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Abstraction in the Black Diaspora

 written by Elizabeth Buhe, The Brooklyn Rail, November, 2020

The last five years have seen a spate of critical texts and exhibitions that theorize Black abstraction, attempting to animate, through the lens of historic and contemporary art, a field of production that has been understood since the 1950s as powerfully yoking artwork to artistic identity. This is an impulse that current scholars seek to overturn. Curated by Tariku Shiferaw and Ayanna Dozier, Abstraction in the Black Diaspora at False Flag partakes of this tendency with a curatorial polemic put forth by Dozier’s theory-heavy essay in the show’s catalogue. In her formulation, abstraction should prize form (which is open-ended) over narrative (which is circumscribed by identity), allowing audiences to invent meaning through embodied response.


In addition to his role as co-curator, Shiferaw contributes his own work to the show. He too centers Blackness by locating cultural production across the Black diaspora as the site from which his abstraction arises. In black and white paintings that refer either to Black music or flags of African nations, Shiferaw builds up surfaces in white paint that he then inscribes with circular motions, revealing—in Kenya (2020), for example—glimpses of red or green below. He thereby inverts the conventional interpretive protocol that positions white as a color of illumination and black as a color of obfuscation.


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Tariku Shiferaw, Kenya, 2020.

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