Peter Uka has a yearning desire in his latest exhibition at Mariane Ibrahim, “Longing.” Uka’s first exhibition with the gallery explores the familial gaze through portraiture.
This gaze is compounded with subtle gestures and mannerisms that are juxtaposed with intricately rendered backgrounds. The movement of each of Uka’s figures breaks the fourth wall and draws the spectator into his world. In “O.T.,” we see three young men sitting on a collage of richly pigmented blue hues that stream toward us as we engage in eye contact with each figure. The background and foreground echo expressionist techniques while the realism of the features completely engage the viewer.
The viewer can see subtle resemblances in tone and technique to Kerry James Marshall, a Chicago-based artist who creates and emphasizes the mundane moments of Black lives. Each figure Uka depicts appears unapologetically authentic in each of their movements, driving forward the familial gaze.
Uka brings calmness and tranquility to the Black figures he presents to the viewer. The unfazed nature and the authentic facial expressions depict moments that are mostly not available to the memories of Black people. The exhibition text notes, “How do we document a history that was unwritten, and only told orally? Of historical memories recounted and not crystallized.” This representation creates strength for the Black community, specifically in Chicago where the media almost never highlights raw and carefree moments like this.
“Beach Life” amplifies this carefree nature with two young boys in the forefront sitting on an uninhabited beach. The deepness of their skin and richness of their Blackness is emphasized by the contrasting and tranquil blue of the ocean behind them. The detail to their clothes and how the fabric lays on them stresses their lax stance that goes hand in hand with the background.
Many of the figures in “Longing” are engaged in movement that can represent joy or dancing. Uka, who has noted the influence of music on his work, integrates these influences in the lyrical way his figures are depicted.
Taking a closer look at each painting—there seems to be a disconnect between the figures and the backgrounds. While the figures and background pair fluidly, the glitch that occurs after looking closely may speak to Uka’s own experience expressed throughout this exhibition. This movement of figures through displacement and new environments invites the viewer to place themselves in the same environments. A yearning for space and movement in a “post-COVID” world is made almost tangible after viewing “Longing” and bringing Uka’s visual experience into your own. (Caira Moreira-Brown)
“Peter Uka: Longing” is on view at Marian Ibrahim, 437 North Paulina, through January 15.