CHICAGO — British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong is part of a generation that came of age right as the internet became ubiquitous. Perhaps living this moment of cultural convergence sparks his intense interest in mining and mixing digital ephemera with analog technologies. His sharp reflections on the impact of colonial histories, constructed identities, and the help and harm done through the creation of online communities come together in OPEN SEASON, his first solo exhibition in the US, at the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Achiampong works across genres, from painting and drawing to photography, video, and installation. The show features a cross section of his output: the altered photographs of the Glyth series (2013–14); the skateboard decks painted to resemble kente cloth of his ongoing “Battalion” installation (2014–present); text-based works that mimic large-scale paintings,; and a new 15-minute video commissioned for the occasion. Through witty appropriations and by blending specific Black British cultural references from the 1980s and ’90s with subtle nods to diasporic histories — real and imagined — Achiampong demonstrates how the nuances of building and sustaining community play out both online and in real life.
In the digital photo montage “Glyth #4,” a child wearing play clothes stands in a room next to a television. His face and those surrounding him in framed photographs are obscured by “cloudface,” a motif Achiampong created that consists of a large black circle with bright red lips reminiscent of pickaninny and golliwog caricatures. He first used the motif in the 2007 digital montage “Lemme Skool U,” and the allusion to racist imagery takes on new meaning in our supposedly post-racial era. The UK in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — when Achiampong was a child — was a hostile place for minorities, the poor, and working class. The current rise in nationalism and xenophobia, as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of right wing governments around the world, is a sad reminder of the continued need to understand and make visible cultural difference.
In the main gallery, Achiampong’s #OPENSEASON (2016), a series of 12 text-based works, hangs on the walls like a set of large-scale paintings. To create these, he took phrases from social media and sought to make them more tangible by writing the words in white chalk on slabs of black board. The gesture, inspired by the opening credits of The Simpsons, reads less like mild satire and more like a suite of biting, gritty quips, a symptom of the anonymity inherent in digital culture. Phrases such as “The last immigrant is in captivity, the galaxy is at peace,” “The only functional system is a sound system,” or “Batmans [sic] superpower is wealth” appear as if Achiampong’s hand might have smudged the chalk as he wrote in haste, and sometimes the text size and style change as if he realized he might run out of room, yet the confidence of the words remains. Here, Achiampong reaches for everyday wisdom rather than quotations from authors or public intellectuals, underscoring the democratization of culture and the role of digital technology in this endeavor.
The new video, “Sunday’s Best,” weaves a tale of reconciling conflicting views between Ashanti religious practices and British colonial influences. The video opens with a rapid-fire montage of television news clips and images, pausing periodically to let the eyes rest. We are given time to contemplate a figure wearing a “Build the Wall” T-shirt, a placard stating “We Want Our Country Back,” a map outlining the coast of Western Africa, and an illustration of a dark-skinned figure washing hands in a basin next to a can of skin lightener called “Dirtoff.” Once the montage ends, the narrator begins a story about noticing subtle differences in the faith practices of his family and friends: fasting during Ramadan and Lent; different names for Jesus, yet the most familiar is “nyame,” the Ghanaian (Akan) name for “god.” Against the narration and images of emaciated, pale-skinned Jesus figures, saints, ornately carved wood furniture, and stained glass windows, music plays. The soundtrack alternates between sustained chords played on the organ and syncopated drum rhythms, handclaps, and joyful singing. Eventually, Achiampong’s mother appears in the sanctuary singing praises and prayers in Twi, her salmon-colored head wrap and shawl complementing the pattern of her dress. She is resplendent, tears streaming down her cheeks, an emotive contrast to her spare surroundings.
Shifts in visual culture aren’t new: the internet as we know it is more than 20 years old and hasn’t been the wild frontier it once was for quite some time. In drawing attention to the ways in which digital technologies have enabled collective and cultural shifts in identity formation and the ways we share and circulate information, Achiampong holds a mirror to human possibility and potential. Or, as he wrote in one of the text-based works, “Build the Wall. We’ll walk around it.”
Larry Achiampong: OPEN SEASON continues at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (915 East 60th Street, Chicago, Illinois) through October 30.
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