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From their huge eyes and poignantly rendered facial features, they stare out at the viewer while coloured in variously shades of lapis lazuli blue.

Installation view of ‘Beyond the Fence, Begins the Sky. Courtesy of Efie Gallery.

The blue casts an ethereal setting, one that like the title of the show that encompasses these new works by Ghanaian painter Isshaq Ismail, ‘Beyond the Fence, Begins the Sky’, reflects on ideas of transcendence and universality but also within a specific African context. The sky symbolises hope and promise while the fence represents a hurdle to surpass. Isshaq’s works depict the ability for those vulnerable and in suffering to rise above adversity towards something greater. 

The 10 works on view in Ismail’s first solo show in Dubai were created during the artist’s residency at Efie Gallery. Continuing the artist’s signature large-scale abstract rendering of the human face, these portraits incorporate the same grotesque style through chunky painted lines with their thick impasto straddles at times the masculine, feminine or unisex yet through their unique blue colouring calm and transfix the viewer to reflect in a meditative way on the Ismail’s evocative visages. 

A key philosophical component to Ismail’s work is universal resonance he endows his figures. They are not to be seen as black or white or any specific colour regardless of the vibrant hues he gives them. His characters, through the faces of his expressive, poignant, and haunting abstract portraits, are to be seen on a universal plane. Like the title of the exhibition, which points to the infinite possibilities of the sky, Ismail’s figures transcend earthly characterisations to exist through their common humanity, their shared suffering and joy. “Even though my characters find their themselves in a certain state of crisis, often beyond that, there are numerous possibilities and hope is a shared point of departure for each of my characters here,” explains Ismail. 

The striking colour blue coupled with white creates an immediate Ismail’s evocative faces are usually coloured in vibrant hues, but this time he decided to capture them all in shades of lapis lazuli. The colour attributed to the stone immediately conjures up a sense of regality, grandeur, and elegance. “For me the colour is cherished,”Ismail says of his decision employ the colour. “Many believe it is a symbol of authority, royal power, depth, and strength. I want my characters to possess these attributes.” 

Moreover, the chiaroscuro effects that Ismail employs, incorporating strong contrasts between light and dark add a further sense of mystique and majesty to his figures who despite their struggles on earth strive to transcend to something greater, something higher. 

A series of smaller portrait works painted with the artist’s blocky, cubist like rendering of the human face form part of these new works that Ismail created while in residency at Efie Gallery in Dubai. Larger works invite more contemplation from the onlooker. In one larger work, two heads are joined, with one upright and the other peering out from the side. Bold lips and big white eyes characterise both yet the pupils stare in different directions while overhead is what appears to be a serene sky with a few clouds. In another work, an upside-down head tops an abstracted torso. His eyes are upside down too and yet gaze up towards the sky in yearning, desiring something higher, greater. Other times Ismail’s figures appear to converge with the natural landscape and the never-ending sky above with faces with protruding eyes seemingly part of what appears to be two mountains with their tops extending to the blue sky above. One that appears more solemn and perhaps contemplative of the earthy suffering we all battle with is a painting depicting a face with Ismail’s same blocky features yet with no white eyes. The person’s eyes are instead small circles of blue that stare blankly, emotionless out to the viewer. Below is another face turned sideways with big protruding eyes that almost appears to be carried or held by the sterner portrait above. Through his large protruding white eyes, the person stares above, grasping again for the sky, the infinite and something greater.

Curatorial Essay by Rebecca Anne Proctor. The exhibition will be on view from the 28th of February until the 29th of May, 2023. For more information, please visit Efie Gallery.

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