A Look at Koffi Mensah

Bringing out the Memory of African Identities

Through his portraits, the Burkinabé artist brings back the history of personalities who, in line with a hegemonic Eurocentric viewpoint, were erased from the history of the African continent.

Historical figures that reconstruct collective imagery

“I believe that an artist, with his creative work, has to invest in both society and politics, because I see art as a political cause,” observes Mensah. This view leads him to consider his art “artivism”— a conceptual neologism of shaky consensus in the field of social sciences and the visual arts, which links art and politics and thus encourages the potential intent of art as an act of resistance and subversion.

As acts of resistance, Mensah’s portraits excavate and bring to light the history held in the archives of collective social memory. If we study these bodies under the magnifying glass of Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall (1932-2014), they would also be considered surfaces or canvases, on which it is possible to explore the interior landscapes of Black subjectivity. The Black body is no longer a mere object of contemplation or desire, but is treated as a subject.

Through subjects portrayed in the foreground, Mensah offers viewers eyes that look back at them, telling their own stories. In this exchange of subjectivities, a constant flow of coming and going unfolds, symbolically turning the viewer into a portrait for the one being portrayed. The hand-carved canvas surfaces—a reference to traditional engraving techniques that give his portraits a lacy texture—makes the viewer’s eye linger on the work, searching for a balance between subject matter, memory and concept. In this relationship between figure and foreground, there is an uneasiness in the viewer’s gaze and post-Pangea forms: each sculpted face pushes boundaries, expands stories, turning into a unified territory that moves and scatters into smaller, hollow portions.

From the method of superimposing sculpted and overlapping canvases, a weft peels away, a web of information composed of fragmented traces of the self, through which Mensah constructs faces as a passage, points of diffusion and connection of African knowledge beyond the continent’s geographic confines. With this fragmented view, Mensah points to the pluralization of African existences that, through the perception and re-signification of the gaze of the other and with the other, seek to rebuild the threads of their own identity.

Authored by: Bruna Tupiniquim, Filippa Jorge, Kelvin Marinho, Lorenna Rocha, Marta Georgea Martins de Souza, Renata Martins, Rogério Felix.

This article is the result of work fostered by the workshop entitled “Art Criticism as Writing Exercises. Analysis of the works of Thó Simões and Koffi Mensah Akagbor”, organized in May and June 2020 by Renata Martins, as part of her virtual residence, Vila Sul 2020, sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Salvador-Bahia. Over the course of six weeks, participants from different cities and areas of expertise met virtually in groups, where they were able to engage in online dialogue with Koffi Mensah to produce this work of collective knowledge on the Burkinabé artist’s creations.

Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.