Sess Essoh's Collage Paintings Amplify Africa's Revolutionary History
Ayanna Dozier, Artsy, March 6, 2023
In his most recent body of work, Sess Essoh reanimates figures from Black African history in his vivid collaged canvases. Using thread, color, and paste, Essoh’s works embed these individual histories within a cohesive narrative space to build a collective understanding of their impact.
The artist—who was born in Toupah, Côte d’Ivoire, and received his MFA in art from the National School of Fine Arts in nearby Abidjan—is now making his German solo show debut with “Homage” at Galerie Melbye-Konan, which is on view through March 31st. Last year, Essoh’s abstract mixed-media paintings sold out at contemporary African art fair 1-54, at the booth of his gallery LouiSimone Guirandou, which co-represents him alongside Galerie Melbye-Konan. Now, in a new series, “Homage,” Essoh creates collages with significant figures from Africa’s past, adding to an alternate collective memory beyond typical colonial narratives.
In his painting Myriam Makeba and Queen A’ Nzinga of Angola (2022), Essoh collages printed images of two famous southern African women: civil rights activist and singer Miriam Makeba, who protested against South African apartheid; and the 17th-century leader of what is now northern Angola, Queen Nzinga, renowned for her military resistance against the Portuguese.
Using a marouflage technique, Essoh juxtaposes images of these two great women, separated by geography and generations, onto a vibrant canvas dominated by pink and peach hues. Black pastel lines, scribbles, and a faceless figure overlay these collaged photos. In Essoh’s work, Africa’s past of female resistance and rebellion is memorialized, with these forceful faces showing wear and tear like concert posters.
“I find old books that are no longer published,” Essoh said last year. “I question society, history, changes.” The artist, who is also a writer, remains fascinated by how social events are recorded and shared globally, noting the tendency for Euro-American audiences to ignore and erase Black African histories. Ultimately, his paintings use citation and everyday materials to create alternative narratives, rewriting Africa’s history as one of rebellion against colonial oppression. Memory, he says, can be fragile.
Essoh’s interest in the formation of collective memory was partially influenced by his father’s habit of keeping a daily diary. For the artist, journaling is a way of ritually reinterpreting life by recording it—this inspired him to use social imagery, narrative, and histories in his art to make sense of a personal encounter.