For his debut solo exhibition at Gallery 1957, the artist Isshaq Ismail takes inspiration from a somewhat unusual source: the second studio album by Canadian singer-songwriter The Weeknd. This debut solo is also eponymously titled after the same album.
Beauty Behind the Madness by Ismail has as its refrain, paintings that reflect a leitmotif of learning and unlearning that has come to characterise Ismail’s work over the years. In his voyage of rediscovery, Ismail dares to be naïve, to move beyond Black portraiture, Romanticism and Representation to a form of Naturalism with a focus on social commentary, objectivism, determinism and characterisation of subject matter through a form of detonated formalism and abstraction. Ismail aims, in his words, “to capture daily life and imagination”. Ismail is concerned with the quotidian and mundane aspects of human society. Ismail is amongst those rarified few who are able to learn through a process of observation and synthesis. He observes society, processes and crystallises; what he offers is a heuristic narrative of where society is at any given moment in time. It is literature but in picture form.
In Beauty Behind the Madness Ismail, speaks to knowledge and how Western canons, for Africans, can sometimes stifle creative impulse. Again Ismail references, the Weeknd’s, Losers, the second track on the Album which speaks to the corrupting nature of “growing up” through automatic absorption and rote adherence to archaic forms of learning, to religion and to societal norms.
Ismail use of heavy impasto, gestural quick lines and associative colour palette that allow him to create texture and feeling with his subjects. Each character is alive due to their animated attributes. Texture upon texture, feeling upon feeling to give layers of complexity to his subjects. He aims for the very opposite of monumental but achieves the same memorable effect with subversive imprecision. The didacticism in Ismail’s portraits is expressed by using distortions and the grotesque to generate meaning, especially advocacy for the voiceless. The emotions and moods of subjects suffering from our angst-inducing social, cultural and political contemporary reality are captured far more vividly and effectively by his distortions than by a more ‘realistic’ rendering. Ismail compassionately presents to the viewer identities fractured by anxieties induced by judgements about appearance; by material aspirations; by racial or gender-based oppression. Ismail himself coined the felicitous epithet “infantile semi-abstraction” for his intriguing and original paintings, but their childishness lies only in tapping into the same fount of inspiration as does a child and their tendency away from representational fidelity and towards abstraction is only a coda to their comprehensive examinations of form and line, colour and texture. Ismail’s is a naïveté and abstraction that could only be conceived and executed by an excellent draughtsman.