Conrad Egyir's compelling portraits at MOCAD
Detroiter Conrad Egyir is having quite a moment -- the Ghana-born artist currently has a striking painting in "Shapeshifters" at the Cranbrook Art Museum, as well as a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit that's well worth a special visit.
Egyir's "Terra Nullius" will be at MOCAD through Jan. 10.
Portraiture is a tricky game, one where it's often hard to stand out. But Egyir, who's produced a captivating body of work, finesses this with a style that's uniquely his own. His meticulous portraits, with their flattened perspective, fall midway between fine art and high-quality ad illustration. Indeed, in some cases, his characters sport the snappy look of 1960s car ads.
A playful streak of magical realism runs through these canvases. A young man -- either dead or sleeping -- floats in mid-air in one, while a dwarf standing on his bare chest speechifies. In another, a giant wearing sandals bestrides a young woman who only comes up to his shin, and eyes her overlord with skepticism.
These multi-layered visual essays draw on coded references from Egyir's native Ghana, as well as images pulled from Western pop culture.
Art Forum magazine noted last year that the artist's mixed-media paintings "serve as emblems, portraits, and quasi-religious narratives that honor black bodies and allude to iconographies of the African diaspora."
To take one example, in "The Gathering," the artist, dressed in white turtleneck and a sharp blue suit, stares out, slightly perplexed, while two mmoetia -- mythological dwarfs from Ghana's Akan people -- upbraid him. Indeed, the dwarf standing on the artist's leg (a dead-ringer for Egyir) wags a disapproving finger.
Amusingly, Egyir often employs multiple iterations of himself in paintings, as with "A Psalm of Sufficiency," where the four lookalike men seated on the ground are apparently stand-ins for the various sides of his personality. The repetition is a nice touch -- disorienting and compelling at the same time.
With "Ibtisam" the artist gives us a straight-on portrait of a young woman with earnest eyes and a couple of books balanced on her head, along with the laser-cut legend, "Running the race set before us."
The accompanying label notes that her depiction has some of the "regal austerity of postage stamp portraits." Indeed, regal austerity is a good description of virtually all of Egyir's portraits in this small, absorbing exhibition.
Through Jan. 10
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward, Detroit
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.-Fri; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun
Admission: $5 - suggested