Sarfo Emmanuel Annor: “I Want to Showcase the Beauty of Black Skin”

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Sarfo Emmanuel Annor, Finding Calm, 2022
Sarfo Emmanuel Annor, Finding Calm, 2022Courtesy of the Bridge Gallery

Ahead of his debut solo exhibition in Paris, AnOther meets the Ghanian artist painting jewel-like portraits of people from his hometown

Sarfo Emmanuel Annor’s portraits hum with a meditative frequency. Strong, primary-coloured backgrounds lay the foundation, in front of which his radiantly dressed subjects appear to levitate on a separate plane. Colours are exclusively bold but Annor keeps them in careful balance, creating perfectly tuned compositions with an almost holy aura.

The 22-year-old artist has made this deft interplay of light, colour and emotion the raison d’etre of his growing practice, creating jewel-like portraits of people from his hometown of Koforidua, southern Ghana. Last year, Annor received his debut solo show at the Bridge Gallery in Paris, and most recently, featured at the fifth edition of 1-54’s Contemporary African Art Fair, held recently in Marrakech.

Founded in 2013 by Touria El Glaoui, 1-54 remains the first and only international fair dedicated to contemporary African art. Featuring galleries from across the continent alongside international counterparts that reflect the wider diaspora, 1-54 has supported young artists like Annor from the outset.

As is true of many emerging African photographers, from Ismail Zaidy to Derrick Ofosu Boateng and fellow Ghanaian Prince Gyasi, Annor started out taking photographs on his smartphone. Combining his day job as a designer’s apprentice with a background in painting, photography offered a way of uniting both. “I started with taking photographs of family and friends,” says Annor. “Especially my niece – I used to do only portraits of her in the beginning.”

More recently, Annor’s list of collaborators has expanded but two things remain unchanged: all are children and all share dark skin tones. “Kids have this special aura around them,“ explains Annor. “They represent the future and that makes the work really special for me.”

The choice of shooting dark skin tones, on the other hand, offers a technical advantage, providing a high contrast with the textured white walls Annor uses as his backdrops so that their colour can be easily changed later. But the decision is also an integral part of Annor’s ambition to channel the radiant energy and vitality of his home. “I want to showcase the beauty of Black skin to the world,” says Annor, whose sitters all hail from Koforidua’s population of just under 100,000. “One of the main symbols in my photography is embracing dark skin and challenging African stereotypes around it.”

In spite of their relative locality (all his photographs were shot against found white walls in Koforidua), this Pan-African sentiment runs through Annor’s work, down to the ceremonial cloths worn by his sitters, which he has collected from different countries across the continent.

These exquisite fabrics are just one of several colour inputs that Annor uses to play with the emotional resonance of each portrait. “I really believe these colours can lighten your mood,” he says. “If you’re having a bad day, these colours can directly influence your emotions.” Each portrait reflects a different mood and each mood a colour, but Annor also brings narrative to his portraits with playful symbolism. In one photograph, a model stands with her back to the camera, an open book resting on top of her head (Burdened, 2021). “Here in Ghana, most kids face a lot of pressure around school from their parents. The concept is about how learning can become a burden and that they also need to play to be kids.”

Though he cites René Magritte and Vincent van Gogh as influences, closer similarities to Annor’s style can arguably be found in the work of pioneering US painter Barkley L Hendricks. Paintings like Misc Tyrone (Tyrone Smith) (1976) and Blood (Donald Formey) (1975), in particular share clear parallels with Annor’s intuitive sense for colour and sharp tailoring, as well as his elevation of Black skin.

Perhaps it’s little surprise, therefore, that Annor has his sights set on taking his work into museum spaces and sharing the same walls as his idols. “My dream is that one day I will show my work somewhere like Tate,” says Annor. “I want to continue developing works like this, works that promote a uniquely African beauty and tell stories of African youth.”

Sarfo Emmanuel Annor’s debut will go on show at the Bridge Gallery in Paris from 21 – 26 February 2023.