Amoako Boafo’s ‘Soul of Black Folks’ is profound, personal portrayal of Black identity

Photo of an art exhibit
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Regal blues meet decadent browns with each finger stroke, enriching viewers’ associations with the phrase “finger painting.” Curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, Amoako Boafo’s “Soul of Black Folks” — this season’s premier exhibition at San Francisco’s Museum of African Diaspora — offers a cohesive yet eclectic array of portraits, depicting the history, humanity and whole of the Black figure.

Referencing W.E.B. Du Bois’ ethnographic examination of double-consciousness in “The Souls of Black Folk,” Boafo’s exhibition simultaneously explores external perceptions and intimate understandings associated with Blackness. Having grown up in the neighborhood of Du Bois’ burial, the Ghanian artist brings a global perspective to his collection, representing Blackness across space and time.

An oil painting on paper made in 2018, “Reflection I” grapples with Du Bois’ themes of perception, spotlighting a central Black figure who poses shirtless while regarding his reflection in a mirror. Boafo’s signature finger painting technique lets the piece radiate with personability, allowing viewers to feel the humanity within each twist and turn of the subject’s anatomy. As the figure subtly emotes behind thoughtful eyes, his pensive expression is reminiscent of the Mona Lisa; Boafo’s subject appears keenly aware of his portraiture, which pays tasteful homage to both Da Vinci’s iconic work and Du Bois’ theoretical framework.

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” reads the exhibition’s spotlighted quote from Zora Neale Hurston, a Black American author known for her portrayals of organic Black culture and critiques against colorism. Boafo’s work visually represents Hurston’s words, often placing his subjects in front of a solid white or light-colored background. The rich, dark hues of Black skin are made especially evident in Boafo’s 2019 portrait “White on White,” in which a Black man in a white shirt stands in front of a white background. Colorful paint droplets on the subject’s shirt underscore the rainbow that hides within the absorbent shades of black and brown, promoting the exhibition’s thematic focus. Meanwhile, shades of blue and pink peek through his subject’s skin, and these colorful contrasts stand out as a unifying staple throughout Boafo’s creations.

Boafo juxtaposes solid backgrounds with purposeful patterns that form his figures’ clothes. Made with phototransfer and oil on canvas, his 2021 portrait titled “Green Clutch” is an emblematic example of this feature. In the painting, a central Black woman gazes at the viewer while adorned in a dazzling green printed garment. Her attire reflects Boafo’s background, combining traditional African prints with the aestheticism of the Western world — an artful representation of Du Bois’ double-consciousness theory. From a compositional standpoint, this work expertly blends color with texture and calls attention to the subject’s romantic red lip as it contrasts the remainder of the painting’s tranquil earth tones.

A striking feature of this collection is its titles, which tell intricate stories with few words. Certain paintings are named after their subjects, reminding observers of the individuality within each portrait. For instance, a simple portrait of a Black man in front of a white and yellow background is titled “Seye,” and another painting named for its personhood is “Libby and D-Lee,” which depicts a presumed couple who smile and embrace in front of a bold yellow backdrop. These proper-named paintings forward a humanistic protest against the commercialization and objectification of Black people in the modern era, a necessary criticism against the commodification of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A fan favorite, “Fuck You Mean Tho” is another painting whose title is arguably just as integral to the work as its visual components. This punchy yet powerful phrase honors Black pride and vernacular, granting observers a comical yet crucial reminder of Black women’s vital role in constructing popular culture.

A dynamic representation of Black life, joy and beauty, Amoako Boafo’s “Soul of Black Folks” accomplishes all it sets out to. This alluring compilation is both comforting and courageous, incorporating a lively combination of playful brush strokes, vibrant colors and animated figures to assert its counter-hegemonic political protest.

Contact Piper Samuels at [email protected].