I often wonder what happened to all the good work about bad things. I mean, art history is filled with death and dismemberment, not to mention raping and pillaging. One of Titian’s greatest paintings features a guy getting his skin ripped off because he lost a battle of the bands to the god Apollo. Ouch. The main course on Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”: human flesh.
But sometime after Picasso’s “Guernica” all that changed. As painting became less about the human condition and more about the condition of some human’s bank account, the “bad” stuff, with few exceptions, seemed to just disappear.
I get it, no one wants to look at their wall and be reminded that one day they, too, will eat shit. Especially if you’ve paid five figures or more for the privilege. But pain and death are a fundamental dimension of human experience. Maybe a multi-year global pandemic with over a million American casualties will admonish us, or maybe not. Occasionally though, an exhibition appears that does remind us of what we are: mortal. And in doing so reveals the beauty in the tragic.
Enter German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku. Her “I have Arisen… The Myths of Eternal Life Part One” transforms Mariane Ibrahim’s crisp white walls from a brightly lit contemporary gallery into a reimagined Egyptian tomb. Replete with hieroglyphs and hybrid forms, Opoku’s potent visual incantations were conjured after a head-on collision with her own mortality: a cancer diagnosis that put her creative practice on hold and held her life in the balance.
With colors that range from silvery, midwinter gray to deep, nocturnal blue, the seven works on display feature screenprinted images of the artist; of hands, eyes and breasts; of apples and trees, stitched together like sutures over a wound. There is a life-sized quality to these collaged elements that make the artist feel present in a palpable way. She is reassembling herself, and we bear witness through imagery pregnant with the promise of spring.
Opoku’s titles are long, enigmatic and likely culled from prayers that feature in what is referred to as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Wide-ranging, the volume is a collection of spells written on behalf of the departed to make way for a seamless transition to the afterlife. It’s not a cohesive religious text in the manner of the Koran or Torah. But as a metaphor for the artist’s physical and creative rebirth, it is pitch perfect. Make no mistake, these are not paintings about “good times” but they are nonetheless great. “I Have Arisen…” is the velvet dusk of one life as it abuts the dawn of another. (Alan Pocaro)
“I have Arisen… Myths of Eternal Life Part One” is on view through May 14 at Mariane Ibrahim, 437 North Paulina.