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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Beauford Delaney’s Man in African Dress

By Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

Of the dozens of portraits completed by Beauford Delaney throughout his lifetime, many portray anonymous subjects that have yet to be identified. Man in African Dress, an oil painting completed in 1972, depicts a black man in a pastel-striped African garment ensemble sitting on a red chair with his legs spread wide and his hands perched on either armrest. Surrounding him are abstracted shapes of green and yellow, forms that could be interpreted as foliage - part an outdoor setting.

Man in African Dress, c. 1972
Oil on canvas
21 ¾” x 17 ¾”/ 55.2 x 45.1 cm
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC
New York, NY

The man stares straight at the viewer with slightly furrowed eyebrows; he looks stoic and intimidating. Despite the deep hues of browns, greens, and yellows Beauford used in the man’s face and arms, his physical body becomes background to his vibrant, and dynamic striped clothing. The lines of pink, blue, green, and yellow vary in thickness and bend with the movement of the man’s seated position. The lively dynamism of the African dress, juxtaposed against the man’s tranquil body language, becomes the focal point of this painting.

One of the most beautiful juxtapositions within Man in African Dress is the yellow line on the right leg of the man contrasted with the red of his seat. Such a bright color next to the solid red hue emphasizes the proud nature of the man and his regal chair. The vivid pastels on someone with such stately bearing begs the question of his identity and his country of origin. It is unclear whether the man in the portrait is someone Beauford knew personally in Paris, or an invention of his mind, oil paints and paintbrush. What is immediately understandable from this portrait though, is the story and point of view he was trying to convey regarding the subject. The man in African dress sits tall and strong, his stance and facial expression conveying the fact that he is assured in who he is and where he comes from.

Newlyweds on Holiday, 2016
Charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper
63” x 41”
© Toyin Ojih Odutola
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
CLICK HERE to see full-sized image.

This charcoal and pastel drawing by Toyin Ojih Odutola, a contemporary artist, is reminiscent of Beauford’s Man in African Dress in its use of pattern and portrayal of the drawing’s subjects. Odutola was born in Nigeria and raised in Alabama. This particular drawing comes from a series she did of a fictional story surrounding two Nigerian families, one an ancient noble clan and the other made rich by trade and vineyards.

Odutola has garnered attention and critical acclaim not only for her treatment of her medium - she creates deeply complex and textured drawings with ballpoint pen and pastel - but also for her subject matter. In an interview with Vogue Magazine, she talks about how these drawings became an extended narrative on “wealth and nobility” in Nigeria, a way of wondering out loud what might have been possible in Africa if colonization had not occurred.

Every one of her drawings contain a myriad of patterns and textures that jump off the page and move with such fluidity that they seem to dance. In Newlyweds on Holiday, the faces of the two men are so rich in detail from the ballpoint pen that their furrowed, almost sour expressions are hidden by the deep darks and lights created. There are juxtapositions between patterns on every inch of the paper, from the suits of the men, to the carpet, to the floral wallpaper. Odutola has an extremely particular and talented eye for creating dynamic and engaging compositions.

Newlyweds on Holiday is an interesting work of art to compare to Man in African Dress. Created more than 40 years after Beauford’s oil painting, Odutola utilizes many of the same techniques Beauford did in a more contemporary artistic fashion. Both works of art depict African people in a similar manner. The man in Beauford’s paintings and the two in Odutola’s work are represented as majestic, proud and strong individuals. Pattern, in clothing and in surroundings, is used to highlight this fact. While the patterns in Beauford’s painting are those of traditional African dress, Odutola meditates on what Nigerian wealth and nobility would wear in modern times. The artists have differing narratives surrounding their respective works of art, yet their techniques to convey these points of view converge, creating a thread linking artwork being created in 2016 to Beauford’s production in 1972. Whether or not Odutola is aware of and was inspired by Beauford’s artwork directly, at least one other person has included the two artists’ work in an evaluation of similarly-themed paintings.

In Fall/Winter 2018/2019 edition of Pin Up Magazine, Tiana Webb Evans wrote “Folks on Chairs: African-American Home Life As Seen Through the Lens of Art.” In the article, she discusses how racial segregation and social alienation in the United States have led to an invisibility and lack of connection to African-American home life. She included eight works of art by black artists that feature black subjects sitting on chairs, most of which are found in interior spaces. Evans dissects how the chair is used to create a certain mood in the work of art, one that the viewer can understand and relate to. Beauford’s Man in African Dress is featured in this article along with Odutola’s A Grand Inheritance, a charcoal and pastel drawing of a person slouched on a red chair - one not so different from Beauford’s.

A Grand Inheritance, 2016
Charcoal, pastel, and pencil on paper
© Toyin Ojih Odutola
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
CLICK HERE to see full-sized image.

Though Evans does not discuss Man in African Dress in her text, her use of the image invites certain comparisons to be made between Beauford’s work and that of the other artists featured in “Folks on Chairs.” The viewer / reader can see that Odutola’s A Grand Inheritance and Man in African Dress make statements on black identity through their use of pattern and color.

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