MFA in Painting and Drawing from Bowling Green State University. Since then, he has exhibited internationally and has taught in universities throughout the United States. His paintings, performances, and installations have been shown in Canada, China, Denmark, Dubai, England, France, Germany, Ghana, Holland, Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden, Uruguay, Wales, and the United States.

Post Curatorial Essay by Julia Bottoms

George Afedzi Hughes’ paintings are coded maps. Each detail carrying the weight of direction; of intentionality. When gazing upon them, it seems as though he has a very specific destination in mind, but it is left up to the viewer to discern where each winding path should lead. He appears to be slightly less concerned with the final destination as he is with the journey in and of itself. One might even say the paintings have an inconclusive final resting point, as though at any moment, a robotic voice might announce “rerouting! rerouting!” and alert us that the definitive “end” has yet to be reached.  Looking at the political nature of Afedzi Hughes’ work, the previous metaphor becomes quite clear. He addresses non-linear themes such as identity, the far reaching effects of colonialism, and the reconciliation of the former in the reality of the latter. Afedzi Hughes’ confronts these themes on a personal level in his older work, as well as a broader level in his more recent pieces.  But the one singular element that carries through all of it is this sense of visual mapping.

Born in Ghana, and educated/ recognized internationally, Afedzi Hughes’ work reflects a well rounded and worldly take on the subject matter. His older pieces are much looser. The colors are deep, dominated by reds and earth tones. They feel quite heavy and deeply personal. There are even family photos interwoven into the work. And yet we find clues that the pieces transcend mere personal history, and rather, attempt to find one’s place within a larger structure. Looking at a work such as Red Coat Stigmata, we find charged symbols such as bar codes and dollar signs jumping out at the viewer, providing a visual anchor in what could otherwise read as an overwhelming amount of information. One can only imagine that the frantic flurry of elements on display, in part reflects the similar inner dilemma of exploring one’s place in a world very much shaped by the wounds of colonialism.

Afedzi Hughes’ newer work is located in a separate adjoining room of the gallery; a well executed curatorial decision. Upon turning the corner it becomes clear that this is a very different body of work. Equally powerful to the first, but with an entirely different approach. If Afedzi Hughes’ older work was a snapshot of personal identity, then this more recent series is him holding up a mirror to global conflict. The work does retain a certain surreal and removed quality, similar to that of the older work. Part of this is due to his compositional choices as an artist, while part of it stems from the topic at hand. The topic Afedzi Hughes’ is addressing is somewhat literally foreign to us here in the United States in practice, but also very familiar in its racist intent. Recurring symbols in this new body of work are bananas and soccer balls. This is in reference to the European practice of racist audience members throwing bananas onto the field when a black athlete is performing. “This exhibition is very timely. We were installing this work the week after the president made racist remarks about Africa and those who come to the United States from there. In his most recent work, Hughes is addressing this type of racism through the metaphor of the sports arena, but the connection to the political arena is also clear” says Buffalo Arts Studio curator Shirley Verrico.

Afedzi Hughes’ tackles this subject matter as well as the commoditization of black athletes bodies and talent, with finesse. The paintings almost feel playful with their spring-like palette and occasional gold elements in works such as After Party. Perhaps this is part of Afedzi Hughes’ intention; to lead our mind into a headspace of play, only to abruptly confront us with the social reality at hand upon examination of his included symbols. The audience is left to reflect upon the notion that colonialism is not limited to bodies of land, but may also include the literal acquisition, control, and exploitation of a human body as well.

 

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