Kojo Marfo’s figures silently scream. It’s in the eyes. They’re the focal point in each portrait. The pupil and iris are indistinguishable, and lines fall from the lids like tears. Though it’s unclear whether they register shock, fear, loss, or a combination of the three, they have an uncanny quality. Generating that unease might be the point of Marfo’s pop-up solo exhibition Gatekeepers of Heritage.
On view at High Line Nine Galleries in collaboration with JD Malat Gallery through June 4, the artist’s eight-painting US debut visualizes the cracks in polite society. In the 2021 show, Dreaming of Identity, in London he explored introspection and absurdity in domestic life, especially during a global pandemic, when many folks had time to scrutinize themselves or their families. Living in isolation some people found it harder than others to maintain the facade of a functional family unit. Marfo manifests these cracks in composure in his recent works. In “Stranger, #12” (2022), it’s hard to tell where the mask around the eyes begins and ends. Is the white hidden by beige skin and plum oblong lips, or is the beige skin covered with white paint?
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A flat, gray backdrop sets a dreary mood for the family portrait “Gatekeepers” (2022). Two parental figures wearing nearly identical black robes and tan collars anchor the painting. Their mask-like faces are both black and white, and would look neutral if not for the smudging around the eyes, which suggests bruising or running mascara. In the foreground two children wear bright, flowered robes and white collars—one’s face is the color of peanut butter with a darker brown around the eyes, and the other’s is a mix of dark brown and white. Flanking them are two more child-like characters, perhaps younger. Pearls hang from their white-collared necks. If the parents’ smudged eyes hardly disturb their neutrality, their children’s shock and despair appears all too evident. Their relative size dramatizes any emotions projected onto the canvas. In Marfo’s execution, the family portrait, a bourgeois symbol of prosperity and stability, simmers with tensions.
These figures are characteristic of Marfo’s style, one that blends aesthetic and cultural elements from Ghana, London, and New York’s graffiti scenes. The artist models the faces after Akan memorial heads, a 17th and 18th-century spiritual and visual Ghanaian artifact. The sculptures were created to honor great ancestors like royal leaders. The design of the torsos draws on elements of English fashions, featuring as it does collars typical of Elizabethan aristocracy and westernized clothing. However, Marfo strips the bodies of all texture and depth, rendering the figures as flattened shapes. “Pilgrim, #2” (2022) shows no hints of culture, gender, occupation, or other social identifiers. The flesh is black but it is not a skin tone. A string of pearls, flowers on the torso, a large nose with a septum piercing, and other elements don’t reveal much about the figure’s story or lend context to the vacant stare.
These figures’ dissociative gazes provide viewers interpretative space. More at ease than others on display, the person in “Keeper #1” (2022), posed in front of a subdued brown and beige backdrop, seems to register resignation. A honey-brown collar unnaturally stiffens the figure, suggesting discomfort despite the regal blue and purple clothing. Strands of pearls drape from the collar. Whimsical flowers around the skirt and head don’t liven the austere mood. The figure’s expressionless black eyes inspire contemplation. The characters function as totems, carrying the viewer into an introspective, spiritual realm. There he must contend with those things that have become a fact of life regardless of choice.
Marfo’s combination of Akan spiritual aesthetics and British stoicism leaves viewers with more questions than answers. The figures in this collection seem materially comfortable but emotionally stunned. As viewers return the figure’s stare, they must confront their own masks. This small but disconcerting show uses dark humor to reveal society’s discomfort with its own reflection — an affliction heightened during our three-year pandemic-induced isolation.
Kojo Marfo: Gatekeepers of Heritage continues at JD Mallat Gallery (507 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.