At first glance, Kojo Marfo’s paintings are impressive creations depicting bald faces and fertile foliage. But these artworks are more than just pretty images: they reveal deep-seated stories in their allusions to traditional Akan artifacts, carvings and sculptures that the artist first encountered in his youth growing up in Ghana. His first solo show in the city, Gatekeepers of Heritage, which runs through June 4 at New York’s JD Malat Gallery pop-up, illustrates these connections in eight new figurative works.
“I want people to see my work as a reflection of my Akan culture and my struggles in the west,” says Marfo, who moved to Brooklyn, New York, as a teenager and now lives and works in London. “When I paint someone I always look for inspiration to keep me going and I refer to African magazines and photos.”
In Stranger #12 (2022), an abstract figure with an elongated face, dilated pupils and saucer-shaped eyes stares at the viewer against a black background. These physical attributes are direct references to akua’baround-headed Ghanaian fertility dolls that older women usually give to younger women of childbearing age.
Other works in the show also refer to aspects of African history. power (2022) shows two figures on a gray plane. The one on the left wears a ruby red shirt, pearl necklaces and a bright burgundy glove. This last detail is hard to miss as the subject’s hand sits prominently in the lower corner of the painting. The work, Marfo says, is a commentary on the physical cruelty of Western colonizers in Africa.
“This work is based on historical images from Africa during the height of colonialism,” says the artist. “When the colonizers thought you were lazy, they hit you hard and chopped off your hands.” The figure’s short arm on the left depicts this brutal act.
Much of Marfo’s desire to tell these stories stems from his childhood on the continent. Born in Ghana in 1980, Marfo had an interest in imagery from an early age, viewing everything from Akan carvings to Catholic altarpieces. However, he didn’t hone his skills until he was a teenager, when he moved to Brooklyn and began his career as an artist.
As Marfo said GQ magazine‘s Thomas Barrie in 2020, the painter began to draw inspiration from various creators – including Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and Francis Bacon – while developing his own self-taught practice. Eventually, Marfo began incorporating social commentary into his work, always emphasizing the idea that a visual language helps people understand each other better. His work is inherently political due to its subject matter, but the artist’s intent is to communicate rather than divide over it.
“I’m doing my best to make sure that by bringing people together, you become the channel for change,” the painter said CNN earlier this year. “You have to promote understanding.”
Sign up for the culture newsletter
Sure we can be close friends. Unfiltered access awaits you.