Black And Its Usage In Art

These two artists use black colour in their work to explore fundamental truth in the society. Black has been defined as the ‘absence of colour,’ however, its usage speaks a lot as can be seen in these two projects.

Black is a unique colour. It is among the most used hues in the world today. From printing to writing, black plays a major role. In art, the hue has been employed by many artists to paint the background when they want the image on the canvas to be the centre of attention. Other artists have a fascination with this colour that they use it exclusively to bring out their creativity. One such artist is an Indian British sculptor Anish Kapoor who was given exclusive rights to the blackest colour in the world known as Vantablack. Vantablack is a creation of Surrey Nanosystems- a British company. The colour was conceived for use in satellites and stealth jets due to its ability to absorb 99.96% of all light. 

Although Sir Anish Kapoor experiments with different colour palettes, his fascination with Vantablack made him become the sole user of this hue which is not actually paint but made from growing carbon nanotubes which are spaced apart creating ‘black holes’ that absorb light rendering the blackest surfaces when used. Anish Kapoor’s exclusive rights to Vantablack created uproar in the art world where many artists condemned Surrey Nanosystems move.

Over the years, Artists have fought for different hues some spending a fortune just to lay their hands on certain colour. The latest casualty is Vantablack, which follows the footsteps of the lapis lazuli- a vivid blue label that was a fascination for many artists in Europe.

Rarely do people talk about black and its usage in arts. Black is among the most common colours and its prevalence is widespread. This colour has been a part and parcel of the art world and almost all artists in the world apply it. In paintings, black takes the background, if it is not stack black it will be dark like in Johannes Vermeer’s a Girl with a Pearl Earring. Besides, black has been used to create silhouettes among other choice usage depending on the artist’s preference. In performance, backing vocals in most occasions wear black. The use of black in arts allows us to look into its origins.

In his paper, ‘Ethnic or Symbolic: Blackness and Human Images in Ancient Egyptian Art, Historian James Brunson explores the use of this hue among ancient Egypt. According to Brunson, black was a colour associated with royalty. Many Egyptian Pharaohs were painted in black or their statues were painted black. From Osiris to Ahmose Nefertari, these Pharaohs appear black. Apart from Pharaohs, black was used by wealthy men. According to Brunson, fine pre-dynastic linen fragment was found in Egypt dating between 3400-3200BC on which there were paintings of dark-red oarsmen on a boat, but in the lower deck of the boat was a tented black-skinned figure. This figure has been deduced to be Osiris. However, the larger linen from which the fragment came was found came from a tomb wrapped around the remains of a wealthy man. In Egypt, common people were wrapped in straw matting as observed by Brunson. Finally, Brunson suggests that black was used to represent southern invaders who annexed northern Egypt and occupied it. Before the unification of Egypt, the southern black-skinned people invaded the North which is represented by red-skinned people and conquered them. This culminated into the unification of Egypt and black was now exclusively used to represent the royalty and the wealthy.

The use of black predates Egypt as observed in Cave paintings of the 17,000-year-old paintings of Lascaux in France, 35,600-year-old Altamira cave paintings in Spain and the Sulawesi Paintings in Indonesia which are about 35,400 years old. These paintings were made with charcoal and other materials as a primary source of black colour.

In modern art, many artists employ this hue in their works. Key among these artists is Kenyan David Thuku, whose most recent exhibition, ‘Still in Motion’ at Nairobi-based One Off Contemporary Art Gallery. Thuku’s work uses predominantly black or a shade of black in his works. Thuku’s exhibition, ‘Still in Motion’ (30th November 2019- 12th January 2020) shows dark images in different poses depicting motion. Thuku is an incredible artist and his genius comes alive in his works as he playfully weaves between the darker shades and lighter shades either creating shadows or silhouettes.

The use of black in Thuku’s work, especially when painting subjects makes his work enigmatic and topic-oriented. When he speaks about ‘Still in Motion’ one can see motion come alive on the canvas and interact with them. Thuku pays attention to the use of black and the interplay between black, grey and white is very vivid. When you look at how he paints the eyes, you notice the pupil dance in the milky white cornea like black beans floating in milk as Austin Bukenya describes the eyes in the poem ‘I Met a Thief.’ This interplay also brings about the difference between darkness and light rendering a silhouetted head blocking the light from the window or the shaded part of a leg as it moves. The artist, who uses paper instead of canvas, really knows his colour.

Another artist who has employed this colour is Peju Alatise. Unlike Thuku, who has a thing with this hue, Alatise used this colour primarily for her project Flying Girls. Flying Girls was part of the Nigerian pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The installation was made up of eight life-sized sculptures of girls with birds flying mid-air above the girls. The entire installation was black.

According to the artist, the installation told the story of Ani, a young girl working as a servant in Lagos. Despite her bondage, Ani had dreams of flying represented by the birds. Flying in this context means achieving her dreams. Technically, she had a life in reality and a life hidden in her dreams. Though she wanted to sore, her dreams had been stalled by the current bondage.

A dedication to the modern-day Nigerian girl, Peju raises the debate that girls too have a potential to rise above the basic societal expectations. Their dreams are killed by early marriage, caring for children and forced labour. Nevertheless, these girls have humongous dreams and could even be better leaders than the current crop of male leaders. In this installation, Peju used cellulose black paint and resins.

There are many artists who employ this hue; in fact, a majority of the artists in the art world interact with this hue in their daily creative activities. It is one of the reasons people do not discuss black.

The colour black has been associated with many negative connotations like evil and the devil among other things. However, as practiced by Peju Alaitise, the colour is a representation of that which is ignored; the girl child and her dreams. It is also a representation of the significance of the girl child in society from her childhood to adulthood. Like the colour black, the girl child subsumes or engulfs everything around her in a protective shade of darkness. Furthermore, like silhouette, she magnifies the light around her and makes an outline of her inner hidden hopes and dreams.

On the other hand, the colour could be a representation of the forgotten role of women who are constantly overlooked by a male-dominated society that controls everything including decisions predominantly feminine. Anyway, like Thuku’s black the emancipation of the weak is “Still in Motion.”

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