Tizta Berhanu, Ethiopia, born 1991. “Bond,” 2021, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Bill and Christy Gautreaux Collection
What do people see when they look at you? Is their vision comprised of preconceived notions that fill in the gaps of your story without actually knowing the intricate details of who you are? The act of looking at a piece of art is one of observation, bringing with it your experiences, backgrounds, notions and tastes.
“Return the Gaze” features figure paintings by Black artists from Africa and the African Diaspora who look back at the audience to tell their own story. The eight artists in the show include a variety of ages, backgrounds, languages and genders. Thus, the experience is expansive yet linked under the theme of Black figures in contemporary art. Artists include Tizta Berhanu (Ethiopia), Cydne Jasmin Coleby (Bahamas), Shanique Emelife (Bahamas/United States), Arjan Martins (Brazil), Zanele Muholi (South Africa), Emma Odumade (Nigeria), Tajh Rust (United States), and Cinga Samson (South Africa). Most of the works are drawn from prominent private collections, including six paintings from The Bill and Christy Gautreaux Collection in Kansas City.
Paintings primarily of young Black men by Samson and Odumade fill the first room of the Artspace. Samson’s paintings explore masculinity and Blackness amidst the backdrop of post-colonial South Africa. His figures are full of realistic detail, down to creases in clothes and sinew of flesh, yet their eyes are cloudy and gray, lending an otherworldly quality. Their eyes face the viewer, but their gazes cannot be met, representing a world that one can observe and feel but not really see. Odumade’s two pieces mix found objects with painting, creating layers of texture and meaning. His “Seth; Why Run Away from Light Equals Infin9s” (2021-2022) features a teenage boy with math and science notes and general scrawling over his body. He appears to be in motion, as if he is shaking off the pressure of the school day.
Martins and Emelife’s paintings portray scenes of calm joy from their respective countries. Martins’ pieces bounce with life even though the faces are not defined. Emelife’s pieces drip with realism, down to the child slouching lazily as the parents get lost in conversation in “Kin” (2021).
Some of the figures in “Return the Gaze” look toward the audience, as if posing for a photo. Coleby’s mixed media piece “Strong Genes” presents a family portrait with the same lips, eyes and teeth smiling at the “camera,” individuality displayed through patterns and bright colors popping from their shirts, skin and hair. Muholi shows a woman prepared to dive into a swimming pool, reminiscent of a photo, which is Muholi’s typical medium. Their photography book highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in South Africa can be explored in the reading room.
While some of the figures stare back at the audience, others are firmly rooted in their own worlds, entranced with each other and unconcerned with outside eyes. Rust’s piece “Ocean Floor” offers a warm glimpse into the lives of a couple. Paired with the cool tones of water, they lie together smiling and completely content. “Bond” by Berhanu features a group huddled in an embrace, with light touches of bronze and brown — the lines blurred to illustrate a sense of community and togetherness.
Each piece, artist and country in “Return the Gaze” has its own relationship to Blackness, from the reverberations of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade to traditions that are timeless or changed by modernism. Underlying symbols and signals within each culture are clear to those on the inside and murky to those outside of it. What is evident to all, however, is the emotion these works evoke through their individual stories, as well as the blend of techniques and talent that bring African/African diasporic art to the forefront of artistic discourse.
“Return the Gaze” continues at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace, 16 W. 43rd St., through March 23. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday and Tuesday by appointment. For more information, 816.561.5563 or kcai.edu/hr-block-artspace