Isshaq Ismail - Beauty Behind the Madness : Accra, Gallery I
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
— Alvin Toffler
For his debut solo exhibition at Gallery 1957, the artist Isshaq Ismail takes inspiration from asomewhat unusual source: the second studio album by Canadian singer-songwriter The Weeknd. Thisdebut solo is also eponymously titled after the same album.
Beauty Behind the Madness by Ismail has as its refrain, paintings that reflect a leitmotif of learningand unlearning that has come to characterise Ismail’s work over the years. In his voyage ofrediscovery, Ismail dares to be naïve, to move beyond Black portraiture, Romanticism andRepresentation to a form of Naturalism with a focus on social commentary, objectivism, determinismand characterisation of subject matter through a form of detonated formalism and abstraction. Ismailaims, in his words, “to capture daily life and imagination”. Ismail is concerned with the quotidian andmundane aspects of human society. Ismail is amongst those rarified few who are able to learn througha process of observation and synthesis. He observes society, processes and crystallises; what he offersis a heuristic narrative of where society is at any given moment in time. It is literature but in pictureform.
In Beauty Behind the Madness Ismail, speaks to knowledge and how Western canons, for Africans,can sometimes stifle creative impulse. Again Ismail references, the Weeknd’s, Losers, the second track on the Album which speaks to the corrupting nature of “growing up” through automatic absorptionand rote adherence to archaic forms of learning, to religion and to societal norms.
Ismail use of heavy impasto, gestural quick lines and associative colour palette that allow him tocreate texture and feeling with his subjects. Each character is alive due to their animated attributes.Texture upon texture, feeling upon feeling to give layers of complexity to his subjects. He aims for the very opposite of monumental but achieves the same memorable effect with subversive imprecision.The didacticism in Ismail’s portraits is expressed by using distortions and the grotesque to generatemeaning, especially advocacy for the voiceless. The emotions and moods of subjects suffering from ourangst-inducing social, cultural and political contemporary reality are captured far more vividly andeffectively by his distortions than by a more ‘realistic’ rendering. Ismail compassionately presents tothe viewer identities fractured by anxieties induced by judgements about appearance; by materialaspirations; by racial or gender-based oppression. Ismail himself coined the felicitous epithet“infantile semi-abstraction” for his intriguing and original paintings, but their childishness lies only intapping into the same fount of inspiration as does a child and their tendency away fromrepresentational fidelity and towards abstraction is only a coda to their comprehensive examinationsof form and line, colour and texture. Ismail’s is a naïveté and abstraction that could only be conceivedand executed by an excellent draughtsman.
Extract from curatorial text by Azu Nwagbogu