Joshua Donkor (b. 1997, UK) is a Ghanian-British painter whose work uses portraiture as a tool to subvert monolithic portrayals of Black identity.
Donkor approaches portraiture as a collaborative exercise between him and his sitters. His process involves meeting with the subjects of his paintings on multiple occasions and going through their personal effects and photographs. Donkor works with them to identify the images that most potently convey the details of their personal narrative, including family photos, fabrics, and personal belongings. Each portrait Donkor paints includes both the image of the sitter, as well as layered visual references to all of the items they picked out together.
The material depth of the paintings comes about through Donkor’s method of transferring layer after layer onto the surfaces of his paintings. Using a range of different painting and printing and layering techniques, he literally embeds the histories of his sitters into the work.
Although the subject matter of Donkor’s paintings is deeply personal and completely idiosyncratic—often having to deal with specific African roots and the individual experiences specific people have had growing up Black in Western societies—all types of viewers have been able to respond deeply to the images. Somehow, widely relatable content is communicated through the specificity of the images.
“The clarity of memory has significance,” Donkor says. “You can listen to the conversation through the paintings and trace the stories through the person’s life.”
This voyeuristic peek into private aspects of people’s lives, the lives of total strangers, complicates the White or colonial gaze. The monolith of Black identity becomes more complicated, creating a deeper heritage with which a wider range of people can ultimately connect.
“My goal is to tell people’s individual stories,” Donkor says. “What essentially makes the work I do so accessible to so many people has to do with the fact that so many people have a background of being in between; between different cultures and different families. People are stuck in between different worlds that are equally part of themselves. That comes through in the work.”
Written by Phillip Barcio, Associate Director of Interpretation at The Kavi Gupta Gallery
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