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Art & Architecture Review: Power Plant exhibitions twist Western traditions of portraiture to focus on identity and race

Fabric cut-outs – disembodied legs, arms and heads – are pinned to two walls as though by some godlike dressmaker in the exhibit Witnessing by Alicia Henry.

Toni Hafkenscheid/The Power Plant

In a collection of subtle and surprising work now showing at the Power Plant gallery, the American artist Alicia Henry includes a map of many masks. It’s a curious wall hanging in which dozens of small, crumpled pieces of dark fabric and brown leather, each with holes representing eyes, nostrils and mouth, are grouped in a large, long, horizontal cluster that undulates like some kind of geography. Is it a scrap heap, a topography or simply a crowd? In a second larger piece, fabric cut-outs – disembodied legs, arms and heads – are pinned to two walls as though by some godlike dressmaker. They move across this corner of the gallery with their references hovering somewhere between a garment industry sweatshop and a portrait of all humanity.

Henry has the most inventive and haunting ways of evoking the human presence and it’s not coincidental that this presence is brown. An African-American artist and professor of art who lives in Nashville, Henry is not overtly political, but her work inevitably reads as a retort to Western depictions of the human figure as uniformly white.

So she makes an interesting companion for Omar Ba, a Senegalese artist who lives part-time in Switzerland and whose figure paintings are showing at the gallery simultaneously. These are large and crowded portraits, often executed on corrugated cardboard and usually on black backgrounds in which Ba attempts nothing less than a new African iconography, lamenting violence and evoking hope.

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In the exhibit Same Dream, Omar Ba leaves almost no surface bare, covering his compositions with minutely detailed and much repeated decorative motifs that evoke West African fabrics.

Toni Hafkenscheid/The Power Plant

Several of these paintings, for example, refer to brutal dictators – although they are not individually identified. In one, titled Naufrage (which means shipwreck), an impassive face under a military’s officer hat sinks into a sea of white feathers under a forest of strange fronds. Other paintings depict strong men with the heads of lions and medals on their chests sitting on various thrones. In other works, Ba suggests the pain of the young migrant, showing fresh-faced African boys; he has posed several of them in a human pyramid for a site-specific work created for the Power Plant. They wear traditionally decorated shirts and short pants, the clothes a riot of dense motifs while the background is covered with feathers and palms.

Indeed, it is the kenophobic surface of these paintings that has to be seen to be believed; starting on a black ground, Ba leaves almost no surface bare, covering his compositions with minutely detailed and much repeated decorative motifs that evoke West African fabrics with their geometric patterns of zigzags, dots and shells.

There’s a dynamic tension here between African and Western traditions and, as arresting examples of contemporary art about black identity, Ba’s paintings make for a lively conversation with Henry’s cut-outs. Just outside the room where the images of the boys and dictators hang, Henry has filled the Power Plant’s clerestory with oversized silhouettes of women made from brown fabric and clothed, like giant paper dolls, in faded dresses in the patterns of old quilts. In a lower corner, there’s a little girl in a blue pinafore.

Perhaps she could flit across the hall and join the boys posing in Ba’s paintings. His work may bring down the egomaniacal dictators, but both he and Henry are creatively twisting the Western traditions of portraiture to elevate anonymous figures in a globalized art of identity and race.

Witnessing by Alicia Henry and Same Dream by Omar Ba are on show at the Power Plant gallery at Harbourfront Centre until May 12.

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