Curator Larry Ossei-Mensah Celebrates Art's Diverse Display
Art lover and curator Larry Ossei-Mensah puts his passion on display.
Amoako Boafo, "Bella Sontez" (2019). PHOTO COURTESY OF AMOAKO BOAFO AND ROBERTS PROJECTS, CULVER CITY
Amoako Boafo, "Black and White" (2018). Both works are on view through February 27, 2022, as part of 'Amoako Boafo - Soul of Black Folks' at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Franciso. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMOAKO BOAFO AND ROBERTS PROJECTS, CULVER CITY
After a stint living in Switzerland in the mid-2000s and then returning to his native New York for a full-time corporate gig in marketing, Larry Ossei-Mensah knew that something was missing in his life. Back in Europe, he had been documenting his experience as an expat through photography, traveling throughout the continent and capturing the pulse of cities from London to Rome, Prague to Paris, and the medium had quickly turned into a passion. In Italy, he had come across Blackamoor sculptures and assorted portraits of Black people, which fueled his interest in the stories behind the images and took him deeper into the expression and meaning of art. Now, he felt that pull again, but this time it extended beyond his own work. “I shifted towards recognizing that there weren't enough platforms for Black and brown artists and then finding satisfaction in collaborating with artists and helping them bring ideas to fruition.”
Nari Ward's "Black Sweat" (2019) PHOTO COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LEHMANN MAUPIN GALLERY, NEW YORK
As a natural offshoot of diving into the art community, Ossei-Mensah and six of his friends formalized an idea they had been working on for a long time—ARTNOIR (www.artnoir.co), an inclusive nonprofit centered around community upliftment and advocacy for marginalized members of the art world, those Black and brown artists who are often excluded from the conversations and privilege afforded their peers.
Ward's "Scapegoat" (2018 -2020) PHOTO COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LEHMANN MAUPIN GALLERY, NEW YORK
When the onset of the pandemic delivered a significant financial blow to many of the talents championed by the organization, artists who rely on potential clients being able to interact with their work, ARTNOIR rose to the challenge. “Within the last 18 months, we really pushed to really think through how can we support our community,” he says. “Last year, we raised over $100,000 for COVID relief for artists and cultural workers. This year, we raised over $100,000 for a scholarship that was started with MFA students who go to city college, city universities, and then state universities.”
Ward's "A Brief History of Known" (2021).
For Ossei-Mensah, who currently serves as a guest curator at the revered Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rudin Family Gallery, his ongoing quest for community betterment keeps him closely attuned to the artists he works with, not only for their own works but for their interest in their own peers. “I find that artists are pretty generous about recommending other artists that they respect,” he says. “For me, I trust that recommendation, because this is an individual who knows the journey of art-making, conceptualizing, and executing. And so they're not going to recommend somebody to me who isn't someone else that delivers and whose work is not relevant to the conversation.”
This page: Lucia Hierro, "Frijoles Negros" (2020).
A central focus of conversation in the last year has been Ghanian painter Amoako Boafo, whose rapid ascent into the spotlight took the art world by storm, if not by surprise. Boafo’s striking, tactile portraits that incorporate his finger-painting technique may have crowned him the artist du jour, but he has stated his focus on a more enduring legacy, one that allows his own vision to be as much heard as seen. His first museum solo exhibition, Soul of Black Folks, is curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah and will be staged at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora through February 27.
Artist Nicole Awai PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND BARBARA DAVIS GALLERY
Soul of Black Folks will display 20 of Boafo’s works from 2018-2021 and is titled after W.E.B. DuBois’ lauded collection of essays that delved into race and racism in America.
Awai', "All the White Stuff" (2019). PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND BARBARA DAVIS GALLERY
“The underlying thread or theme in this selection signifies the triumph of the culture and lifestyle of blacks all over the world. Each piece speaks to the liberation, rebirth, and celebration of blackness. The works in this exhibition tells the Black story through varying lenses,” says Boafo, who, despite previous disillusionment with the business side of the art world, believes in his collaboration with Ossei-Mensah. “Larry is currently involved in endeavors to celebrate the artistry and creativity by Black and brown artists around the world through ARTNOIR—this vision clearly resonates with who I am as an artist.”
Lucia Hierro's Tal Cual installation at Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY, LOS ANGELES; ARTNOIR PHOTO BY JERRY DIGBY
For his part, Ossei-Mensah has found another artist who speaks to his soul. “When I saw his work, I just was moved by it. It’s one of those things that I'm still trying to figure out what is it specifically. This is something obviously aesthetically pleasing and a beautiful, tactile medium—you get this sense of movement. But I think what's also interesting is it feels like it kind of illustrates the fluidity of black people. It’s not attempting to fix us at one place. Because when he paints the skin, he paints with his fingers, so just that touch, although it's like a synthetic material, it's almost as if you're touching your body or that of someone that you admire.”
Hierro, "La Tierra Es De Quien La Siembra" (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY, LOS ANGELES; ARTNOIR PHOTO BY JERRY DIGBY
And so, having an exhibition by one of the most important artists of his generation, looking at what he's been able to capitalize in terms of these conversations around portraiture—we have so many emerging artists but we're looking at him.”
But even as the exhibition draws attention, Ossei-Mensah has not forgotten his main goal of giving more and more artists their platform to be seen.
collector Troy Carter, artist Lauren Halsey (center), and ARTNOIR co-founder Larry Ossei-Mensah at ARTNOIRTalk in Los Angeles in 2019. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND CHARLIE JAMES GALLERY, LOS ANGELES; ARTNOIR PHOTO BY JERRY DIGBY
“I’m talking to artists, talking to curators, getting recommendations, looking at the work,” he says. “ I've really been trying to make an effort to engage in intergenerational dialogue. Because foundationally, my practice is really shaped by emerging artists, people like Layo Bright, a great Nigerian sculptor—I don't see many young women working in sculpture. There’s Ludovic Nkoth, who is from Cameroon and migrated to America via South Carolina. He’s an incredible painter. Lucia Hierro is a Dominican-American artist based in New York and we’ve collaborated a number of times. Sometimes artists from Spanish-speaking countries don’t always get [their deserved] attention.
Nicole Awai, "Invincible" (2019). PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND BARBARA DAVIS GALLERY, HOUSTON
“Lucia Hierro is a Dominican-American artist. Sometimes artists from Spanish speaking countries don't always get attention.” –Larry Ossei-Mensah
Damien Davis, an artist that I’ve known for a while and collaborated with on multiple projects, he’s from Louisiana and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. Nicole Awai from Trinidad, an OG from my perspective, teaches at the University of Texas. Also, right now, Nari Ward, another OG from Jamaica is beginning to get his flowers. He teaches at Hunter and is consistently doing [his thing]. Eric Adjei Tawiah is a figurative artist from Ghana. He's a protege of Amaoko Boafo.
Below: Nicole Awai, "Vista 9: Flashback – Now You See Me Pounce!" (2016). PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND BARBARA DAVIS GALLERY
It’s been an exciting journey to learn every day. For me, it's literally what wakes me up in the morning, and I think that is such a unique experience. When you experience that, you want to experience it again.”