Credit Amoako Boafo for achieving the impossible. He’s managed to make Blackness — and its inherent pain, joy, complexity, struggles and triumph — inescapable in the city of Seattle. At least that was my first impression after leaving the Ghanaian painter’s solo debut exhibit, “Soul of Black Folks,” currently on display at Seattle Art Museum (SAM).
Named after and inspired by sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois’ iconic 1903 treatise “The Souls of Black Folk,” on the dimensions of Black life in the 19th century, Boafo’s collection of 32 paintings created between 2016 to 2022 immerses viewers in the breadth and journey of contemporary Black experience.
Boafo’s trek takes you from inferences of the Black Panthers found in the portrait “Black Hat” to the world of high fashion in the piece “Black and White.” It ranges from a tribute to painter Jean-Michael Basquiat to a city street where a Black woman celebrates her unrepentant presence, in the painting “Umber Brown Belt.”
Each of the figurative paintings are inhabited by people drawn from the artist’s travels and life, whether friends or strangers who happened to catch his eye at the farmer’s market. Boafo refers to them as characters telling the story of Black experience as he sees it.
Bringing these paintings alive are the vivid colors he uses: marigold yellows, starch whites, olive oil greens and cherry reds that are all catnip to the eye. No matter the direness of what Boafo’s subjects may have been through, brightness (i.e., joy) never abandons them. It all has the effect of making one muse over the origins of these not-so-make-believe characters.
What makes the characters even more realistic is when Boafo abandons the paintbrush for his fingertips. All but two of the works on display were created by deft finger-painting.
“Painting is just more than capturing the perfection of a person. There is character. There is feeling. There is energy. The brush could not give me that kind of feeling. And so I arrived at painting with my finger,” Boafo recounts in a recorded introduction.
In the piece “Fuck You Mean Thou” a 30-something Black woman raises her left hand in indignance, offended by some fresh foolishness an agitator has just served up. She’s ready to rain down a retort unsuitable for print in this publication. This painting reminded me of my cousin Jazmine, who struck the exact same pose three months ago after being served a heap of fine foolishness by a family member who may or may not have been this writer.
Heightening the realism of these works is Boafo’s use of disproportion, a technique employed in several of the works on display. Enlarged eyes, arms and faces capture an emotional reality of certain moments, such as the hand in the previously mentioned “Fuck You Mean Thou.” From the vantage point of someone being cussed out, the intensity of that situation would definitely distort the hand to become giant-sized. (I know this from firsthand experience.)
“Each work is trying to get to the essence of the character. So he’s playing with size levels,” exhibit curator Larry Ossei-Mensah told me.
Ossei-Mensah said he began “plotting” to have Boafo’s work featured at SAM shortly after attending the museum’s Jacob Lawrence exhibit there in 2017. That particular exhibit showcased the vast exodus of Black Americans from the Jim Crow era rural south to the industrial North in the 1920s. It also demonstrated an appetite for Black painters at Seattle’s largest museum.
Also from Ghana, Ossei-Mensah curated “Soul of Black Folks” at its previous stops in Houston and San Francisco prior to its run at SAM. When asked what’s different about the Seattle exhibit outside of one additional painting, Ossei-Mensah shared that the local showing intentionally begins with self-portraits of Boafo.
“Those are of him working and studying in Vienna,” Ossei-Mensah told me. “There’s this goal and desire to be perfect and master his craft, but he’s constantly meeting resistance from a variety of stakeholders. We’ve all kind of faced this in the form of a boss or family member,” he said.
That message resonated with me, as I reflected on those self-portraits, one of which showcased a nude Boafo in repose reading “Black Skin, White Masks,” the Marxist philosopher Frantz Fanon’s book critiquing the racism and dehumanization embedded in colonialism.
Far from an expression of vanity, Boafo’s portraits invite you to exchange places with him. They urge you to reflect upon your own sisyphean struggles as society chips away at and ignores your craft, dreams and aspirations, still too often disregarding the extraordinary from Black artists while praising the mediocrity of white ones.
His paintings offer another type of invitation. Anyone wishing to spend time with them is treated to a deeper, richer understanding of their creation. At first glance, an incurious eye will see in Boafo’s paintings only black and brown paint the artist has put on acrylic to document the experience and skin color of his characters.
A deeper examination of the paintings will reveal hues of blue as a critical part of the “blackness” that creates their subjects’ skin. Blues can represent both royalty and bruising, triumph and pain. Whether intended or not, it’s an apt metaphor for Black life in this city and beyond. Even when it is noticed, it can go undiscerned. Even when it is observed, it can go unperceived. But its richness and depth are always there waiting to be seen by those with the willingness to give it attention.
During my tour of the exhibit, an example of that precise phenomenon came in the form of one bloviating, know-it-all patron, who just so happened to be a middle-aged white man. Talking loudly to someone in his group of four, he provided his unsolicited and ill-informed interpretation of what each piece meant. He also explained what Fanon was “actually” trying to say about colonialism (Hint: It wasn’t THAT bad) and stressed that all art must eventually detach from their social messages in order to truly be art (i.e., why can’t we all just move past this pesky racism thing already?).
His words provided me with a momentary jolt of cynicism. The exhibit’s stated purpose was to make us meditate on where can Black people find a respite?
It was a question my friend and I literally asked ourselves as we walked past the man and left the gallery: “Is there no place in Seattle where Black folks can find respite?”
I wondered if the mostly white people in attendance weren’t simply marking another performative social justice square on their woke white bingo card. Again and again, I see people who feel entitled to speak without listening, seek righteousness over growth and consume every ounce of oxygen in a space where others are trying to breathe.
I brought my concerns to the curator, and thankfully he was sympathetic.
While he acknowledged Seattle’s demographics and the city’s relatively small Black population, Ossei-Mensah chose to focus on the opportunity the exhibit presented.
“Regardless of what someone does there, this is a catalyst for dialogue,” Ossei-Mensah said. “It gives moments of pause to reflect on humanity, like walking up Pike Street and seeing the various challenges people are facing, whether it’s mental health, drugs or being housing insecure.”
Ossei-Mensah also shared something that changed my attitude in the week since I first attended the exhibit.
Boafo positioned the eyes of his characters so that no matter where you are standing, these Black people — these humans with all their nuance and multiplicity — are always looking at you. Their ever-present gaze is locked upon you during your visit. They admonish you for your inattention. In doing so, they render a final verdict that declares that without reflection you can never know them — nor yourself.
What that reflection reveals is the soul of Black folks and the spirit of what it means to be human.
"The Soul of Black Folks" runs until Sept. 13. SAM offers free admission the first Thursday of every month.
Marcus Harrison Green is interim editor of Real Change.
Read more of the July 26-Aug. 1, 2023 issue.