at David Krut Projects, NYC Reviewed by Robin Scher
Since the days of cave paintings, the human need to represent and be represented has served as a powerful impulse to create art. This desire has manifested in many forms and been fulfilled in various fashions. Icons and Avatars, a current group show at New York’s David Krut Projects, presents five international contemporary artists who continue this tradition through portraiture.
The word ‘avatar’ has become synonymous in recent years with social media or James Cameron’s blue aliens. More traditionally, though, the word has been used at turns to refer to the physical manifestation of a deity, or the embodiment of a philosophy or idea in a person. ‘Icon,’ in a similar sense, tends to refer to that rare person who transcends mere mortality.
A fine representation of such an individual can be found in the print, Portrait of a Young Nelson Mandela (2008), by the Dutch artist Marlene Dumas. Here we have the iconic South African liberation leader who appears in the less familiar guise of his youth. But is that all that is unfamiliar? Most of the world knows the image of Mandela as an old man, appearing at times austere and other moments jovial. But in this image, taken from an old photograph, there’s a quality captured in the glint of his eyes and hint of a smirk that might best be described as rakish. Dumas confirms this, writing under his face the words, ‘Would you trust this man with your daughter?’
Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh is another artist whose work challenges our preconceptions. Through her lens, Muluneh creates bright, vivid scenes that manage to depict elements of Ethiopian culture, while avoiding the tropes that many might associate with the word ‘African’ when it is prefixed to art.
“I want to make Africa digestible in a different way,” Muluneh once told me. “When people think about Africa right now, they often only think about animals, war, and famine. I’m trying to distort that impression to provoke questions in a different sense.”
Memory of Libya (2016) epitomizes this very instinct. In it, three identical faces framed by a yellow background peek over a band of red, each looking toward a different direction: backwards, forwards, and head-on. Muluneh herself has said the image was made in response to a 2015 tragedy involving the beheading of 30 Ethiopian men by ISIS on the shores of Libya. Through metaphor, Muluneh has found a way to express this anguish, resituating both her chosen form of photographic portraiture and its content in a manner that befits their complexity.
A bone-chilling portrait by Diane Victor achieves a similar end through very different means. The image, Smoke Screen 24 (Frailty and Failing) (2010), is of a snarling man with an egg-shaped head, protruding ears, and a certain dead-look in his eyes. In part this expression could be attributed to Victor’s source — a South African prisoner awaiting trial. The ominous sense this portrait evokes also owes credit to Victor’s production method, which involves burning candles and using the carbon from its smoke as the medium.
Altogether, this show highlights the avatar-creating potential of portraiture. In a recent story about another artist revitalizing this form—the British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—the writer Zadie Smith noted, “Sometimes the process of making art is a conversation not so much with tradition as with the present moment.” Given that interpretation then, the present resurgence portraiture is enjoying may very well lie less in what it offers aesthetically as what it seeks to accomplish as a form of representation.
A New York-based South African writer, Robin Scher is also a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU.