The Colours and Patterns of Black Survival: Reflections on the Art of Cornelius Annor
In his essay, ‘Between Abstraction and Representation’, written for the New York Review of Books, the art critic Jed Perl argues that artists today do not seem concerned with creating works that conform fully to the logics of an established art tradition. For Perl, there is no regularity of what he calls a ‘stylistic particularism’, no real commitment to either the abstract or figurative approach. ‘Artists appear to think that it’s possible to be a representational artist one minute and an abstract artist the next’, says Perl. His art criticism is blemished by his ‘aesthetic conservatism’ as argued by Barry Schwabsky in his New Left Review essay, ‘Shadows of an Ideal’.
In my view, the foremost issue with Perl’s essay is his hardened insistence on the need for consistency in artistic style. I do not deny that there is much to be admired in consistency, but we must be careful not to overstate its artistic relevance. Pushing aside the concern for consistency in art, I believe there is more to be admired in the courage of an artist, which is sometimes overlooked or understated. The mere decision to dedicate one’s life to a creative practice is courageous, and that courage extends further when an artist assumes the role of a critic, a commentator, a contributor to liberatory practice. One such artist is Cornelius Annor who paints the interiors of black life, which the writer Rinaldo Walcott claims ‘persists in the midst of practices, institutions, and knowledges meant to extinguish such life.’ In his book, The Long Emancipation, Walcott refers to black subjects as ‘black life-forms’ to emphasise the humanity and aliveness of black people. ‘The black life-form’, Walcott says, ‘is an acknowledgement that we exist, we are alive, we are a site of life’.
Annor, like Walcott, presents buoyant theories of black life through his mixed-media portraits. During an interview with Chantel Akworkor Thompson, founder of the arts publication Beyond the Black Canvas, Annor says the following: ‘I've taken it upon myself, and other artists also have, to create images that portray the positive side of black people. It is therefore really important that my work reaches that height.’ If Annor were to be presented with the question, ‘What does it mean to be a black person?’, he might offer his paintings in response. Each of his paintings entwines the fabric of a reality that most black people have always known and often seek to project to the world—that there isn’t just one realisation of black personhood. There are different shades of blackness, and some are significantly brighter than others.
Born in Accra in 1990, Annor studied Fine Arts in Ghanatta College of Art and Design, one of Ghana’s leading art training institutions. He draws inspiration from his family history and childhood experiences to portray black social life. Annor mentions Rembrandt as one of his inspirations, though his portraits lack the tenebrosity of Rembrandt’s paintings; his works are instead suffused with a light and vibrancy that Rembrandt may only have briefly flirted with. But perhaps Annor shares with Rembrandt an ability to observe subjects closely and generously, capturing their aliveness as wholly as possible. With great care, he highlights the different ways black people make life; he captures the ordinariness of black survival. His Ghanaian heritage and appreciation of kinship shape his interpretations of the world. In Ampesie (2020), Annor portrays a group of people sitting together enjoying a meal of yam and plantain with hard boiled eggs and avocado—a popular Ghanaian repast from which the painting inherits its title. In another painting, Oblayo (2020), also named after a Ghanaian meal—corn porridge—Annor depicts a young black woman dressed in a patterned orange and brown dress, paired with red heeled shoes. With a broad, soft smile on her face, she tunes into a radio station. The reasons behind Annor’s decision to name this portrait after a breakfast meal are unclear but, like the food which is warm and filling, this painting exudes comfort, warmth, and a fullness of life, even in what seems to be the most banal setting.
Although Annor relies heavily on acrylic paint and Ghanaian textiles, photography plays a foundational role in his work. Photographs, sourced from both family collections and public archives, inform the various domestic scenes depicted in Annor’s works. Copies of real photographs are transferred onto paintings such as Mmaa Mpaninfoo Nhyeamu (2021), Reflection (2022), Guinness Time Writing Time (2022), and Tena Ase Dwen (2022). Annor infrequently reapplies the same photographs to certain paintings that capture distinct events and interactions. One of these photographs is of his father, a sculptor. The haunting appearance of certain photographs gives the impression that the different characters featured in Annor’s paintings are bound by the same memory; they are shadowed by the ghosts of others, familiar others. The critic John Berger writes in his essay ‘Uses of Photography’ that ‘a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it’. Berger adds that a photograph is ‘something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask’. In line with this, we find that a group of Annor’s paintings, bearing the mark of haunting images, are traceable to particular figures that create a unique aura; they make the viewer feel that they too, along with the subject of the painting, are called to share in the memory of a life, to acknowledge its realness, to know that it too endured. As Berger says in the same essay on photography, ‘Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness.’ These works function not so much as a memento mori but a memento vivere.
Jed Perl might be glad to know that Annor seems committed to a representational style, never deviating from portrayals of human figures. But the more important quality of Annor’s art is his unshrinking devotion to portraying the colours and patterns of black survival in a world where attempts made by black people to enjoy freedom are not yet immune to disruption. Annor’s paintings contain both stillness and spirit. Viewers can participate in the stillness of figures in the paintings but also delight in the gestures of life evident in the eyes, smiles, postures, and clothing of black subjects.
The journey towards black freedom—freedom as uninterrupted respite—is enriched and supported by the works of artists like Annor who have made the courageous decision to paint black life-forms, detailing quotidian manifestations of liberation.