Building a puzzle with Talle Bamazi

Andy Downing
One of Talle Bamazi's in-progress paintings for a forthcoming coronavirus series

When Talle Bamazi moved from Togo, West Africa, to New York City, he lived in a multistory flat above a convenience store. One morning, the artist, whose English was then severely limited, passed an older Black man, greeting him with a chipper “Good morning!” — one of the few expressions he knew at the time.

“I was so happy to say ‘good morning’ to [the] elder Black man,” said Bamazi, who then pivoted, adopting the stiff posture and disgusted facial expression of the aforementioned gentleman, who offered an unexpectedly crude response. “I said, ‘Thank you,’ smiling without even knowing he cussed me out. So I went back upstairs: ‘I learned another word today!’ … Everybody is laughing. ‘He cursed you!’ I was like, ‘Ah, man, what’s wrong with you guys?’”

The experience is one continuously examined in Bamazi’s artwork, which maintains a deep love for humankind even as it explores the ways it continually disappoints, his paintings touching on everything from colonialism to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which is the subject of an in-progress exhibit planned for Otterbein University, and which Bamazi has until late December to complete. (One of the artist’s COVID paintings is currently on display at Brandt-Roberts Galleries as part of “Suggestion, That Is the Dream,” for which Bamazi will participate in an artist talk at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14.)

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Though Bamazi’s catalog is deep and diverse, his pieces are uniformly embedded with layered meanings, the artist describing his works as “puzzles” to be unlocked. “It’s a lot of puzzles, and a lot of questions to ask,” he said in an early November interview at his studio in the King Arts Complex. “I can only express what I feel. And if I cannot express as a writer, because I am not [one], I can only express it in my work. One of these days, as time goes by, you will come [to my studio], and I will show you a lot of the puzzle, and one painting, you can take one painting and you will never finish writing, because there is so much puzzle, but only I can see it.”

For one in-progress painting, Bamazi contextualized parts of the image, from the egg yolk, which symbolizes the unknowns about the coronavirus (“When you have an egg, do you know what color of chicken [will hatch]?”) to the ever-present calabash, which appears in many of Bamazi’s paintings and can take on myriad meanings but generally serves as an homage to African culture. More recently, Bamazi has been painting what he terms “floating calabashes,” levitating bowls that he began to paint as he emerged from a deep depression that settled in following the May 2019 death of his 19-year-old son. (One painting in the artist’s studio includes a floating calabash and text denoting the day his son passed, May 26.)

“From that day, for six months, I can’t even function. I sit down right there in that chair,” Bamazi said, pointing to a chair set against the window on the east side of the studio. “And then vividly I saw him coming, and he was there, and I jumped and said, ‘Son, where have you?’ And he said, ‘Why are you crying, dad?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m crying because I miss you.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry. Was you happy to have me for 19 years, Dad?’ I said, ‘Of course, yes.’ ‘If that, calm down, go back to work. I’m OK.’ And he was leaving my door, and I just see him flying. Immediately I see this flying calabash, and that was the start of them.”

While inspiration can arrive in a jolt for Bamazi “Often I put my frustrations on the canvas,” he said his process is more deliberate. The artist begins by stretching linen over a frame, parts of which he then slathers with glue, which gives the finished piece more textural detail. He then paints on a coat of black and two coats of white before priming it with oil. Only then will he begin painting. Generally, though, Bamazi is juggling several paintings at once, drifting from piece to piece throughout the day, and he said once he buckles down he can accomplish in five or six hours “what takes most artists three days,” which is supported by the dozens of large canvases piled up against the walls.

Bamazi has been drawing from childhood, beginning with realistic portraiture before moving on to more surreal, Dali-esque paintings, elements of which are still present in his work. This is true of the artist’s current COVID series, which features myriad skulls, teeming red rivers of viral cells, dripping egg yolks, calabashes, darkened lanterns and more, all pointing to a deep human failure with which Bamazi is still grappling. (There are also coded references toChina’s recent financial investments into Africa, which Bamazi compared with “a coronavirus eating” the continent.)

“It’s the politic, for me. It’s like we just don’t care,” said Bamazi, who started the coronavirus collection during the six months he spent in Togo earlier this year, marooned by COVID on what was supposed to have been a short, two-week homecoming visit. “As an artist, I can only document the moment I live, and, right now, it’s like we don’t behave as human.”