In this monthly series we will pick a piece from the Schwartz Art Collection to discuss in the hopes of starting conversations about art on campus and beyond. We don’t claim to be experts, just fans of interesting art excited to talk about what we see.
RBN: For our final installment of the year, we’ve chosen Philip Kwame Apagya’s Francis, which can be seen on the first floor of Aldrich. The photograph captures a young man standing in front of a painted backdrop in a Ghanaian photography studio. What do you think of this one, Vicky?
VS: I love the ostentation of this image. In the background you have a two-dimensional rendering of a shelving unit housing various electronic appliances—a large TV, a sound system, multiple VCRs—and a refrigerator with its door swung open to reveal shelves brimming from one end to the other with ripened fruits, rows of fresh eggs, and nicely chilled beverages. A fan sits on top of the refrigerator supposedly blowing cool air in the portrait sitter’s direction. And to top it all off, the protagonist leans casually on the “TV set” with one arm while throwing the viewer a thumbs up with the other. Life for Francis is good.
RBN: Or at least life looks good. The artist is using a painted backdrop to show the subject in a setting of luxury, as if allowing him to say, “Look at all these things I have… or could have.” I have to say that when I saw this piece the first thing I thought of were those massive picture gallery paintings of the Renaissance, like David Teniers the Younger’s painting Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Private Picture Gallery, showing a patron surrounded by his floor-to-ceiling art collection. In describing the Teniers and other similar paintings, John Berger in his book “Ways of Seeing” talks about how “[t]o have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents.”
VS: Definitely, the distinction between “life is good” and “life looks good” is an important one to make. As an exchange commodity, portraits were traditionally deemed valueless due to the specificity of their images. Yet, they were valuable in more subtle ways—in capturing sitters at the height of their achievement, surrounded by their supposed material splendor, portraits served as a testament to a family’s wealth and prominence. Art historian Margaretta Lovell makes the argument that families in early America commissioned portraits particularly at times when family or estate were at stake. Portraits helped fabricate a familial fiction not only to the outside world, but also to the sitters themselves.
RBN: Unlike the oil paintings of the Renaissance or those of the great American portraitist John Singleton Copley, though, Apagya produces a photograph. Photography is much cheaper and quicker and, as a result, more democratic—in the time it takes to snap a picture, Francis can possess the lifestyle depicted in the painted backdrop.
VS: Apparently, Ghanaians come from a tradition of incorporating painted backdrops into their photographs and broke with “traditional” backdrops in the 1940s to meet the public’s growing taste for consumption. But I want to point to the good-natured humor that seems to underpin Apagya’s images. One of my other favorite works from the artist, called Francis the Pilot, shows the same young man stepping onto the tarmac from a private plane (again, the backdrop is a trompe-l’oeil, a style of painting that intends to “deceive the eye” by looking real). What I love about the photograph is that the portrait sitter chose to wear a Hermès t-shirt as he steps off his “private plane.”
RBN: This aspiration for modernization and consumption is powerful, especially for Ghana—a country currently dealing with massive fiscal and current account deficits, high inflation, and slowing growth, amidst whispers of corruption. Despite these challenges, we can hope that Ghana’s democratic government (and its offshore oil reserves) will be able to provide Francis and others like him with the opportunity to live the life we see in this portrait.
VS: Sounds like somebody’s been paying attention in BGIE!
RBN: Well, what I’m saying is that I think art, like business, has the ability to profoundly reflect local and global conditions and help us better understand the world of which we are a part.
VS: I couldn’t agree more. That’s probably a good place for us to wrap. It’s really been a pleasure working with you this year, Rob!
RBN: Couldn’t agree more, Vicky! Have a great summer and see you in the fall!
If you see something and want us to say something, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Also, you can check out the actual artwork at: //www.hbs.edu/about/campus-and-culture/schwartz/Pages/art-details.aspx?artId=apagyaphilipkwame15