African Womanhood rises like a great savanna tree in Akindele John’s paintings

Akindele John, “Beautiful Comforter,”  Photos, courtesy Woodland Pattern

Review: And She Was Love, Akindele John, paintings, Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust Street, through Aug. 14.

Lest we forget, or never really knew, the ebony majesty of the African woman stands tall against the sky, as a great tree on the savanna, its tangled branches dancing and beckoning. That, of course, is the crowning Yoruba beauty of obinrin, of mama, of her mane’s unfettered play in air, the web and shadow of her hair. The observer’s eye then descends, from forehead and cheeks to neck, the sculpted shining beauty.

There is no mistaking the analog in Akindele John’s painting exhibit, And She Was Love, a visual paeon to African womanhood at the Woodland Pattern Book Center,  through Aug. 14. The many-limbed supplication to the sun thrives in what John strives to capture, the “nappturality” of “Black women who have chosen to exclusively wear their hair in a natural, Afro-textured state.”

John knows of what he paints, born in Ogun State, Nigeria and living currently in Lagos, the cultural, economic and entertainment capital of Africa. And as one of the continent’s largest and busiest seaports, Lagos carries plenty of logos (in Jungian terms) as a means of disseminating African cultural Diaspora.

This is an exhibit of six large portraits, each mirroring the other in deceptively simple posture of elegance, perhaps too easy to whisk through, yet calling distantly, like a horizon’s lioness roar, for attentive patience, for a measure of meditative honor. Who has been more typically overlooked, derided, and forsaken as surely as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, if not the woman of the world’s motherlode continent, and most notoriously, her countless offspring in America? Will one not discover in the amazing grace of these eyes, memories that even myth cannot erase, those of the signifying tree and a “poor wretch like me?”

This show’s officially marketed image, “Beautiful Comforter,” a woman holding a fluttering dove, is nothing overstated and yet fulsome in its slightly contained expressivity.

Akindele John, Girl with a Rose

She conveys a sage serenity. The brushstrokes, playful yet like a hand’s hollow, allow the work to breathe and hover in its own space. Two mirroring portraits, “Girl with a Rose” and “Girl with a White Cup,” apparently of the same woman, both boast Afros as unfettered as a black starburst, celebrating that hairstyle as a sort of spiritual assertion set against a sunlit halo, as all these heads are. John postures them admittedly saintlike in his celebration, yet vividly human. Her womanly femininity, the grace of her hand, adorned with yellow rose, all contrast to that burst, but remain of a piece, as self-defined power, and vibrant maternal fecundity.

Another, titled “The Blue Story,” depicts a woman holding an open book (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye?). Here, as most everywhere, literacy is power, and font of expressed  wisdom. And is this perhaps an essential signifier of this grandly eccentric book center itself, even a candidate for its permanent collection?

Throughout these works the artist’s painterly arabesques – here loose, there tight – which enclose and define the forms, also articulate a gestural freedom that seems to reflect their worldly engagement, and the sensate essence of each woman’s presence.

Akindele John, “We are Here and Now” 

However, one of these paintings, which all blend and contrast oil and acrylic paint, is not a single portrait. And it’s the most compelling in the show, taking the liberty of slightly melding two women’s images, almost as Siamese twins. “We are Here and Now,” presents two figures embodying the sisterhood of “we”; one gazes to the left, and the other downward, forthright in awareness and reflection and, perhaps most vividly, each woman’s neck is a study in swan-like repose. Yet, in another of a sequence of finely-wrought contrasts, the bouquets in each woman hands are an expressionistic hive of power and possibility.

Finally, this is the one painting that superimposes, behind the two women’s heads, a rectangle over the sun circle, a cohering formal device, for sure. Nevertheless, the balance of all these portraits’ details, their accumulative contrasting dynamics, seem to whisper depths in their beauty, a yin-yang, see-saw type of tale, of her all-too-often tortured journey, from Middle Passage to chattel degradation, to Emancipation Proclamation and far beyond, what she has endured and conquered, and what she promises to be, with the sureness of sunrise.

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This review was first published in slightly shorter for in The Shepherd Express, here: https://shepherdexpress.com/culture/visual-art/woodland-patterns-visual-love-poem-to-african-women/

1 The exhibit was facilitated in partnership with Genre: Urban Arts, with crucial assistance from that organization’s creative director and owner Nakeysha Roberts Washington, a Woodland Pattern board member

Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust Street. Courtesy unbanmilwaukee.com

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