There is no “at first glance” at Kwaku Osei’s work. All encompassing, multi-perspective, little distinction between background and foreground, his pieces are complicated. We should take time to walk through many, many doorways. The landscape in which he layers images seem to locate unfixed narratives, placing them in conversation with one another, and having them fluidly bombard until what we have is matter to take and use as we can, as we will.
Using music and cultural iconography, symbolism and naming, the following three works speak to the afrofuturist movement. Fragments and ideas widely associated with Americana are reimagined from a “dark” perspective — or what some might say, a non-Western origin — as Osei tackles language, both in his titles and on the canvas, and nods toward these narratives. His work recognizes, then turns away from our convenient assumptions. Looking at Osei’s work, I am reminded of a stanza from Tracy K. Smith’s poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars”:
Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they — we — flicker in.
It’s this “bursting at the seams with energy” that happens all around us, in ways we don’t “feel / nor see” but are ever present, that permeates Osei’s work. It seems through his imagination, and the viewer’s ability to place “solid feet down on planets everywhere,” we’re given a rare opportunity to be restless, to wonder and wander, and travel “the great black distance” of the dark through these works.
— Aricka Foreman, Enumerate Editor
Jungle Juice (2014) 22 x 30 in., mixed media
Jungle Juice, Osei’s first piece begins from the floor, a foreground red and lush, as carpet to an exclusive world. What seems stairs and bridges lead to other fixed realms. At the lower-center of the piece, a four point star, a bone, serve as either marker or mile post. The audience is unable to perceive the distance from point A to point 2, the axis of access constantly shifting. Other worlds loom in the background: planets, moons, a tribal masked figure — perhaps ancestor — overlooking the journey. Most prominent is the prism that, rather than taking light and reflecting (as a Pink Floyd album cover might suggest), holds a number of worlds that have no time origin. Composition and texture, blurred boundaries and unfolding lines, stacked and repetitive shapes, a peak of a fish-headed figure; this layering unsettles and confronts. The title complicates matters in a critical way, where there is an implied colloquially understanding of “jungle juice” as a substance for group consumption. The coded connotation leaves the audience to question whether they are consuming or viewing consumption taking place.
Dark Pop of The Big Bang Theory (2014) 60 x 48 in., mixed media
Dark Pop of The Big Bang Theory positions at the center of a stark white canvas. An allusion to the cosmological theory of creation and evolution, there is no particular doorway. The chaos contained inside a space with margins that make it impossible to tell which direction we’re moving: creating or evolving. Brush strokes of black “spilled” just outside visual boundary within reach of the other. Osei explains that the multicolored, garment-wearing angel of death is “an allusion to Damien Hirst’s ‘Skull’ and [the] elevator pitch where he always refers to black as being a symbol of death.” An amalgam of a wolf and eastern dragon “similar to The Neverending Story’s, The Nothing,” he says, smiles and directly looks at the viewer from inside. These figures, too, seem to gear us toward a bifurcated tradition of myth and the speculative: celestial bodies, again, the sun, and moon; an ankh and adinkra symbol, small and seemingly on the periphery. The pieces becomes decidedly more layered, just right of the center, where we see more patterns, colors. Again, great attention is paid to organizing the composition in a loose way that does not negate the necessary chaos.
Voodoo Child (2014) 18 x 24 in., mixed media
Voodoo Child, may seem difficult to separate from Jimi Hendrix’s classic song — it’s full title, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” — and the reclamation inherent. If in the song, Hendrix created a world where he chopped mountains and forged shattered lands, then Osei’s work is the epitome of “all black everything.” Canvas black. Background, black. Bold and bright colors used to carve out figurations — out of blackness. The piece itself becomes figured: a mouth in the upper quadrant, the sleeping face nestled in the center, two open-mouthed wolf jaws or one jaw caught mid-turn. Osei’s powerful technical identifications of patterns, constructions and texture aids in movement. Here, black doesn’t solely absorb but produces color, creates dimension and depth.
And still, there are stars, in the vast black, of the “old and new.” Kwaku Osei’s series gives us reason to pause. And shudder.