“The stars and big smiles around Black figures in my portraits tell the viewer that this is a person who deserves to be present and that the person deserves to ‘shine.'” – Emmanuel Agwam, Illustration (‘22).
The smiles, stars and bright symbols in Emmanuel Agwam’s portraits express “a positive perspective on Black people and Black experience. Most people consider that a celebration” says Agwam. “I consider it a demand, that Black people be represented in a positive light.”
Agwam’s work has gained notice this year from both his professors and peers. In early 2020 he was featured in “Royal State of Mind,” a platform for young Black creatives, and was interviewed by “20XX Magazine.”
Illustration Professor James Hoston suggests that Agwam’s imagery is laden with meaning, from his use of color to “signify a present state of mind” to his contribution to a “positive vernacular” that was once negative in minstrel shows mainly during Jim Crow.
Agwam’s affection for his subjects is clear.
“Everything and everyone I paint right now involves these characters that I have love for. Sometimes the people in the work are friends, family, past lovers. Sometimes they are people that don’t exist. Most of the time, I will simplify the characters and add things so my friends and family won’t know it’s them,” says Agwam.
“I am struck by the smiles of his subjects” says Professor Hoston. “I think of Chester Cat in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.’ The smile is crafted in a similar angle and with extra teeth showing as a flat aspect across the face. It’s seen as a mischievous grin.”
Agwam studied Illustration Rendering Techniques with Prof. Hoston. “Emmanuel has a great color sense in his painting. He embellishes to his own tastes. He has a natural talent for painting.”
Fine Art, says Agwam, is now his career goal.
“Until last year all I knew was that I wanted to make a living from my artwork. But I’ve outgrown the mentality of putting money over creative satisfaction,” he says.
His works’ prominent use of rendered textures, and in creating a narrative with each piece, comes from illustration, he says. But his choice of subject matter comes from fine art.
“Everything and everyone I paint right now involves these characters that I have love for. Sometimes the people in the work are friends, family, past lovers. Sometimes the subjects in the work are people that don’t exist at all. Most of the time, I will simplify the characters and add things to them so my friends and family won’t know it’s them,” says Agwam.
Aguam says he is at a crossroads as a fine arts artist who practices illustration.
“In my alone-time I study fine art, but while in school I study illustration. I take from both. I’ve noticed that fine art and illustration are not really two separate entities. Many painters use elements of both in their work just as I do.”
Agwam’s current influences are a mix of Black contemporary artists such as Naudline Pierre, Jennifer Packer, Devin B. Johnson, and Geneva Ellis, and classical artists Johannes Vermeer and Francisco Goya.
Prof. Hoston references connections he sees in Agwam’s work: The “appropriated” art and sculptures of Betye Saar, whose work was recently on exhibit at MoMA, and the black commical minstrel movement in vaudeville during the eras of Jim Crow and slavery from 1840’s till 1870’s:
“Emmanuel has captured an expression used in the past, as a negative, but has instigated that same expression, into a positive vernacular for his paintings” says Prof. Hoston.
“Depending on your age and history within the United States, his paintings can teach you something about his struggle. The use of dark tones for the figures and bright colors to muted colors, in the background, isn’t something new. I feel he wants to signify his state of mind, in the present tense.”
Agwam laments not being able to see more art exhibits during COVID-19 and says he’d like to see more museums fulfill their educational missions.
“It upsets me that galleries have the ability to do online walk-in exhibitions but often choose not to. There are disabled people and people like me who live far from these galleries that, even pre-COVID, wouldn’t be able to view works in-person.”
Agwam finds ideas through conversations, literature, and recently movies.
“Movies have opened a plethora of new subjects and ideas to explore. Those experiences raise questions, sometimes a multitude of questions that I ask myself. Then I answer those questions in the painting.”
“Grossly simplified my life goes like this,” he says:
I eat cereal, watch anime or I’ll sit on the bed and think.
I begin preliminary sketches of the painting and find references if needed. The thumbnails get developed and redrawn as a final layout of the work.
I paint the work, sometimes I’ll leave the work for days to weeks and come back to it, sometimes I don’t.
Agwam does not consider his art political. “Black lives are not a political subject to me, but anyone is open to feeling that way — though I will kindly and swiftly disagree!”
Black Lives Matter is not just a movement, says Agwam. “It’s survival. It’s a reality that I’ve lived with since I was a child. It’s not anything new. The difference from 10 years ago is that it’s being shared on a gargantuan scale. People who have turned a blind eye or who have been ignorant to the issues, are now able to see what’s been going on.”
The greater “turmoil and rage” right now is necessary, says Agwam. It could change artwork and opportunities for Black artists.
“I like the direction in which Emmanuel is heading with his paintings,” says Prof. Hoston. “I believe he can have a great future while exercising his freedom to comment on today’s issues.”
To see prior post of Prof. James Hoston go to: “Robeson is Othello in Prof. Hoston’s 100th anniversary graduation tribute.”
All images used with permission.