Best artist: Talle Bamazi documents the moment

With an arresting and technically masterful collection centered on the coronavirus, no Columbus artist better captured the horror and hope of the early pandemic

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
An in-progress painting from Talle Bamazi's coronavirus series

In the weeks prior to the pandemic, painter Talle Bamazi traveled to Munich, Germany, where he displayed his work. On his return to Columbus, Bamazi planned a brief two-week detour in his birthplace of Togo, West Africa, which turned into an unexpected extended stay amid coronavirus-driven travel bans. “So I spent six months there,” Bamazi said in a November 2020 interview with Alive, adding that he spent many of his days doing ink drawings, since he only had a pen and not his usual assortment of brushes and paints. “And when I was there, I tried to work on this body of work.”

“This body of work” consisted of early sketches for the dozen or so large canvases spread throughout Bamazi’s studio at the King Arts Center last fall, all of which explored the sense of mystery that circulated around COVID-19 at the time. 

The paintings were filled with swirling vortexes of coronavirus cells, shimmering egg yolks meant to symbolize the unknowns of the disease (“When you have an egg, do you know what color of chicken [will hatch]?” Bamazi said) and “floating calabashes,” levitating bowls common to the artist’s more recent work, which he began to incorporate as he emerged from a deep depression that followed the May 2019 death of his 19-year-old son. (Bamazi said his son appeared to him six months after his death to extend a hand in comfort, after which he exited by flying through the door, leaving the artist struck by the image of a floating calabash.)

“We don’t know how it is,” Bamazi said of COVID-19, “so as an artist I can only document the moment we’re in. … And if you prepare yourself as an artist, that’s what you should do. It’s not about money. This is documenting the moment. Of course, if any museum wants to buy it, it's OK, but in that first moment it’s me, and it’s what I want to document, and what I want generations to come to see in what is happening now.”

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The canvases that filled Bamazi’s space captured the horrors of that early moment beautifully, his paintings filled with gorgeously rendered skulls, darkened lanterns and rivers of spiky red coronavirus cells, all of which showed off his technical wizardry with a brush. But while there are aspects of fear within the work —  “Too much chaos and fear can destroy any nation,” Bamazi said, directing my attention to a piece titled “March 15, 2020,” its title given for “the day the world shut down” —  there’s also hope, often symbolized by the calabash, which the artist traced in part to his embrace of the natural world.

“Most of my work is also very spiritual because I follow nature, and nature never lies,” said Bamazi, who wasn’t available for a more recent interview because he’s currently on a research trip in Africa with plans to return to Columbus in January 2022 (though you can currently view a selection of his recent work in "The Father of Flying Calabashes," on display now at the Columbus Museum of Art). “Did you ever wake up one day and not see the sun come out? No. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, never changes. … And all of this wisdom, I just carry it through me and through my work.”

Even at the time of our interview, which fell during one of the bleakest months of the pandemic, Bamazi held strong to a belief that there would be, at some point, an end to COVID-19, which he captured in a painting he dubbed “The Blessing” that depicted the virus being cleansed from the Earth. “You see the goddess, and it’s raining, cleansing, and all the coronavirus is going down,” he said. “The [paintings] tell a story, but they’re also puzzles, and a lot of questions to ask.”

“One of these days, as time goes by, you will come back [to my studio], and I will show you a lot of the puzzle,” Bamazi continued. “You can take one painting and you will never finish writing, because there is so much puzzle.”