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Mowbray Odonkor

Born, 1962 in London, England

Mowbray Odonkor is a British artist of Ghanaian parentage, who trained at art school in London during the 1980s (Wimbledon College of Art, 1984-87). Her work was exhibited in the 1991-92 Norwich Gallery travelling exhibition History and Identity. Along with other women artists such as Amanda Holiday and Simone Alexander, Mowbray Odonkor seemed destined to follow in and indeed emulate the successes achieved by Sonia Boyce during the 1980s and on into the 1990s. Odonkor’s work was characterised by a singular attachment to highly figurative painting and drawing. For the most part, Odonkor took as her subjects the condition of Black women of the diaspora, identity politics, and the legacies of history. To this end, she was responsible for some of the most compelling and articulate paintings and drawings produced by artists during the 1980s.

Odonkor’s work was included in a number of group exhibitions in particular and one of her key pieces, ‘Self-portrait with Red, Gold and Green Flag’ (otherwise known as ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’) was acquired by the Arts Council Collection; a reflection of its significance and importance as a prime example of Odonkor’s concerns and artistic style.

Time and time again, Odonkor embraced the vehicle of the self-portrait as a means of expressing herself and her ideas. Indeed, even those works which were not, in a direct sense, self-portraits, reflected such a profound empathy on Odonkor’s part for the struggling Black women of the world, that they were, to a great extent, very much a part of her body of self-portraiture.

Odonkor was one of the ‘Seven Painters’ included in the early 1990s exhibition, ‘History and Identity’. She was represented by two drawings; ‘Eeny Meeny Miney Mo, Now You See Me Now You Don’t’ and the previously mentioned ‘Self Portrait with Red Gold and Green Flag’. ‘In Eeny Meeny Miney Mo, Now You See Me Now You Don’t’, one of Odonkor’s beloved self-portraits, the artist drew herself not once but six times. Which one was the real Mowbray Odonkor? Each of these self-portraits almost showed her as being six different people, though in actuality, they showed her presenting herself in six different ways, or guises. In this piece of work, Odonkor was attempting to challenge the tendency to ‘judge’ and ‘assess’ people on the initial basis of their style of hair, mode of dress, etc. And though certain types of people are more likely than others, to be on the receiving end of this tendency to size-up, it was clear that the work had as much to do with intra-communal hierarchies of appearance, as it did with notions of wider societal prejudices.

Commenting on ‘Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Now You See Me Now You Don’t’, Odonkor said: “This piece of work addresses stereotypes. Using self-portraiture it addresses the way we are all too often solely judged by our outward appearance. For example the way in which a person styles her hair, is often used as a criterion for judgement, resulting in assumptions that can be totally misleading. We need to look further than outward appearances and stop making rash judgements, which pigeonhole people through dress. Appearances can be deceptive.”

Onward Christian Soldiers stands as a compelling, layered testament to the potency and intricacies of Odonkor’s history and identity. Presented in the manner, perhaps, of the Asafo flags of Ghana, the piece shows the artist standing, arms horizontally extended, in front of a flag of repeated lateral bands of red, gold and green. Perhaps reflective of the Ghanaian flag, the flag is embellished with stars that perhaps recall the six pointed Shield of David. Thus within the work Odonkor evokes the distinctly Pan-African, or Diasporic sensibilities of a Black British culture influenced to the nth degree, by the sensibilities and the aesthetics of Rastafarianism. In one corner of the flag there is a monochrome drawing of a slave coffle – that is, those manacled and shackled groups of captured African forced to march (often many many miles) to the coast or through the desert, shortly after their nightmare of enslavement began. The monochromatic nature of the slavery tableaux contrasts markedly with the colour of the rest of the piece. Directly adjacent to the slavery tableaux Odonkor has placed a Union Flag, thereby boldly and directly implicating Britain in the sordid history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Odonkor declares the memory of slavery to be an integral part of her history and identity. Not only that, but the memory of slavery exists, for the artist, as an ongoing affliction, or burden. There are profound overtones of the sacrificial within the piece. With her arms extended, as if nailed or bound to an unseen cross, it’s almost as if Odonkor has been crucified by slavery. Slavery is her stigmata. Such profound assemblage of ideas, motifs, and symbols is rare, and through this work, Odonkor declared herself to be one of the most important artistic voices to emerge during the 1980s.

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Related venues + view all 7

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»  Cornerhouse

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