The Penetrating Portraits of Isshaq Ismail

by Rebecca Anne Proctor  

The Ghanaian painter’s grotesque figures transfix the viewer while they reflect on the universal human condition

They pierce the spectator with their huge eyes out of which they emit bold, direct and powerful stares. Their expressive grotesque forms painted in a variety of vibrant hues at once startle, console and captivate. They emanate a range of emotions at once—melancholy, anger, despair and joy. They are faces that could belong to a man or a woman and to any ethnicity and race. At times they appear neutral, ungendered while at other times a more feminine or masculine character takes over. Based on the men and women that Ismail encounters each day in Accra, the artist aims for his figures and grotesque faces to transcend race, class and gender lines and be universal in representation and reach. While their true persona is never revealed by the artist, Accra-based painter Isshaq Ismail (b. 1989), it is the energy and emotion that these portraits emanate that easily touch, move, and ignite a range of feelings in the viewer.

Ismail, who studied like many of his contemporaries at the acclaimed Ghanatta College of Art and Design from 2009-2012, has exhibited in both Ghana and internationally, including in New York, Miami, London, Cape Town, and Dubai. In 2015 and 2016, he was shortlisted for the Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Art; in 2016, he was one of the Top 100 finalists at the Barclays sponsored L’Artelier Art Competition in Johannesburg, and in 2019, he was shortlisted for the GUBA USA Influential Artist Award.

Ismail explains how the pedagogy that he and his other contemporaries studied at Ghanatta was 80 percent art practice and 20 percent theory. “We constantly needed to practice our art so that we could hone our draftsmanship,” he says. “After school I realized I had to unlearn and re-learn, and I had to look at my work within the context of history.” The work of Jean-Michael Basquiat and Francis Bacon particularly inspired him. However, he says he didn’t take them seriously when he was in school.

After Ismail graduated in 2012, he began to gentrify his practice. “My interests changed, and I became fascinated by grotesque images and surfaces,” he says. “I wanted to narrow the subject matter of my work down and push it and my creativity further. This is what led me to explore the grotesque figures that I am working on now.”

When Ismail started exploring grotesque images, he says how paramount themes to his practice were conversations revolving around place and identity. “I was interested in how the social culture and political realities of the 21st century influence us as humans. I wanted to use my faces to advocate for the voiceless.”

Through the artist’s poignant visages that prompt the spectator to transfix upon their grotesque forms and features, Ismail aims to portray the complex variety of emotions that people experience from everyday life. The artist perceived how many people consistently struggle with their emotions and with trials and turbulations of living. “Many feel they cannot voice their concerns or speak about what they are going through,” he says, noting how he was influenced by the people he would encounter on his rides on public transport in Accra, the individuals in the marketplace or who are driving for Uber, as well as the calamities pertaining to the news cycle. “Such moments influence my work in the studio which then leads me to capture them in a spontaneous manner on canvas.”

There’s a child-like wonder to the artist’s grotesque faces and figures. While they are brutalist in form, they are also endearing to behold. Ismail produces many sketches, sometimes from his imagination while other times from photographs before he renders each portrait or figure. “I adapted my technique to a semi-infantile form of abstraction,” explained Ismail. “The work has a charm-like fever to it now. Life is not perfect, so I don’t see why I need to create perfect forms.” He also likes to work in series so that multiple bodies of work can be in dialogue with each other. Rather than attach titles to his works, Ismail numbers them and then puts words in his mother Ghanaian tongue of Twi. For example, “Onipa Anim 1” means “human face 1” in Twi. “I want to use our own local names for the portraits,” he says. In so doing, he brings the work back to Ghana and his own heritage and language.

Through his paintings Ismail also aims to offer “honest portrayals” of the people he captures. “Anxiety, anguish and empathy—I want to capture emotions you find in society,” he says. Yet Ismail’s characters are also ambiguous, and he wants them to be seen as such. They don’t have a clear identity, gender, class, or race. “They are anonymous so that they can have a global language,” says the artist. “When you look at these characters you question where they are from. I am capturing within these figures, aspects of Ghana and aspects of the global community.”

Ismail’s grotesque portraits don’t just penetrate the viewer’s gaze, the emotional impulse the viewer feels is also from their explosion of color. The expressions so subdued, melancholic, that the joyful vibrancy of the artist’s electric hues is almost unexpected. “I have no hierarchy when it comes to my color palette; I just want them to be interesting,” he says. At times, he adds, he aims for color blocking as one would find in fashion so that one color is dominant rather than several at once. “Everyday engage in fashion and popular culture, and I borrow color from here too,” he says. “Through color my figures take on different identities inhabiting different spaces.”

There’s the blue face, the black face, the red face, the green face, and the yellow face. In so doing, Ismail pushes the boundaries not just of color but of identity and race. Use of a multitude of colors serves to obfuscate ideas of race to focus instead on the individual rather than their color. “I don’t just want to make black faces; if I want to use red, I should be able to use red so that I can endow my characters with various emotions that so many people are going through now and always and this is important to me,” he underlines.

Through color, form and emotional complexities Ismail’s portraits break all boundaries. They aren’t just African or occidental. They are merely human beings, experiencing, surviving, and wrestling with the same emotions, pain, happiness, sadness, and despair that are experienced all over the world. Through their grotesqueness and their penetrating gaze, the artist emancipates his figures from the stereotypes of identity making a visual statement that we have more in common than what sets us apart.

Beauty Behind the Madness

By Azu Nwagbogu 

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

For his debut solo gallery exhibition, Beauty Behind the Madness, the artist Isshaq Ismail takes inspiration from a somewhat unusual source: the second studio album by Canadian singer-songwriter the Weeknd. This debut solo showing is also eponymously titled after the same album.

Beauty Behind the Madness by Ismail has as its refrain, paintings that reflect a leitmotif of learning and unlearning that has come to characterise Ismail’s work over the years. In his voyage of rediscovery, Ismail dares to be naïve, to move beyond Black portraiture, Romanticism and Representation to a form of Naturalism with a focus on social commentary, objectivism, determinism and characterisation of subject matter through a form of detonated formalism and abstraction. Ismail aims , in his words, “to capture daily life and imagination”. Ismail is concerned with the quotidian and mundane aspects of human society. Ismail is amongst those rarified few who is able to learn through a process of observation and synthesis. He observes society, processes and crystallises; what he offers is a heuristic narrative of where society is at any given moment in time. It is literature but in picture form.

In Beauty Behind the Madness Ismail, speaks to knowledge and how Western canons, for African, can sometimes stifle creative impulse. Again Ismail references, the Weeknd’s, Losers, the second track on the Album which speaks to the corrupting nature of “growing up” through automatic absorption and rote adherence to archaic forms of learning, to organized religion and to societal norms.

Ismail use of heavy impasto, gestural quick lines and associative colour palette that allow him create texture and feeling with his subjects. Each character is alive due to their animated attributes. Texture upon texture, feeling upon feeling to give layers of complexity to his subjects. He aims for the very opposite of monumental but achieves the same memorable effect with subversive imprecision. The didacticism in Ismail’s portraits is expressed by using distortions and the grotesque to generate meaning, especially advocacy for the voiceless. The emotions and moods of subjects suffering from our angst-inducing social, cultural and political contemporary reality are captured far more vividly and effectively by his distortions than by a more ‘realistic’ rendering. Ismail compassionately presents to the viewer identities fractured by anxieties induced by judgements about appearance; by material aspirations; by racial or gender-based oppression. Ismail himself coined the felicitous epithet “infantile semi-abstraction” for his intriguing and original paintings, but their childishness lies only in tapping into the same fount of inspiration as does a child and their tendency away from representational fidelity and towards abstraction is only a coda to their comprehensive examinations of form and line, colour and texture. Ismail’s is a naïveté and abstraction that could only be conceived and executed by an excellent draughtsman.

Growing up in a Muslim home in Accra, Ismail honed his talent first in learning to write Arabic—something he later came to realise instilled in him the fundamentals of draughtsmanship—and then in making charcoal drawings on walls and making pastel and crayon drawings in books. He later apprenticed in an unofficial capacity with roadside sign writers making billboards, banners and posters for churches and local businesses. At this point Ismail had no thought of making a living as an artist. It was only when he met artists who had studied at Ghanatta College of Art and Design that he realized that there was a professional path to becoming a full time artist. Given his circuitous route to his current position, Ismail welcomes collaborators of all kinds and smoothes the path for others by making his studio available to artists who do not have a space of their own to work in.

Ismail's paintings possess a unique artistic signature which is all the richer for this history and for these associations: in a room full of his works, each distinct in its exploration of the artist’s recurrent themes in line, colour and texture, one nevertheless has an instinctive sense of their kinship of and of the fact that nobody else could have painted them. Ismail’s paintings illustrate an artistic vision whose form is a faithful reflection of the purpose impelling their creation and an outlook that is self-consciously didactic. He teaches not by imposing a programme upon the viewer but by mining the deepest recesses of his creativity, unburdening himself of his artistic training and technique in order to display his mastery of figuration—even when he is turning his draughtsmanship upside down—to illuminate some aspect or other of his perennial theme of fractured identity that a strictly representational treatment would occult.

Ismail's Ghanatta College of Art and Design curriculum contained elements of Western art pedagogy which he has had to unlearn, but also introduced him to artists such as Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose example helped to liberate him from the conventional with respect to mediums, materials and stylistic genres and to manipulate shapes and forms to stretch representational boundaries. Basquiat’s radical neo-expressionist vision has been a key influence not only on Ismail’s representational approach but also on his thematic concern with representing the voiceless. Ismail builds from sketches which emerge from his imagination. Often the subjects of the sketches are not ‘real’ people but personified images of the underlying emotions he wishes to illustrate—at the setting of maximum bleakness, complexity and tortuousness in chronicling the human condition, in the manner of Francis Bacon—which emerge from his imagination. Bacon's unsparing vision has been a key influence on Ismail’s artistic development. At other times he uses reference photos or sketches taken whilst riding on public transport in Accra. He develops these sketches by means of expressive texturing in a sculpting with paint technique that occasionally uses collage—in pasting, for example, a newspaper article in the foreground of a portrait. This naïveté, this child-like 'play' is for Ismail the highest expression of creativity: freely expressing what is in his soul by ignoring distinctions such as that between painting and sculpture or between stylistic genres within painting is what a child would do; the purity of unlearning what he has been taught to emulate that is key to Ismail’s creative vision.

The texturing and material complexity of these paintings summon up synaesthesic sensory associations. There is sound, in keeping with the association between the work and that of the Weeknd. By means of the architectural elevation-style exposition of the three-dimensional image surfaces Ismail manages also to convey almost tangibly something of the brooding power of traditional African wood carving and especially masks to the medium of oil painting. It is not only in the synaesthesic effects he induces but in his approach of seeking to subvert and interrogate conventional ideals of beauty that he returns to the creative purity of childhood: children in their initial artistic experimentations strive not for beauty but for truth to their feelings. Thus Ismail’s work uses the visual image to capture the unvoiced cries of his subjects. The more faithfully his unusual paintings capture their sentiments, the more strongly he advocates for the voiceless by making visible their unvoiced cries.