By Franklin Abbott
The Alfred Conteh show at the September Gray Fine Arts Gallery is titled “Two Fronts: Surface and Reason.” Through a series of portraits of people in Conteh’s West End neighborhood and paintings of these same people depicted as giants towering over community landmarks, the artist explores the internal and external dynamics of racism. The people in Conteh’s realistic paintings display the wear and tear of internal and external stressors. Many have the patina of weathered metal, others seem to be made of wood aged and stressed by weather. Conteh’s models are his neighbors, some familiar and others not but all depicted with an insight into their humanity and how it intersects with the forces of their environment.
Conteh says he has been drawing since “he could remember.” He was encouraged by his parents and teachers and began to blossom as an artist while in high school. He attended Hampton University and received his MFA from Georgia Southern University. He became expert in painting, print making and sculpture using every opportunity presented to him to grow and learn. His subject matter has always been the African diaspora living in the South. His work became more serious and nuanced about ten years ago when he turned a corner and focused on racism and its external and internal effects on Black people.
Racism, as Conteh sees it, is about separating resources, wealth, and protection under the law by one group from another based on skin color. He acknowledges that while there has been social progress on some fronts that the racism of today is no different from historical racism because of economic factors. He sees this in his everyday life and watches it as it unfurls in national and international politics. He also notes the effects of internal conflicts in the African American community and how it works to reinforce stereotypes, crime, misinformation and a lack of cooperation.
Conteh’s paintings of colossal figures towering over the urban landscape are, he says, like bigger than life statues of generals commemorating their battles. These archetypal figures represent both the victories and losses of marginalized people: the single parent seen above the treeline, the hustler over the shoe store, the church lady towering behind a community church. Conteh’s figures are bigger than their circumstances and greater than their predicaments.
Jeremiah Ojo, Conteh’s studio manager and curator of his show, is impressed with Conteh’s strong resolve to connect the material realities of the world of the African diaspora to a here and now conversation about the hard truths of day to day survival. Conteh sees the African American community in a state of siege, “Things are not fine, great, sweet. We are at war and have to prepare ourselves and our children to deal with that.” He knows this is an unpopular stance for an artist to make, “I don’t make art to make people feel good, I make art for people to understand the truth.”
Conteh describes himself as a night-bird. He finds his creativity strongest in the evening hours when others have retired and distractions diminish. He stokes the fire of his creativity with information about the world around him, “I have to be attached, aware, up on things.” Newspapers and podcasts are among the sources of information that inspire him to create. Conteh will be in conversation about his work with Kevin Sipp at the gallery this coming Saturday from 2 to 3 p.m. He says the conversation will explore not only his creative process as an artist but “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” He creates in order to illuminate and inform his own community and the broader community about the lives of Black people. He says people respond to his work in a variety of ways including anger and tears. Conteh takes these responses as affirmation that his paintings are having an impact, that his message is getting through.
Alfred Conteh’s solo exhibit is at The September Gray Fine Art Gallery, 75 Bennett Street, Suite 0-2, through March 3rd. His artist talk is Saturday, Feb. 11, from 2 to 3 p.m. For more information, visit septembergrayart.com.
Franklin Abbott is a psychotherapist and writer.