Saturday 27 October 2012

Ankara Portraits… An American’s love for African fabric painting

By Tajudeen Sowole
The resilience of the ankara fabric, which perhaps makes it one of the most celebrated African textiles, has attracted the attention of Johannesburg, South Africa-based American artist, Gary Stephens.

Coincidentally though, Stephens’ showing of paintings titled Ankara Portraits, currently on at Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos opened just as Dublin Ankara Festival in Ireland and Ankara Festival Los Angeles, U.S. closed their 2012 editions. These festivals, indeed, confirmed the increasing popularity of the ankara fabric both at home and in the Diaspora.

However, Stephens’ paintbrush and canvas did not come in contact with the fabric abroad. Although he may have been working with other African fabrics such as South Africa’s shwe shwe textile, his contact with ankara, he disclosed, came when he came to Lagos for the first time early this year. 
Gary Stephens’ The Turquoise.
Stephens’ technique, basically, is painting on fabric, using photograph reference of people captured by his camera. He explained the process as starting with stretching of a fabric on the canvas, sketching and paint outlines with acrylic, bringing lights and shade where necessary and creating contrasting colours in the background.

When Stephens came to Lagos last February, the works from the technique he showed at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos included a more dimensional optical effect images. The portraits, viewed via slide back then, were of fashions referenced from the streets of Johannesburg. 

His brief stay in Lagos must have got him interested in the ankara fabric. He recalled that before leaving Lagos, “I bought about 26 pieces of ankara fabrics, each six metres, at the Balogun Market, Lagos Island.” The works for the Ankara Portraits, he disclosed, “were done on the fabric I bought in Lagos.”

Stephens’ canvases are unusually large for the kind of portrait paintings Lagos galleries are known for. Responding to this observation during a visit to Omenka a few days before the show opened, he explained, “I paint large because my studio is large; I don’t know how big my canvas is until am out.” So, with just 15 pieces, his first major show in Nigeria is like a house full.

Some of the works he is showing include depictions of ladies’ head dress trends in Lagos such as gele and bounded-scarf as well as boys’ hat fashion trend. One of such works, Coral Scarf, a side view of a lady, shows the moderate or casual gele style in portraiture.

Quite interesting how the artist’s separation of colours creates dimensionality, which shoots out the gele, jewelries and blouse from the flesh of the model. And more intriguing is Stephens’ style of diffusing the struggle between the background and the figure, which naturally brings a bond in the single ankara fabric on which the two shares.

In another work, Turquoise Scarf, Golden Light, the less aggressive pattern of the fabric appears to provide the artist with a much subtle ventilation for a stronger method of emphasising the headdress, yet getting the background as complementary as possible.

Whatever made Stephens show interest in the Nigerian art market could just be the beginning of a long relationship. “I am here partly to learn more, kind of residency,” he stated. And part of the learning was drawing his attention to the fact that what he referred to as scarf is called gele in Nigeria. “Oh, I was never told,” he said. “I will take note and correct that next time.”

Some of his works presented at his first contact with Nigerian artists during the CCA event are also included in the Ankara Portraits. Among such works are Teddy Facing and The Check.

It should be recalled that during the CCA presentation, one of his techniques, which has the optical illusion effect, was created either by string screens, vertical lines and pleating the prints of the painting. Then, he told his audience how his journey of experimentation started when one of the galleries in South Africa wanted him to be working on a specific theme, “which I thought would be repeating myself.”

On the African theme for his work, Stephens recalled how “I did a year long art residency in Cape Town at Great More Art Studios, a Triangle Network member.” He considers his art more as documentary and not necessarily ‘a philosophy’. The diversity of urban Africa, he disclosed, fascinates him a lot.

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