For Document No. 16, curator Osei Bonsu spoke with the painter about his upbringing in Ghana, creating space for black expression in Vienna, and balancing the pressures of fast fame
For our tenth anniversary edition, we revisit a selection of stories from Document’s archive—celebrating ten years of championing the independent creative spirit, and honoring the cultural icons who will shape our future. This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2019 issue.
Few artists have seen a rise as meteoric as Amoako Boafo. When he decided to become an artist as a teenager, Boafo knew very well that as a young man living in Accra, Ghana, the odds of having a successful career were stacked against him. Still, he enrolled at the Ghanatta College of Art, paying his first semester’s tuition with a gift from an elderly man for whom he and his mother had provided care. He covered the rest of his fees by working as a pallbearer. After he had absorbed everything he could about artmaking in his classes, love brought him to Vienna, where he honed his craft at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, surrounded by the influence of the city’s great artists—Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. He developed his own signature language, using his fingers to create the swirls, echoing those of Schiele, in his subjects’ skin.
In a twist of fate, the painter Kehinde Wiley discovered Boafo’s work on Instagram, and he connected the young artist to his Los Angeles gallery, Roberts Projects. Meanwhile, his work also caught the attention of Chicago dealer Mariane Ibrahim, who eventually signed him to her roster. After seeing his work in a group show at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles, patrons Don and Meera Rubell offered him a residency and exhibition at the Rubell Museum in Miami. His trajectory was cemented when the institution opened during Art Basel in Miami Beach 2019, and Boafo became the toast of the town.
Like Boafo, curator Osei Bonsu’s family hails from Ghana. The Tate Modern in London named him curator of international art last fall, appointing him as a specialist in African art. Bonsu and Boafo discuss the artist’s origins, the challenges of being a black artist in Vienna, and balancing the pressures of fast fame.
Osei Bonsu: Let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there before moving to Vienna to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. What are your earliest memories of art?
Amoako Boafo: No, I never had that part of my life. Obviously I’m not coming from an artist’s family, so my parents never had the time to bring me to galleries or museums, and as you may know, there’s not that many galleries or museums in Ghana, or in Accra in general, so I didn’t have that. All I know is that when I was growing up, we did copies of cartoons. Some childhood friends and I would compete and see who copied the cartoon world, and we’d draw. And that’s it. That’s how I started.
Osei: You’re known for your highly intimate portraits that usually depict friends and family. When did you first turn your attention to portraiture?
Amoako: After Ghanatta [College of Art], I started a series called Childhood Memories, where I painted kids that reminded me of how I grew up. I’ve always been interested in the community. Vienna is a different space: It’s not the same people; you don’t see yourself in the community; it’s way different there. So I had to put a stop to Childhood Memories because the kids played different games…. You really wouldn’t see them outside playing games. So I started working on a self-portrait series with the experiences that I had there, and at some point I thought the community is important, and everybody has something to say. The racial gap in Vienna is huge. There was no space for us—for black people—to express themselves, so I decided I wanted to paint the community, use my work to also portray people in the community, and that’s how I started painting people around me.
Osei: What drew you to Vienna as a traditional European city? It is a city that has been criticized for its unwelcoming attitude toward migrants.
Amoako: I met someone and got married, so I moved to Vienna. I did not go to Vienna with the intention of studying. I moved there, it was a new space, I didn’t have any friends. So I thought being in university would be a good step toward getting to know the community by making friends at school. From the beginning, it was tough. There wasn’t any community for black people. It wasn’t open to anything new. Everything I did was questioned. So many times I had to answer the question of why I only paint black people. It was a constant question. People would come up to me and say I’m quite talented, and if I want to be successful in what I do, I have to change the context of which I paint. Of course I wasn’t going to start painting white people, but they said I have to change the context of what I paint. It was difficult—whatever I was doing wasn’t really supported. The majority were white, and they didn’t accept anything black. So it was a struggle.
“I want to paint people who have had the same experiences as me. I want to see myself and have people see themselves in me.”
Osei: Your paintings engage with this notion of visibility in a sensitive way. They seem to be about an internal struggle to be seen and represented in the world. Did you think your interest in portraiture developed from your experiences as a black man living in Vienna?
Amoako: Why do people always ask that question? I stick to what I want to do. I question what it actually does to viewers when faced with black people. I just stick to what I was doing. I think it has helped the movement because there are so many black people in Vienna that showed the necessity of what I was doing, and they supported it from the beginning. Anytime I ask them to sit in the studio, they make time and come. Anytime I asked them to take pictures, they make time to come, so I can take pictures and paint.
Osei: I’m interested in your time growing up in Ghana, a place where black people are the majority and race is rarely discussed in the same terms as it might be in the West. How do you think the idea of blackness and black culture is different in Vienna, and does it necessarily correspond with notions of race and identity?
Amoako: Well, in Ghana I never had to question myself in terms of blackness. There, I am part of the majority so it was never a question. That’s why it was a bit of a shock to have this constant question of, ‘Why do you only paint black people?’ Because for me, I want to paint people who have had the same experiences as me. I want to see myself and have people see themselves in me.
Osei: We know that art has the potential to change peoples’ attitudes and perceptions. Do you feel like your paintings try to address that?
Amoako: My paintings are for documenting the people around me and where I am, but I also think they challenge the notion of how people think about blackness.
Osei: In most of these portraits, highly expressive figures appear against solid monochromatic backgrounds. They gaze out at the viewer with a strong sense of presence and command. How would you define your stylistic approach to portraiture?
Amoako: I wanted something really simple and unique— something that everybody sees and knows is mine even if I don’t have my name on it. This is something I’ve been developing since I graduated from Ghanatta. Now I’m happy that I’ve got something like that. I personally like facial expressions. I like the gazes seen in the work and the message and questions written on their faces. For that to happen, I have to have a very simple and flat background that does not interrupt the subject—because there is a lot happening—so the clothes complement the character.
Osei: Your portraits feature figures with whom you have intimate relationships, as well as celebrities and public figures. How do you find your subjects?
Amoako: Most of the time it’s friends, or friends of friends, but I also have characters that are doing things in the community that I like. I have painted Thelma Golden several times because of what she’s done with the Studio Museum in Harlem. I have painted a few characters, I mean I didn’t know Tupac in person, but I like the impact he had in the music industry and his political ideas. I have painted a few characters that I like, but I mostly paint the people in the community that people do not think of, or people that no one knows.
Osei: Does it matter whether or not the subject of the painting is recognizable to the viewer? Are you trying to capture their likeness, or do you have other ambitions for the image?
Amoako: In one way, it’s about reinventing a new reality while capturing the person for who they are. However, while painting their facial expression or how they feel and what they want, I don’t think much of the likeness, more just their style.
Osei: After arriving in Vienna, you studied at the historical Academy of Fine Arts. At the the turn of the century, there was a radical rebirth of Viennese art when figures including Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele used figuration to depict the struggle of the human condition. In what ways has Vienna’s artistic energy influenced you?
Amoako: When I got there, I saw the influence, and I always questioned how to be a bit unique from my contemporaries. I’ve been looking at painters like Egon Schiele, Klimt, and Maria Lassnig. I like the playfulness of brushstrokes, the color application…I like everything. How free Schiele just paints…. It is not necessarily how I want to paint, but is how I want to see my work. I get a lot of figuration inspiration from him. I didn’t so much dive into his life, but how he plays with colors, how he sketches. Just the way he works with the composition.
“When you see my work, you know this is Amoako’s work—you don’t have to see the signature.”
Osei: You recently spent some time in America, where your work has a different art historical context. Were you aware of the history of African-American artists like Barkley L. Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, who engage with figuration as a political act of representation?
Amoako: Well, history-wise, I haven’t done so much. I mean, I went to America just to exhibit. I only looked at Schiele’s work because I was in Vienna, but I also looked at painters like Kerry James Marshall because I love his work, and I also looked a lot at the way he plays with the figure, with color and light.
Osei: What kind of questions are you trying to address in your work at the moment?
Amoako: Topic-wise, it makes sense for a black person to talk about black identity and blackness. But I think my technique has been different, and I’m trying to add new elements. I mean, my work is different. When you see my work, you know this is Amoako’s work—you don’t have to see the signature. I don’t want to be comfortable where I am, so every now and then I’m adding some elements to make it more different.
Osei: I recently saw a painting of yours with figures relaxing in a pool, which seems more joyous and informal than some of your previous work. How do you see your work developing in the future?
Amoako: Yes, I have a different series that I work on. I worked on two different self-portraits, which is about toxic masculinity and body politics. And then I worked on a black diaspora text, which soon after lead to my swimming pool series. And now I’m working on new work for the June show.
Osei: Okay. Are there any particular projects or exhibitions coming up that you’re excited about?
Amoako: Well, my focus right now is the June show with Mariane Ibrahim in Chicago. I’m also still working on an upcoming artist residency. [Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19, the exhibition has been moved to September 2020.]
Osei: Where is the residency?
Amoako: In Ghana. I want to be based there. I’m also trying to also have a studio where I can stay a bit longer and work. I also want to see how it helps or changes the work, or if it helps the art industry. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of great talent there, but there’s not much space to house them and make them improve what they are doing. That’s what I want to work on.
Osei: Your career has risen incredibly quickly. How do you balance the pressures of the art world and remain committed to your vision for the future?
Amoako: Well, first of all, I think it’s unique. That’s what people want—something that is different. That’s exactly what I’m giving them. And that, for sure, brings success. But in terms of the price and how crazy it’s risen— that I did not expect, and I don’t think anyone expected it. I also have the feeling that there’s too much pressure and stress because people see the price rising and they see people are flipping art. Me, personally, I’m just looking toward having good shows and having my works in your face at institutions that guarantee it’s me.