GARY STEPHENS: ANKARA PORTRAITS
October 19-November 2, 2012
From October 19 to November 2, Omenka Gallery, Ikoyi will present Ankara Portraits by renowned American artist, Gary Stephens. The exhibition engages urban African style and is Stephen’s first show in Nigeria, featuring recent paintings completed on ankara fabric. Also on view are photographs and limited edition lino prints, well-known for their optical illusions, meticulously crafted with long vertical folds and string systems.
Having lived in Italy for 10 years, Gary Stephens was brought to Lagos for the first time in February 2012 as a birthday gift by an Italian friend, Daniele Scenarelli. Among the places he visited was Balogun Market, which he describes as a “heaven”. There he bought 26 pieces of ankara textiles, each six metres long to take back to South Africa. The paintings for this show were done on these fabric pieces.
Stephens was born in 1962 around the Mexican border town of Yuma in Arizona. From 1982, he studied painting at the University of Arizona, Tucson and in 1984, drawing at the San Francisco Art Institute in his native United States. He spent a period of nine years in Florence refining his style, having been influenced by contemporary Italian design and traditional classical painting.
Until 2009, Stephens’ focus had been on three main themes; landscapes, animals and flora. He drew his inspiration from working outdoors and his landscapes were executed in a colourful expressive style influenced by Fauvism. However, during a one-year residency at Greatmore Studios in Cape Town, he switched suddenly to figurative African themes. Stephens is constantly drawn to visual rhythms, such as geometric repetitions in architecture, textile patterns, or palm fronds in the sunlight. He is fascinated by these non-verbal, hypnotic visual moments and his textures and intricate vertical lines engage the viewer in a rich visual experience.
In 2011, Stephens embarked on a new trail with his outstanding exhibition, Braid which explored contemporary trends in the African tradition of hair braiding. His dedication and striking attention to detail are clearly evident, as the repetitive folds and pleats in the paper emphasize the three-dimensional quality of the weave patterns in the knitted hair. In the same year, Stephens started working with fabrics when he came across a book on African textiles. He was inspired by the patterns and at first, drew them on paper before sketching his portraits on top. He was advised by a friend to save time by glueing textiles on the canvas before drawing over. It took several experiments to learn to glue the textiles flat on the canvas, but eventually, it worked. Stephens asserts that this technique strengthens the fabric and ensures durability.
This exhibition is a compilation of works over a period of four years, a shift from his earlier focus. The ankara fabric has a strong cultural, social and economic significance. They are richly designed with vibrant patterns and are mostly made of 100% cotton or cotton poly material. Now, largely produced in Nigeria, the wax resist, dyed fabrics were originally exported to the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana and spread over West and then Central Africa. They became extremely popular over time and were initially worn as everyday casual outfits.
Stephens exploits ankara patterns by laying his canvas rich with abstract colours and patterns before over-painting his figure. He observes, “The bold Nigerian pattern helps me get strong rhythms underneath the images.” As with his earlier themes of animals, this technique allows for the colours beneath to break through, imbuing his work with a sense of dynamism, especially when viewed from different angles. He explains that part of his creativity is in knowing when to quit:
Sometimes, I regret that I cover up too much of the fabric patterns as they are very dramatic with just one area touched. But this is the challenge I enjoy. I take photos during the development so I can look back after and learn from my mistakes. Sometimes you gain something by working and defining the form and shadows, but you lose that initial expressive impact.
Stephen’s creativity stems from his experiences living among societies and people he encounters in his extensive sojourns around Latin America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. In his work, he chooses not to highlight the personal features of his models, but explores from various perspectives the distinctively African sense of wearing a hat; rolled, sitting high, at a certain angle, or with a pair of sunglasses on top. “I want the viewer to enjoy the iconic strength of a woman in a head scarf, not the specific woman, but the scarf as the actual subject.”
Stephens also draws inspiration from the iconic portraits of Chuck Close and Andy Warhol, the bold colour of the Fauves- Andre Derain and Henri Matisse, and the busy loose figures and sense of light of British painter, Peter Doig.
Gary Stephens considers his art more as documentary, capturing the dynamism of urban style in Africa. With this exhibition, he hopes to connect with the Nigerian art community, while contributing positively to the Nigerian art scene. In all, Ankara Portraits addresses the relationship between personal identity, self-discovery and history, while offering us glimpses into how we define ourselves in an increasingly globalised world.
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High-resolution images and more information on the artist are available on request.