WHY ALFRED CONTEH IS THE DOPEST ARTIST YOU NEVER HEARD OF

Ida Harris, Blackstew, January 8, 2020

According to astronomy, the Sculptor is a faint southern constellation between two others — Grus and Cetus, to be exact. Conversely, of my own assessment, the Sculptor is a pellucid southern entity on a par with greats suchlike Augusta Savage, Elizabeth Catlett, John Wilson — and he is none other than Alfred Amadu Conteh. Langston Hughes knows rivers, but I know sculptors. He is bald, bearded, big-boned, and Black-Black. He speaks brilliance through a deep, but quickened, down-south dialect which declares that he is born straight outta a place called Fort Valley, in Georgia , and its motto is “Where Caring is a Way of Life.” Conteh cares. His caring spirit is a guiding principle when it comes to the context of his works.

On the sculptural tip, his is a game to conjure with. Like for real, — using equally diverse and unconventional materials such as animal fur, chicken bones, epoxy dough, leather, mousetraps, plastic bags, resins, et al, — dude sculpts entire fucking worlds that could give Tolkien a run for Middle Earth. Trust me. I seen’t them — and you should, too.

Peep why: Conteh is a living master whose work not only explores the complexity of his geometric imagination — it also critiques aspects of blackness in brutally honest and nicety ways. It presents questionable performances of blackness: at its peak; on its ass; while stagnant; in movement; during day-to-day survival. Conteh’s work is as unforgiving as he is unapologetic. Conteh cares.

His earlier series, Bitter Medicines, Sweet Poisons (BMSP) caught me off guard. For those who are sleep, the series serves as the proverbial alarm clock, calling on (and calling out) Black folks to wake the fuck up. And the works’ pristine white-on-whiteness and three-dimensional aspect has the volume all the way turnt up. A set of bold and beautifully stitched soup-coolers, affixed to a church fan, asks a pointed question in “Need We Say More? (The Stitches).” It is a work that gets straight to the heart of matters which plague Black communities: compliancy, acquiesence, hood passes, STOP SNITCHING campaigns. The dangling needle somehow suggest that silenced Negroes leave themselves hanging. At-a-glance, the piece “Forward” is an angular directive, seen on digital playback devices, however a close viewing reveals that it encourages and encompasses a range of faces, bearing Blackish features — thick lips and broad noses — to press forward. An infant hand positioned in the nook of a 45-degree angle, makes its point. “Forward” is reminiscent of “Igbo Landing 7” by Donovan Nelson — not for its similarity in composition, but more so the nuanced meaning that each work renders. While Nelson’s depicts profound choice of death over life, Conteh’s urges life over death.

In his recent series Two Fronts, Conteh deviates from his sculpting post to go hard in the paints. On large scale canvases, measuring 40×40″ and upward, he documents nigga life, in all its strife, in 24 paintings — plus the body of work continues to grow. Opposite BMSP which is an indictment of real nigga shit, Two Fronts pays homage to, as well as empathizes with, southern Black folks oppressed by real nigga shit that is a direct result of hegemony. Conteh cares. These colossal pieces boast a fusion of literal and magical realism. Their patinated treatment magnifies the duplicitous circumstance in which each subject finds themselves: a couple embraced alongside the notorious Six Flags roller coaster and painting namesake (“Goliath”); a father and son embraced atop a Family Dollar store (“People of the Desert”). The series’ standout painting is 7 a.m., though. It is the most vivid and topical of the collection. Its glossy projection and clean lines sketch the chilling, early morning on December 23, 2014, outside an Athlete’s Foot sneaker store, where a crowd converges to buy the new-new Air Jordan XI “Pantone” at five hunned a pop. The artist himself witnesses and condemns the phenomenon, but retracts once he realizes that he, too, is a cosplayer caught up in consumerism. The magical part is that he inserts himself in the work as onlooker, as judge, as participant.

Alfred Conteh is ’bout his business — all of them. Shit, I’m ’bout to see if he does plumbing, lays tiles, builds houses. Did I mention, he is a liq[-]uor connoisseur and distiller of some of the best damn bourbon and beer, coming outta Tallahassee. Dude does all this while continuing to give dope art work depicting ourselves:

Conteh’s prowess in art and history, racial and social politics, clay, iron-works, textiles, welding, wood-works, fabrication, and restoration not only allows him to give us this work, but it also transcends creative boundaries where many other artists find themselves stuck—and shit outta luck.

Peep new works by Conteh on his Instagram page.

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