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Conrad Egyir's compelling portraits at MOCAD

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

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.

Conrad Egyir's monumental fantasy, "How Beautiful, the Feet That Brings the Sound of Good News," will be up at Detroit's MOCAD through Jan. 10.

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."

"The Gathering" by Conrad Egyir, in his solo show at MOCAD.

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.

Detail from Conrad Egyir's "A Psalm of Sufficiency," with the artist represented in multiple images -- a feature that crops up in a number of his paintings.

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.

"Ibtisam" by Conrad Egyir in "Terra Nullius" at MOCAD. The legend running up the frame reads, "Running the race set before us."

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

'Conrad Egyir: Terra Nullius'

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

(313) 832-6622

mocadetroit.org