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Kunle’s creative unfolding

Published: 
Sunday, January 18, 2015
A review
A segment of Makemba Kunle’s retrospective exhibition at the National Museum and Art Gallery, Port-of-Spain. Photos: Marsha Pearce

Makemba Kunle’s The Unfolding of an Artist: Life, Aesthetics and Revolution, at the National Museum and Art Gallery from October 8, 2014 to January 8, 2015. 

Makemba Kunle’s paintings, with their aesthetic of innumerable dot marks, recently transformed the National Museum and Art Gallery into a planetarium, replete with the sense of adventure and wonder that comes with looking at an endless sky peppered with luminous points.

Each painting was a constellation of brush marks and pronounced energy. The retrospective exhibition of more than a hundred works allowed audiences into the artist’s universe and its unfolding over decades. 

Kunle’s creative arc is one of self-searching. Born in 1950, he grew up in the push toward T&T’s independence and found himself trying to figure out who he was in a Caribbean postcolonial context. Kunle became an activist in the Black Power movement but would eventually turn his efforts toward activating the paint canvas, manipulating pigment and space to address concerns about identity, and resist a colonial legacy of imposed ways of being. 

The exhibition revealed Kunle’s early exploration of selfhood through the genre of portraiture, including images of such revolutionists as Gene Miles and Mahatma Gandhi. Other images demonstrated his later shift from more clearly figurative descriptions of the human form to an explosion of the face and body into tiny spots and flecks—redolent of the pointillist technique of the post-impressionist artists. 

By fracturing and bringing his forms to atomic levels, Kunle attempts to expose what the physical eye cannot easily discern. The exhibition showed a move from outer appearances to a preoccupation with inner, less visible scapes of existence. One example was a selection of paintings from his Whe Whe series, which drew on ideas of intuition, dreams and the spirit realm as other ways of seeing and knowing.

Such elements as archways and doors were also featured prominently in the works on display and reinforced an illustration of Kunle’s want to find access to unconscious parts of a personal and collective self. In some instances his intense probing could be seen in overworked areas of his paintings, where small circles of colour climbed on each other, creating patches of strokes that were incongruent with his more patient arrangement of shapes in the rest of the composition. 

The overall feeling was that of vastness and freedom, a sensation that was curbed in part by the close hanging of the paintings in relation to each other, along with the frames around each piece, which were read as borders that checked the flow of Kunle’s burst of minuscule swatches of hues.

Perhaps where this exhibition succeeded was in its capacity for audiences to stargaze, to contemplate the cosmos of their own lives, to join the dots in the artworks to see the big picture or to step back and recognise only the tiny fragments, to be reminded of life as a paradox of being great and small simultaneously.

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