Portraits of Strength

In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work in context. This week, we’re looking at a painting by Pierre Mukeba, who is inspired by the African diaspora in Australia, that is currently on view at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne as part of its 2020 Triennial, on through April 18.

Name: Pierre Mukeba

Age: 25

Based in: Adelaide, Australia

Originally from: Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo

When and where did you make this work? March 14, 2018. It was created in my bedroom at the time, at my mum’s house.

Can you describe what is going on in it? I was moved by the strength and power portrayed in Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), but couldn’t fully relate to it as all of the subjects are of one race. And so I wanted to depict African women in a similar light — at their most beautiful and powerful. I focused on the strength that these women hold, regardless of the situations that have been inflicted on them. The subjects are at different stages in their lives and journeys, but all project strength in their demeanor. This is reflective of the African woman and how she, no matter her age, is often the backbone of our families. I come from a family with four sisters, and have seen how women like them are underrepresented in society and in art. You can see in the work differences in the women, including the fact that one of them is pregnant, and this shows that the shape or appearance of a woman also does not change or minimize her power or beauty. The painting is done with brush pen (ink) and African fabric appliqué on cotton canvas. This produced unexpected tones on the women’s bodies. Experimenting throughout the process of making the work allowed me to think about the dimensions and spacing of their figures, and about the effect and illusions of negative space as I tried to balance multiple components of the piece. In stitching fabric on the painting, I wanted to give depth and structure to the work and add an overflowing, triangular form of color.

What is an artwork in any medium that has changed your life? I admire a lot of amazing artists’ works and constantly observe and consume art, but I was mesmerized when I got to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I was so impressed at the understanding Michelangelo had in painting the bright colors and broad, cleanly defined outlines that make each subject easily seen from the floor. The human bodies depicted are perfectly in proportion and so lifelike, and his overall concept is so well developed. As I left, I told myself I need to be able to express how I feel. It gave me the desire to challenge myself as an artist, to develop my techniques and ideas further, making works with different pigments, fabrics, paints. It also evolved my understanding of the subject matter, thus forcing me to grow as a person and be more resilient in overcoming challenges.

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