The Softer Side Of Us is a celebration of the black community across different eras, and geographies in the USA, UK and Ghana. The exhibition aims to showcase the complexity of the black experience, highlighting moments of leisures and other glimpses of everyday life.
The Softer Side of Us: Richard Mensah
21 April - 20 May 2023
With this new body of work, Richard Mensah offers representations of black people unapologetically displaying ‘their softer side’. At a time when many artists explore the art of portraiture and especially black portraiture, Richard Mensah differentiates himself thanks to his knowledge of the black history. He infuses each artwork with elements, symbols, historical references for the audience to decipher them.
The Softer Side Of Us is a celebration of the black community across different eras, and geographies in the USA, UK and Ghana. The exhibition aims to showcase the complexity of the black experience, highlighting moments of leisure and other glimpses of everyday life.
The artworks of this series are full of imagery that could evoke the Bayou of New Orleans - USA to some, or remind others of Accra, the Ghanaian capitale, where the artist hails, or even transport the viewer to the United Kingdom where the artist lives currently. In terms of period, Mensah plays around, juxtaposing anachronic references. Be it references to the iconic movement of the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance, or scenes straight from the 1950’s Windrush in the United Kingdom, or even present day Ghana. One sure thing is that the painter depicts a timeless unconditional black joy, liberation and freedom. This is felt throughout the body of works, in the brush strokes, the water waves, the flowing dresses, the cheerful or restful postures of the characters, their bold stern looks and the recurring presence of the golden halo.
The rich textured black background contrasts with the over popularised monochromatic colourful backgrounds popularised by black figurative artists such as fellow countryman Amoako Boafo. Mensah makes the choice of presenting the soft side and vibrancy of a community he identifies with, through the use of low-energy colour, known to absorb all the brightness. The same way he changes the narrative about the black community he changes the narrative surrounding the black colour. It becomes a positive symbol. This feeling is reinforced by the use of the gold leaves to create golden arches. Gold being a colour associated with royalty, luxury and success. Lastly these backgrounds include circular shapes, a reassuring shape, signifying harmony, protection and the circle of life. The soft side of us is definitely all about positive representations of the black experience.
Representation matters; it is a notion that was dear to the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Harlem, New York City. It was a period of artistic and intellectual flourishing, where black artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals created works that celebrated black culture and challenged the stereotypes and prejudices that had long marginalised their community. Nowadays this fight is led by people like Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry who claims 'rest is a form of resistance' when here predecessor the poet Audre Lorde was affirming, more than 50 years earlier: "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." In both cases, the women are calling for a soft life.
When We Arrived (2022) seems to embody this idea of rest and self-care while being a conspicuously anachronistic celebration of black Culture. The painting is composed of three different scenes that could be happening in three different eras and geographies; a couple enjoying a picnic - could be 1930’s Harlem, three men playing cricket, most likely in 1950’s UK, and a couple sitting on a bench, could be today’s Ghana.
While art history is filled with artworks depicting picnics scenes such as the famous Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet (1863) and its response Déjeuner sur l’Herbe by Claude Monet (1866), Richard Mensah offers here a version of a picnic in a park exclusively with black protagonists. In the foreground, a man and a woman, both barefoot, are relaxing on a red and white checked blanket, on the grass. While the woman is lying down, her head resting on her folded arm, the man is seated, leaning towards and looking tenderly at her, turning his back to the audience.
This scene is striking for several reasons, first of all, the artist chooses for the audience to face the back of the character making us feel like intruders, peeping in on an intimate moment. Intimacy reinforced by the position of the characters. As if the viewer were given privileged access through a hidden gate, located at the back of the young couple. As for the lovers, it feels like they are in a love bubble, forgetting the rest of the world, in a suspended time, using their eyes to share their deepest secrets. This is a strong statement from Richard Mensah as there still are few representations of black love and black intimacy in art history.
As the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo puts it: “We are victims of our history and our present. They place too many obstacles in the way of love.” For her, love is rarely the priority and is often relegated to the second plane due to a difficult context. Here, the painter chooses to remind black people not to give up on love and embraces his role of artist as envisioned by American thinker Bell Hooks. Indeed for her, “the function of art is to do more than tell it like it is-it’s to imagine what is possible.” and that is exactly what Mensah is doing; normalising black romance and offering us depictions of what is possible.
For centuries, black people in art history and in mainstream media have been reduced to their bodies or to their functions. Being overly sexualised, victims of exoticism, eroticism and clichés. With his portraits, Mensah reclaims black people’s humanity and soft side. When We Arrived presents black people at ease, enjoying a date, sitting on a bench or playing cricket.
Cricket is a sport deeply associated with the UK. It became a sport of critical importance for the Windrush generation, the generation of Caribbeans who arrived in the UK after World War II. “Windrush” refers to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which docked in Tilbury in 1948, bringing workers from, then, British islands, to help fill post-war UK labour shortages. It marked a pivotal moment in British History, and ushered the country into an era of multiculturalism, with the emergence of diverse black communities.
This led to cricket teams predominantly composed of black Caribeans players, a phenomenon which has declined over time, hence the scene in the artwork is unlikely to be happening nowadays, but rather between the 1950’s and 1970’s. Mensah highlights a part of history that may not be common knowledge and doing so, changes the narrative, including personal black histories in the Greater History.
Attending funerals, playing in a brass band, dancing, posing for pictures, or swimming are some of the activities depicted in this body of work, with this kaleidoscope of activities performed by black protagonists against a unique background, the artist creates a new pictorial vocabulary that unapologetically celebrates black communities wherever, whenever, with the common trait that all are being intentional about rest, intimacy and free time. The various protagonists are an invitation to the audience; “come and see us, witness the softer side of us!”.
Curated by Essé Dabla-Attikpo