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Figuration, abstraction and the politics of representation

by Gabriella Nugent
Articles / Article • 05.07.2024

The rise of figuration since the mid-2010s has been coterminous with the art world’s attempt to become more inclusive. Not only have there been increased demands for ‘women artists’ in the context of the #MeToo movement that began in 2017, but the global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 galvanised the appeals for decolonisation – that is to say, the expansion of collections beyond white artists typically from Western Europe and North America. In this context, public and private institutions have depended on figurative art to demonstrate, in quite a literal way, that they are being more equitable. This trend has developed in parallel across institutions and the art market: since the mid-2000s, there has been a growth in sales of figurative painting, which subsequently has been bolstered by an institutional embrace.1

This article joins the likes of others by such writers as Barry Schwabsky and Larne Abse Gogarty that have explored the rise of figuration in recent years.2 However, it specifically examines this development in relation to the politics of representation. The criticism in this article is not directed towards the artists and works of art discussed, but rather their mobilisation by institutions. To start, the article considers the revival of an older generation of artists, as well as the wider stakes of figuration and abstraction. It then proceeds to address a schism between a Western European and North American demand for certain images in the name of decolonisation and the actual politics of artmaking in the locales that Western institutions purport to represent. At a moment when figuration is being embraced by museums and galleries seeking to perform their equity, it is surely necessary to ask what can instead be gained from abstraction.


Figuration, now and then

Many artists who engaged in figuration when it was more political than popular – for example, after the Second World War, following the emergence of Abstract Expressionism – have been celebrated in recent years, including Alice Neel (1900–84), Philip Guston (1913–80), Faith Ringgold (1930–2024) and Martin Wong (1946–99). However, this is not without its problems. Some institutions are guilty of occluding the social context of figuration at its moment of making, instead mobilising these artists to their own ends. Moreover, the memory of certain movements, including the Black British Arts Movement and global modernism, is also being obscured through the prioritisation of figuration.

Neel’s work was revived by second-wave feminism in the 1970s, and the artist’s subsequent institutional success in Europe has overlapped with the rise in figuration.3 In 1976 her work was included in Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin’s Women Artists 1550–1950 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a landmark exhibition that followed several decades during which abstraction had dominated the Western art scene.4 When Neel enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921, she had already rejected one precedent of abstraction: Impressionism. Instead, she embraced the Ashcan School, which was known for portraying scenes of everyday life, often in the poorer neighbourhoods of New York.

During the interwar years, American art had witnessed a more general turn towards figuration. The politically themed art of Mexican muralism – a state-sponsored project that invited artists to create monumental works on public buildings as a way to unite the country after the Mexican Revolution – was adopted in the context of the Great Depression.5 Rejecting the elitism of European abstraction, Mexican muralism offered a language that spoke directly to the masses. American artists adopted a similar approach in the context of the Public Works of Art Project (1933–34), a relief programme that employed artists to create work for buildings and parks as a way to counter widespread unemployment and poverty, and its successor, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (1935–43).6 Neel participated in both.

After the Second World War, the status of figuration changed dramatically. In the context of the Cold War, figuration and abstraction became polarised, emblematic of the divide between the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union and the capitalist democracy of the United States.7 With regards to the latter, Mexican muralism was vilified due to its association with the Stalinist Left, whereas the abstraction of the New York School was celebrated.8 It was in this charged context that Neel continued to work in a figurative tradition.

Many critics have observed that Neel’s communism has been underplayed or even erased in contemporary accounts.9 By contrast, Gerald Meyer has argued that Neel’s political beliefs and involvements determined the course of her life: ‘whom she married, her choice of friends, where she lived’ and most importantly ‘her paintings – their aesthetic and their subjects’.10 Last year, the Barbican staged Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle (16th February–21st May 2023), the largest exhibition of the artist’s work in the United Kingdom.11 Its curator, Eleanor Nairne, suggested that, rather than discuss Neel’s politics in a ‘capital P way’, visitors should consider a ‘softer but just as powerful vision of the politics of her painting, which is about what it means to see another person for who they are’.12 As evidenced by Nairne’s comment, the exhibition negated the politics of figuration at the time. Instead, it opened with Neel’s only self-portrait, which depicted the artist, then aged eighty, nude FIG.1. This decision foregrounded the artist’s seemingly more palatable and, indeed, in-demand identity as a ‘woman artist’, which was further solidified by the Barbican’s collaboration with Katy Hessel, a social media influencer whose Instagram account capitalises on the identity of women artists at the expense of feminist art-historical research.13

Even if Neel has been recuperated as a feminist icon, her relationship with feminism was ambiguous. Chris Hayes, for example, has discussed Neel’s portrait of the feminist activist Irene Peslikis, Marxist Girl (1972), in the context of the shifting relationship between Marxism and feminism in the 1970s.14 Peslikis was part of the left-wing feminist group Redstockings, whose writings denounced ‘politico feminism’ that treated gender as secondary to class.15 As Hayes observes, a year before painting Peslikis, Neel wrote in the communist journal the Daily World: ‘Women’s real liberation cannot occur without some change in the social organization […] Property relations which reduce everything to the status of “things” and “objects” have also reduced women to the status of “sexual objects”’.16 Therefore, one cannot even begin to understand Neel’s figuration without her communism.

Women artists associated with the Black British Arts Movement of the 1980s have also been subject to major exhibitions in recent years, including Lubaina Himid (b.1954) at Tate Modern, London (25th November 2021–2nd October 2022), and Claudette Johnson (b.1959) at the Courtauld Gallery, London (19th September 2023–14th January 2024).17 The title of Johnson’s exhibition, Presence, addressed one of the primary concerns of these artists at the time: the lack of visibility for Black British women. At the Courtauld, Johnson’s large-scale drawings of Black women, from the 1980s to 1990s and late 2010s to early 2020s, dominated the walls of the gallery. Johnson has a longstanding interest in European Modernism and often conceives of her work in dialogue with these artists, whose paintings visitors had to pass on their way to the temporary exhibition rooms. In the catalogue, Johnson commented: ‘I imagine it will raise many interesting questions about what belongs in this space, who belongs here, and who can find a sense of belonging here, in this building’.18 In And I Have My Own Business in This Skin FIG.2, Johnson directly addresses Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York). She depicts a Black woman in contrapposto framed by colour blocks and bisected by a central vector. In this depiction, Johnson develops a Cubist language that liberates women from their ‘fetishized otherness’.19

At the same time, there were other artists who participated in the British Black Arts Movement whose art was neither figurative nor overtly political. However, the institutional desire to appear equitable through figuration seems to be shaping the contemporary presentation of such movements, and different kinds of artmaking are not necessarily being given the same attention. Consider, for example, Sonia Boyce’s (b.1962) ongoing engagement with wallpaper. In Lover’s Rock (1998) she embossed lyrics from a popular song at the time, Susan Cadogan’s ‘Hurt So Good’ (1975), onto white wallpaper. The work evokes the experience of West Indian house parties, where couples dancing together press against the walls, leaving a trace of their presence behind. Alternatively, the practice of Zarina Bhimji (b.1963) has always traded in silence as a way to navigate and oppose power.20 Her early photo-text works from the mid-1980s include In Response to the F-Stops Exhibition (For the White Feminist) FIG.3, most recently exhibited in Women in Revolt at Tate Britain, London (8th November 2023–7th April 2024), which couples short textual phrases written by third-wave feminist authors – ‘SILENCE IS STARVATION’ or ‘SILENCE ABOUT TO BREAK’ – with images of everyday domestic objects taken at ground level.21 These photographs depict a foot about to step on a tray laid out with drinks, or the precarity of a bowl of apples situated on the floor.22

A final example of the contemporary prioritisation of figuration can be found in the Venice Biennale 2024, Foreigners Everywhere (20th April–24th November 2024), curated by Adriano Pedrosa. Pedrosa presents two sections as part of his ‘Nucelo storico’: one dedicated to ‘Abstractions’, and the other to ‘Portraits’. The ‘Nucelo storico’ seeks to demonstrate that modern twentieth-century art extended beyond Europe and North America.23 In the figurative galleries, Pedrosa illustrates this claim with over one hundred portraits and representations of mostly ‘non-white characters’ created between 1915 and 1990 by artists in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.24 The logic of this presentation is primarily informed by the attempts of contemporary institutions to appear more equitable through figuration, rather than the concerns of the selected artists FIG.4.

One of the paintings included in ‘Portraits’ is Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life) FIG.5 by the Egyptian artist Hamed Ewais (1919–2011). In 1947 Ewais cofounded the Modern Art Group, which rejected the dominant movement of Surrealism as its visual language was not necessarily accessible to all.25 Ewais subsequently drew from Mexican muralism to depict the everyday struggles of Egyptian people. His painting demonstrates the artist’s continued belief in President Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the principal leaders of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Ewais depicts a larger-than-life soldier, who looms protectively over a group of Egyptians. Prior to its execution, Egypt had lost to Israel in the Six-Day War (1967). At the time, the country was also struggling with a serious economic crisis that had led to several austerity measures. In the aftermath of the military defeat, Nasser resigned in disgrace only to promptly return to office after citizens showed their support with massive street demonstrations. Responding to these events, Ewais’s Le Gardien de la Vie projects an image of strength and protection, as the soldier tenderly shields the Egyptian people going about their daily lives. In Pedrosa’s salon-style presentation, this specific cultural context – and the significance of figuration in 1960s Egypt – is obscured by the curator’s contemporary designation of identity. His idea of ‘non-white characters’ additionally belies the complexity of race in Egypt.26

The identity-bound concerns of figuration simultaneously create the lens through which to view abstraction. Pedrosa claims that ‘Global South’ artists rejected the grid, hard edges and primary colours, preferring instead ‘sinuous, curvilinear shapes’ and ‘bright colours’.27 The curator’s conceptual concerns seemingly made him blind to the work on show, including Composition FIG.6 by the South African artist Ernest Mancoba (1904–2002). In this painting, Mancoba abstracts a Congolese Kuba mask by integrating chevrons, geometric shapes and grids; its main colours are red, green and blue. Joshua I. Cohen has described Mancoba’s turn to abstraction as ‘a form of retaliation against racial orthodoxies, executed with freedom in mind’, a liberation subsequently denied by Pedrosa.28 Cohen continues: ‘Such moves are nuanced and complex even as they relate to a basic question: how might it look to simply be human, yet extraordinarily alive?’.29 To this end, Cohen, Karen Kurczynski and Nicola Pezolet have all demonstrated that Mancoba created a distinct brand of humanism grounded in the shared appreciation of African art by him and his Danish colleagues in Paris.30 In comparison to Pedrosa’s retrograde and divisive approach, Mancoba’s Composition seeks to build bridges between worlds.


Whose decolonisation?

There is an irony in the ways that British museums and galleries have depended on figuration to demonstrate their decolonial agendas. Indeed, the demand for figuration is one generated in Western Europe and North America and then applied elsewhere, often determining the selection and presentation of artists from outside a Eurocentric matrix. This overemphasis on figuration has led to the denial of equal knowledge production from these locales.

In February 2020 the Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo (b.1984) debuted at auction. Boafo trained at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design, Accra, and subsequently at the Academy Fine Arts Vienna. Estimated at £30,000 to £50,000, Boafo’s painting The Lemon Bathing Suit FIG.7, which depicts a Black woman sunbathing in a pool on a white flotation device, sold for £675,000 at Philips, London.31 Emblematic of Boafo’s style, the woman’s body is rendered in thick, gestural strokes of black, brown and blue applied by finger. Two years later, Boafo’s Yellow Dress FIG.8, which portrays a Black man dressed in yellow against a background of the same colour, appeared on the cover of Tate’s publication African Art Now: Fifty Pioneers Defining African Art for the Twenty-First Century (2022).32 

About 250 kilometres north-west of Accra, the Ghanaian artist–intellectual karî’kachä seid’ou and his colleagues in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at Kwame University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, joke that people think they do not like painting.33 Known today as the collective blaxTARLINES, seid’ou and his colleagues are credited with the transformation of the department from its colonial origins to an influential cultural hub that has produced internationally acclaimed artists, such as Ibrahim Mahama (b.1987). One of the most important changes led by seid’ou is the shift away from identity politics towards material politics. Needless to say, there is a kind of schism between the cutting-edge curriculum of KNUST’s Department of Painting and Sculpture and the demand for certain images in Western Europe and North America.

KNUST’s Department of Painting and Sculpture emerged out of the arts curriculum of Achimota College, a co-educational public boarding school founded in 1924 to produce an African elite. As discussed by Maruška Svašek, the school’s European art teachers promoted a link between artmaking and identity, which was based on preconceived ideas of Africa held by European modernists.34 Although many of the young students were accustomed to contemporary colonial life in large cities, they were encouraged to portray figurative scenes of everyday village life.35 These images subsequently fed into a tourist market, stultifying the department’s curriculum until seid’ou’s arrival in the late 1980s.

Over the course of the last three decades, seid’ou and his colleagues have enacted subtle changes, leading to the celebrated department of today.36 In comparison to the identity politics that previously determined students’ subject-matter, seid’ou advocates for a kind of material politics, whereby things and objects can challenge long-held norms and propose alternative visions of the world. Nowhere is this more visible than in Mahama’s large-scale jute sack installations, which apply pressure to notions of ‘Africanness’. While synonymous with Ghanaian trade markets, the production of jute originates in Dundee, Scotland, in the mid-nineteenth century after which it was transferred to the banks of Calcutta, where the crop is grown.37 By the early twentieth century, jute had been constructed as a necessity to international trade, taking its place as the world’s packing medium. In Mahama’s installations FIG.9, jute demonstrates the interconnectedness of the world in the wake of European colonialism and its concomitant global economy and the way that it challenges the continental frameworks that most often constrain artists from outside Western Europe and North America.

At Tate Modern, A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography (6th July 2023–14th January 2024) FIG.10 FIG.11 presented the work of thirty-six African and African diaspora photographers, the majority of whom work in a tradition of portraiture.38 In the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protest movement, Tate launched a race equality taskforce and A World in Common was submitted as evidence of progress of this agenda.39 Inevitably, there is something that goes awry when artists and works of art are mobilised in this way – and it is never white European or North American artists who are deployed to such ends. Beyond the obvious and dangerous reductivism of an exhibition dedicated to an entire continent (where is the European equivalent?), the selection of works was limited to images of people, offering a superficial and literal interpretation of Tate’s attempt at diversity and inclusion. One further explanation can be found in Tate’s African Acquisition Committee, which is itself bound up with the art market. In this leveraging of art to suit an institutional agenda, A World in Common overlooked a more abstract tradition of photography, which includes, for example, the French-Algerian artist Bruno Boudjelal (b.1961), whose blurred photographs of Algeria FIG.12 interrogate the silencing of Algerian memories in France.40 It is also notable that Tate organised an exhibition around abstract photography in 2018 that did not include a single artist of African origin.41

At the same time as A World in Common, Tate Modern presented a solo exhibition of Guston.42 Over the course of eleven rooms, viewers had the chance to explore his shifts between figuration and abstraction. This kind of comparison between a continent-based group show and individualistic artistic freedom is not without precedent. In a 2002 article titled ‘Are We There Yet?’, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie discussed two exhibitions that were staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the previous year: The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 curated by Okwui Enwezor and a solo exhibition by the South African artist William Kentridge (b.1955).43 Ogbechie observed that, while African artists in The Short Century, such as Skunder Boghossian (1937–2003) – who had lived for many years in the United States – were ‘evaluated as a reflection of the ethos of a nationalist space, hence his [Skunder’s] continued identification as an “Ethiopian artist”’, Kentridge, a white male South African artist was absorbed seamlessly into ‘an institutional art historical narrative’.44 In a similar vein, the artists included in A World in Common are denied the same play between figuration and abstraction that is afforded to Guston. Instead, their works are treated as identity-bound and separated from mainstream narratives, even as they occupy the shared space of the global contemporary. To paraphrase the title of Ogbechie’s article: for how much longer?



In her account of the rise of figuration, Abse Gogarty discusses the contemporary painters TM Davy (b.1980), Louis Fratino (b.1993) and Doron Langberg (b.1985).45 Taking up Guston’s dictum that ‘painting has to prove its right to exist’, she argues that the work of these three artists offers ‘no view of life that isn’t affirmative and based on recognition […] it becomes hard to disentangle their practice from mainstream representations of the successful individual as one who is self-realised and recognised by society’.46 By contrast, Abse Gogarty advocates for paintings by Noah Davis (1983–2015), which ‘plumb […] the complexity of social relations’.47 Davis has several paintings, such as Mary Jane, included in the travelling exhibition The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure.48 In Mary Jane, Davis depicts a young Black girl dressed in a striped pinafore dress, possibly a school uniform, with long white socks and black Mary Jane shoes. Her hair is tied back in a kerchief. There is a contrast set up between the innocence of the girl and the agitated verdant background, which suggests the presence of chaos that threatens to engulf the painting’s subject. Indeed, the green and black pattern of the background calls to mind military camouflage as well as marijuana buds, offering a play on the work’s title.

Davis is scheduled to open an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in February 2025, making him the third Black artist to have a solo show dedicated to their work in the main galleries, after Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–88) in 2017 and Carrie Mae Weems (b.1953) in 2023. Against a backdrop of Barbican Stories, accounts of discrimination published online by BIPOC members of staff in 2021, and the censorship of voices protesting the war in Palestine, one could argue that the Barbican is surely looking for Davis’s figuration to do a certain amount of work for them.49 The question remains as to whether the complexity of social relations portrayed by Davis can withstand their institutional mobilisation.

Simultaneously, there has been an emergent generation of artists interested in challenging the power of representation, preferring instead a politics of refusal. They include the American artists Nikita Gale (b.1983) and Jasper Marsalis (b.1995), both of whom have shown in London in recent years.50 Currently on display in the Tanks at Tate Modern, Gale’s PRIVATE DANCER FIG.13 is an installation comprising a rubble-like pile of aluminium concert-theatre lighting rigs, and choreographed spotlights that move in sync to the inaudible soundtrack of Tina Turner’s 1984 album Private Dancer. The starting point for the work was Turner’s decision to stop performing. Through its various elements, Gale’s installation explores the relationship between audience and performer and subverts the concomitant demands of spectacle and visibility.

Marsalis is similarly motivated by ideas around performance. His artistic practice is intimately linked to his work as a musician under the moniker Slauson Malone 1 (formerly Slauson Malone). As an artist, Marsalis creates a parallel between the space of a painting in a gallery and a performer on stage, both of which entail an experience of being looked at and consumed by audiences. His series of three paintings, Event 7 FIG.14, depicts the glare of spotlights. In two of the paintings, teardrops of white, blue and purple mimic the blinding light that emanates from the focused beams. A third painting depicts their blue and white light rays. In each of these works, Marsalis’s decision to picture spotlights seemingly subverts their purpose of enhancing an audience’s vision. Instead, the lights act as obstacles to vision; there is nothing else to see. On two of the canvases, Marsalis has attached scraps of solder FIG.15, which reflect light, preventing further access to the canvas. In this troubling of vision, Marsalis expresses a scepticism towards the ocular centrism of painting and the associated spectacle of performance.

Marsalis also plays with notions of opacity, as in a refusal to be known and understood.51 His sculpture L.F.W. FIG.16 consists of two found objects: a black bowling ball and a beige rock of a similar size that Marsalis has drilled with holes that echo the former’s finger grips. Despite their holes, these objects are largely impenetrable to viewers; they are meaningless. Their opaqueness offers a challenge to the expectations of viewers and their presumed ease of access to both performers and paintings.

At a moment when the institutional mobilisation of figuration often seems superficial, there is much to be gained from abstraction and the work of artists who refuse to take part in these performative gestures. Whereas figuration purports to represent, the abstract or non-representational practices of Mahama, Gale and Marsalis call into question the very terms of representation and what it means to image and look today.


About the author

Gabriella Nugent

is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. She is the author of Colonial Legacies: Contemporary Lens-Based Art and the Democratic Republic of Congo (2021) and Inji Efflatoun and the Mexican Muralists: Imaging Women and Work between Egypt and Mexico (2022). Her current book project explores expectations of difference in a global contemporary art world.


  • E. Fazzare: ‘Figurative painting’s market boom, in 5 charts’, Artsy (14th March 2016), available at, accessed 21st June 2024. footnote 1
  • B. Schwabsky: ‘Beyond zombie figuration’, The Nation (19th December 2022), available at, accessed 21st June 2024; and L. Abse Gogarty: ‘Figuring figuration’, Art Monthly 465 (April 2023), pp.6–10. footnote 2
  • Neel started to gain traction in Europe with solo exhibitions starting in 2010, see J. Lewison and B. Walker, eds: exh. cat. Alice Neel: Painted Truths, Houston (Museum of Fine Arts), London (Whitechapel Gallery) and Malmö (Moderna Museet Malmö) 2010–11. footnote 3
  • A. Sutherland Harris and L. Nochlin: exh. cat. Women Artists 1550–1950, Los Angeles (County Museum of Art), Austin (University Art Museum), Pittsburgh (Carnegie Museum of Art) and New York (Brooklyn Museum) 1976–77. footnote 4
  • B. Haskell, ed.: exh. cat. Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, New York (Whitney Museum of American Art) and San Antonio (McNay Art Museum) 2020. footnote 5
  • Ibid.; and A. Anreus, R.A. Greeley and L. Folgarait, eds: Mexican Muralism: A Critical History, Berkeley 2012. footnote 6
  • B. Prendeville: Realism in 20th Century Painting, London 2000, pp.103 and 114. footnote 7
  • A. Anreus: ‘Whatever happened to Realism after 1945? Figuration and politics in the western hemisphere’, in O. Enwezor, K. Siegel and U. Wilmes, eds: exh. cat. Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965, Munich (Haus der Kunst) 2016, p.421. footnote 8
  • See H. Charman: ‘Alice Neel’s Communist Manifesto’, ArtReview (2nd March 2023), available at, accessed 21st June 2024; and Abse Gogarty, op. cit. (note 2), p.8. footnote 9
  • G. Meyer: ‘Alice Neel: American Communist artist’, American Communist History 13 (2014), pp.179–88, at p.181; see also Charman, op. cit. (note 9). footnote 10
  • E. Nairne, ed.: exh. cat. Alice Neel: Hot Off the Griddle, London (Barbican) 2023. footnote 11
  • “‘Guess what, I’m alive!’: How New York artist Alice Neel seduced us with her fearless, fleshy portraits’ available at, accessed 21st June 2024. footnote 12
  • See G. Nugent: ‘Celebrating women artists and forgetting feminist art histories’, Burlington Contemporary (23rd March 2023), available at, accessed 21st June 2024. footnote 13
  • C. Hayes: ‘Behind Alice Neel’s Marxist Girl’, Verso (11th August 2023), available at, accessed 21st June 2024. footnote 14
  • Ibid. footnote 15
  • Ibid footnote 16
  • M. Wellen, ed.: exh cat: Lubaina Himid, London (Tate Modern) 2021; and D. Price and B. Wright, eds: exh cat: Presence: Claudette Johnson, London (Courtauld Gallery) 2023–24, reviewed by Amy Tobin on Burlington Contemporary (13th December 2023), available at, accessed 24th June 2024. footnote 17
  • Ibid., p.61. footnote 18
  • Ibid., pp.27–28. footnote 19
  • A.K. Young: ‘Lady of silences: the enigmatic photo-text work of Zarina Bhimji’, British Art Studies 20 (2021), footnote 20
  • Ibid.   footnote 21
  • Ibid.    footnote 22
  • This pedestrian claim that modernity and artistic modernism was an a priori European project has been challenged by scholars over the past three decades. footnote 23
  • Wall text for ‘Portraits’, 60th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale. footnote 24
  • Established in 1938, Art and Liberty was a group of Egyptian artists and intellectuals who self-identified with Surrealism. See S. Bardaouil: Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group, London 2017. footnote 25
  • See E.T. Powell: Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire, Stanford 2012, pp.14–25. footnote 26
  • Wall text for ‘Abstractions’, 60th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale. footnote 27
  • J.I. Cohen: ‘Identity and abstraction: Ernest Mancoba in London and Paris, 1938–1940’, post: notes on art in a global context (9th May 2018), available at, accessed 2nd July 2024. footnote 28
  • Ibid.     footnote 29
  • K. Kurcynski and N. Pezolet: ‘Primitivism, humanism and ambivalence: Cobra and Post-Cobra’, Res 59–60 (2011), pp.282–302; and J.I. Cohen: The ‘Black Art’ Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism Across Continents, Oakland, pp.148–54. footnote 30
  • See the lot entry for The Lemon Bathing Suit available at, accessed 21st June 2024. On the controversy surrounding the sale of the painting, see N. Freeman: ‘The swift, cruel, incredible rise of Amoako Boafo: how feverish selling and infighting bult the buzziest artist of 2020’, Artnet (28th September 2020), available at, accessed 21st June 2024. footnote 31
  • O. Bonsu: African Art Now: Fifty Pioneers Defining African Art for the Twenty-First Century, London 2022. footnote 32
  • karî'kachä seid’ou, in conversation with the present author, 20th April 2023. footnote 33
  • M. Svašek: ‘Identity and style in Ghanaian artistic discourse’, in J. MacClancy, ed.: Contesting Art: Art, Politics and Identity in the Modern World, London 1997, pp.31–32. footnote 34
  • Ibid., p.34. footnote 35
  • In summer 2021 African Arts published a special issue on blaxTARLINES, see K.B. Kissiedu and R. Simbao, eds: ‘blaxTARLINES [special issue]’, African Arts 54 (2021). blaxTARLINES has also featured on ArtReview’s Power 100 list since 2022, see ‘Power 100: blaxTARLINES’, ArtReview, available at, accessed 21st June 2024. footnote 36
  • On the global entanglements of jute, see D. Chakrabarty: Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890–1940, Princeton 1989; G.T. Stewart: Jute and Empire: The Calcutta Jute Wallahs and the Landscape of Empire, Manchester 1998; and T.O. Ali: A Local History of Global Capital: Jute and Peasant Life in the Bengal Delta, Princeton 2018. footnote 37
  • O. Bonsu, ed.: exh. cat. A World in Common: Contemporary African Art, London (Tate Modern) 2023–24. footnote 38
  • ‘Our commitment to race equality’, Tate (2023), available at, accessed 21st June 2024. footnote 39
  • The present author has written elsewhere about the exhibition’s uneasy relationship with North Africa, see G. Nugent: ‘A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography’, African Arts (forthcoming). On Boudjelal, see K. Falęcka: ‘Violent erasures: atrocity, photographic archives and the Algerian War of Independence’, Object 19 (2017), pp.7–28. footnote 40
  • S. Baker, E. d l’Ecotais and S. Mavlian, eds: exh. cat. Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art, London (Tate Modern) 2018. footnote 41
  • H. Cooper et al.: exh cat. Philip Guston, Boston (Museum of Fine Arts), Houston (Museum of Fine Arts), Washington (National Gallery of Art) and London (Tate Modern) 2022–24. footnote 42
  • S.O. Ogbechie: ‘Are we there yet?’, African Arts 35 (spring 2002): pp.1, 4, 6 and 7. O. Enwezor, ed.: exh. cat. The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, Munich (Museum Villa Stuck), Berlin (Martin-Gropius-Bau), Chicago (Museum of Contemporary Art) and New York (P.S.1 and Museum of Modern Art), 2001–02. N. Benezra et. al.: exh. cat. William Kentridge, Chicago (Museum of Contemporary Art) and New York (New Museum of Contemporary Art) 2001. footnote 43
  • Ogbechie, op. cit. (note 43), p.6. footnote 44
  • Abse Gogarty, op. cit. (note 2). footnote 45
  • Ibid., p.9 footnote 46
  • Ibid., p.10. footnote 47
  • E. Eshun, ed.: exh. cat. The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure, London (National Portrait Gallery) and Plymouth (The Box) 2024. footnote 48
  • See, accessed 21st June 2024. In June 2023, Resolve Collective dissembled its exhibition in The Curve and withdrew its events programme after the co-founder of the Palestine-based Radio AlHara, Elias Anastas, was asked to avoid talking at length about free Palestine at an event organised by Abiba Coulibaly and the collective. In February 2024 the Barbican cancelled Pankaj Mishra’s lecture titled ‘The Shoah after Gaza’, leading lenders and artists to request the removal of their work from Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art (13th February–26th May 2024). footnote 49
  • The present author curated a two-part exhibition titled Hand to your ear (19th November 2021–22nd January 2022 and 24th February–24th March 2022) at Emalin, London, which included works by both Gale and Marsalis. Marsalis subsequently presented a solo exhibition at Emalin from 1st April–8th May 2022 and Gale held a solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London, from 9th July–16th October 2022. footnote 50
  • E. Glissant: Poetics of Relation, transl. B. Wing, Ann Arbor 1997, esp. p.6. footnote 51

See also

Categories and contemporaries: African artists at the Slade School of Fine Art (c.1945–65)
Categories and contemporaries: African artists at the Slade School of Fine Art (c.1945–65)

Categories and contemporaries: African artists at the Slade School of Fine Art (c.1945–65)

by Gabriella Nugent

Moshekwa Langa
Moshekwa Langa

Moshekwa Langa

30.08.2023 • Articles / Artist profile

Elbow room
Elbow room

Elbow room

13.12.2023 • Reviews / Exhibition

35th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts
35th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts

35th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts

16.11.2023 • Reviews / Exhibition