The elderly black man’s mug hanging in the Joyce Gordon Gallery is trying to tell me something — urgency? pain? — but I can’t quite pick it out. Maybe it’s because I can’t see his body, which is cropped out of this tight-framed, blown-up, thirty-square-foot close-up. Or maybe it’s the symbolic noise of his face’s ghostly framing and salvaged background. What is he, and by extension the artist, saying?
Photomontage artist Keba Konte and sculptor eesuu explore and stimulate the emotional response to faces with Together We Survive, an arresting and intriguing exhibit opening Thursday at the Joyce Gordon Gallery in downtown Oakland. Part photo-real, part primordial, this exhibit dwells almost explicitly on African-American visages: men, women, and children from across the world whispering and shouting at the viewer.
Konte’s loud and evocative Long Road High Cloud dominates the twenty-piece exhibit with that huge, timeless face photo-transferred to a wood plank, possibly a headboard. Woodworking atop Long Road also indicates a former life as furniture, but incomplete guesswork is part of the experience, Konte says.
His art follows two rules: use only original photos and found materials. A lifetime of travel and photojournalism, including spreads in Rolling Stone and Vibe, provide material for rule number one. Living amid the refuse of Oakland makes number two easy to satisfy as well.
Konte salvaged an enormous, pitch-black wooden spool head six feet in diameter for “Real Girls Wear Black.” The industrial-strength mandala probably had a former life laying cable, but Konte projects a photo of his daughter and a friend riding a bicycle onto the spool and chips away a relief. Add some sparkling marbles to break up the imposing red hues of the wood against the black, and the piece takes on the distant appearance of a jeweled topographical map. Slowly, the shadows of the girls’ eyes and clothes form an almost uncanny photo-real image.
Konte’s focus on the face leads to uncanny borders of near-perfect replication, whereas eesuu’s love takes faces in the opposite direction, back in time. Eesuu’s seven busts of elongated, heavily morphed black and green faces depict classical Zimbabwean Shona sculpture in transition, dealing with the distance between Africa and Oakland.
Shona is a popular sub-Saharan Africa art form credited with influencing Picasso and other Cubists. Its stars include Nicholas Mukomberanwa, with whom eesuu trained for six months. Mukomberanwa’s influence breathes through eesuu’s work. The emphasis on form and symbolism over accurate representation generates simplified lines and amplified features. A two-dimensional version of eesuu’s work would look like Cubism under high heat, melting and realigning, referencing the lines of street graffiti.
The Prophet offers a superb example. Similar to Mukomberanwa’s Prophet, eesuu focuses on the stylized goatee, Afro hair, and unique face positioning. But Mukomberanwa stops there, while eesuu pushes on, further elongating the cheekbones and the nose, carving dynamic, flowing curves hitting rigid, sharp angles. Smooth, polished black skin meets rough white soapstone scarily mimicking tightly coiled hair.
Shona pride clashes with American hypocrisy in The Front. Here the green, milky soapstone bust is dominated by a tear, pouty lips, and a rapper’s heavy chain. But look at the piece from the opposite side and the dominant features are a bare, ripped chest; proud, upturned nose and eyes; and chain tightly coiled around the neck. Eesuu ducks the obvious connotations. “I try not to think about it too much, just let instinct sort of take it,” he says. “When I was carving the front side, I had planned on just doing the back muscles, but I flipped it around and saw another thing emerging and went with it.”
Konte mixes media and messages creating a riddle barrage, while eesuu relaxes and lets the stone do its thing. He is less emphatic, but equally mysterious. The eye never rests in its search for context.
Longtime coexhibitors, the two are complemented by the Gordon Gallery’s setup. Known for taking risks with diverse known and unknown artists, Gordon let Konte paint the walls while eesuu decorated the floor, adding installation work to enhance the impact of individual pieces. The art no longer ends at the edge of the piece, but spills down pedestals and climbs up the walls. “Aesthetically we just harmonize and I think we have similar feelings about art and African-American identity,” eesuu says. The two will collaborate again in Soul Salon, a collection by local African American artists to be displayed this spring.