Meanwhile, ‘My Abloh’ (2022) pays homage to the late fashion-designer-cum-polymath Virgil Abloh. As is typical in Pabi’s portraits, one side of the face is realistic, while the other dissolves into abstract swirls of impasto – often the eye is an oversize crescent moon that makes it look a little like it is rolling back into the head. ‘For me’, the twenty-two-year-old says, ‘it's about pushing the extent to which the black body can go.’
The Many Faces of Pabi Daniel
In the work of Pabi Daniel, there is style and there is style. Thick climbing holds of paint meet swathes of vibrant colour on runway-ready figures. ‘Clothing is key when it comes to representation’, Pabi says, ‘because it raises so many questions about our desire, how we see ourselves, and how we see ourselves in the eyes of others.’ ‘Protection’ (2022) sees a figure wrapped up in pink Puffa scaffolding; for the artist ‘clothes become the architectural forms that enhance the way people look at us, as well as the way we protect ourselves.’
"climbing holds of paint meet swathes of vibrant colour on runway-ready figures"
With this sincere and celebrative approach to Black representation, Pabi is Gen Z’s answer to fellow Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo, who enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame from humble beginnings in Accra in 2020. Set to do the same this year, Pabi has respectfully made a distorted portrait of Boafo, who is well-known for abstracting his subjects through a signature finger painting technique. It makes me think of Abloh again, who famously defended charges of plagiarism by citing streetwear and hip-hop’s culture of sampling. In the work of all three visionaries, there is a commitment to representing Blackness via forms of expression that the cultural sector has previously dismissed, namely, earnestness, love, joy, and self-determination.
"representing Blackness via forms of expression that the cultural sector has previously dismissed"
‘History has been nothing but a cover up when it comes to the story of Africans,’ Pabi says. As an artist he feels it is his responsibility ‘not just to make beautiful paintings but to make bold representations that clearly define the space of black people in our history.’ His paintings are enticing, but there are elements that repel you, and therein lies their power. Just as the veteran jazz pianist can make a dissonant chord sound beautiful, Pabi combines texture, colour, pattern and gesture for an agitated harmony that makes you look, and look again.
This pull-push extends to Pabi’s own idiosyncratic motifs. His paintings are full of uncanny settings, doppelgangers – the tropes of a horror film. Where I see conjoined twins, or the sitter cloning herself before our eyes, Pabi hopes they carry a far less grotesque message. ‘There is a proverb in our Ghanaian culture, Two is better than one – and truly you can achieve much more through collaboration with others. So, I try to bring these cultural ideas into my work.’
Yes, for every element that promotes a sense of unease, there is another that is dauntlessly cute – the inclusion of a bright beach ball or a cuddle with a friendly spaniel with a lolling tongue. ‘It's all part of the strategy to make the work punchier but welcoming to look at, serious but playful, strange and yet familiar in setting,’ Pabi says. His body of work stages the tension between our desire to be thrilled on the one hand, and to be soothed and reassured, on the other.
"serious but playful, strange and yet familiar in setting"
While personal circumstances have been challenging, ‘with my work, I know I have somewhere where I have peace’. Frequently becoming absorbed in his paintings, Pabi goes to the studio early in the morning and returns around five in the evening, or sometimes he sleeps there, ‘because when I'm in the studio, I feel comfortable.’
Last year, still experiencing a feeling of loneliness, he would go for walks on the beach, or to the park, observing strangers. ‘In the green park’ is the artist’s attempt ‘to portray something similar to what I was going through’. There are white rectangular markings on the road. They lead nowhere, and if the road warped anymore you’d have a face full of it. But the man leaning on his wooden fence holds the viewer’s gaze, and the scene together. This feeling of being untethered and finding an unexpected connection with a stranger seems to hold weight for the artist. ‘That painting is actually my favourite’.
"a little poetical touch to the politically charged images"
Ultimately, his eclectic influences and playfully combined styles are a way of ‘stimulating one’s mind’ to refocus ‘on the emotion of the painting – and it adds a little poetical touch to the politically charged images.’
Poetic, politically charged, Pabi wears his whole heart on his stylish, stylish sleeve. ‘The story of my people I feel has always been brushed under the carpet for far too long… so I feel burdened as an artist to lift the carpet up and represent what has always been there – the thriving cultural evolution of my people.’
By Sammi Gale
Cover image: detail from Pabi Daniel, Chilled, 2021. Acrylic on canvas.