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KELVIN OKAFOR portraits


KELVIN OKAFOR portraits


Kelvin Okafor | Emotional-Realism by Estelle Lovatt

In today’s technical age, when even President Obama couldn’t resist snapping a selfie with Prime Minister Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, we know the grip of a ‘portrait’. And whilst Windows may be the window to the soul for today’s techie geeks, art lovers recognise the soul’s true rite of passage is given immediate access through the artists’ portrait. As you go in to any stately home, you’ll see the family tree is represented, on every available wall space, through generations of portraits. When Kelvin Okafor comes to draw you, it’s like Christ’s arrival - not quite what you’d expect – stereotypically - from a portraitist. Okafor, a quiet, gentle man, of Nigerian heritage, comes, unpretentiously, humbly, with only a pencil in his hand. Still, what he achieves, in his honesty, with his mere pencil, is conceivably more direct than an oil portrait painted with trumpet fanfares ceremoniously blaring. Okafor is one of the very best draughtsmen working today. “A pencil artist”, who draws portraits. The word ‘portrait’ comes from the Latin protrahere, meaning to draw forth; to bring to light; to portray. This is what Okafor does, sculpting a face on a piece of paper out of light and shadow, highlighted by extreme reductive tones, like a great master. Think Caravaggio or Durer, Ingres and Van Dyke, Rembrandt and Holbein. Okafor is a big fan of their sort of art because it’s traditional and humble. As are the tools those artists’ art is created with. Pencil and charcoal. I enjoy that Okafor works in charcoal too because it is the oldest art material. Charcoal, burnt wood, the most natural product, of this earth, has been used since the earliest times for art. One of the first pigments used by Paleolithic man. Furthermore, I like the fact that charcoal is used as fuel, gunpowder and medicine, introduced to make us feel safe and good. Key to the heart of Okafor’s drawing is also that his arrangement of shades is similar to a key signature in music, where values are generated by harmonious, metaphysical, tones/tonal relationships. To hear Okafor’s drawings described as looking like a photograph is to insult them. To describe his drawing as photographic is to say it’s flat, lifeless, dreary and unexciting. Drawing doesn’t just mean copying. It means truthfulness. It means drama, emotion, sensitivity; the inner form – that which is spiritual - that the photograph simply cannot capture. So those that think Okafor’s style mimics the contours of a photograph, they’re wrong. Okafor doesn’t copy photographs - he isn’t a copyist, he makes drawings that look photorealistic but, really, they aren’t. It’s through his remarkable skill that his drawing looks like a snapshot, effortlessly taken, but isn’t. And whereas photography is an instantaneous response, Okafor’s drawing process is much-considered and contemplative. Painstakingly drawing what he sees, Okafor validates facial details as fact. This, however affective, you won’t find in a photograph - as there is no substitute for the skill and integrity to be found in art. With one shade of lead, Okafor creates many tones and textures, creating the illusions of hues. Never before has black and white glowed with such colour. Okafor’s processes aren’t just about the finished product (the drawing) but, like Pollock, it is about expressing himself, freehand. Which, although representational and figurative, isn’t a replica of a photograph, it is abstraction at its purest, based on the traditions of art history. Ever since prehistoric times, Neanderthal Caveman has been drawing for its magical properties. Just as religious twelfth century monks drew illuminated manuscripts realising their laborious process connected them to god. The miracle that is Okafor’s Hyper-Realism makes him one of the last Renaissance men, purging a devout spirit(uality) out, onto his paper. This doesn’t mean his drawings are rule-bound and academically ‘stuffy’, no, it means that they’re dreamy, harmonious, mysterious, intricate and contemplatively charming. “Da Vinci and Michelangelo have inspired, influenced and motivated me in many ways. Not only by their art but through their ability to use their minds in ways that branch on to other things from engineering to poetry, science and maths. This inspires me to push myself as far as I possibly can. The more I draw the more I understand. It’s a learning process.” For the viewer it’s a form of meditation, a moment of calm, when you’re at peace with thy ‘self’.


Okafor ‘sees’ your face in his paper and draws it free. “Starting with the eyes. The eyes, for me, shape the whole face.” There’s almost a voyeuristic fetishism going on, in having to stare at someone so up-close, “to study shapes and values from the lightest and darkest tonal values.” Not Photo-Realism, instead, Okafor draws a deeper-than-skin-deep emotion through facial expressions that look life-like. More than just resembling the model, Okafor secures and communicates the sitter’s emotional focus; their inner essence. Okafor’s Emotional-Realism transcribes a different sort of ‘energy’; a living energy that leaps off his paper, towards you, prompting and promoting an emotion from both you and the sitter. His “sitters are chosen by their expressions and their personalities which, it’s hoped, cause an emotion in the viewer; making the viewer feel connected, excited, inspired, enchanted, even challenged!” It’s a cross between a holy-triangular ménage à trios love affair from Okafor to you both. How, why? Simple, Okafor fell in love with a pencil! And art lovers want more from drawings than for them to look like a photograph. Following in the footsteps of great English portraitists, Gainsborough and Reynolds, Lucian Freud made portraiture fashionable again and along comes Okafor, the master of line and tone. Rich subtle muted stumping means there’s no, what I call, smudge-and-rub ‘arty’ looking charcoal smears making a grey blob look like .... a grey blob. Only Okafor can turn it in to a twinkle in the eye. Watch how Okafor makes graphite glisten under light. Like a movie director, Okafor organises his sitter under choice lighting and structured composition. Okafor’s drawings leave no room for lies. As Dali said, “Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.” In an age when Tracey Emin is Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy, Kelvin Okafor raises the standard. His drawings speak for themselves. Eyes talk without words. Okafor has created a new genre that, in years to come, the art world will refer to as Okaforist. He presents a lifelike image; from the hair to the pores to scars to freckles, he ‘feels’, for you. In his drawings you find, and lose, yourself. Not particularly heroic in size, Okafor drawings are drawn at an arm’s-length distance and, it is this human distance that allows visual rewards beyond their size for truth(s). And, like Degas, Okafor will “sit the model where they feel most comfortable”, so that his sitter engages with you the viewer. For Okafor it is, “a labour of love. Starting by analysing the face for hours.... days!” (On average it takes a 100 hours to finish a piece.) Okafor works from memory too, after having analysed his model’s face intensely. The face appears to float above the surface of the picture plane. Various effects used to control the appearance of the image. Dark cross-hatching, light tones and stippled textures bring out extraordinarily details. Surprisingly, in Okafor’s drawings - created purely by hand, with, remember, no digital trickery, only pencils, charcoal and a piece of paper – you’ll not see a single pencil line. It is “with one shade of lead that you create so many tones and textures”, to create the look of colour. Drawing this well is damn hard! You are not paying for Okafor’s labour; you are paying for his vision. The truth and brilliance of an Okafor-esque expression effectively vivifies the otherwise dull tone of his sheet of paper with the relief and solidity of what looks like a 3D form. His alternative uber-realism, analytically drawn, builds the architectural interior of the head as if it’s a structure, housing the soul. Studying (another) one of his heroes, William Blake, taught Okafor “how to truly appreciate people - our perfections and imperfections, through their facial gestures.” Okafor also absorbs the Italian Renaissance and Flemish Dutch Golden Age, drawing it in his new direction of Hyper-Realism. Powerfully abridging the old reign with the enchantment of new technology (the camera), making it of our age. Except, anyone can have their photo taken, but, a portrait is special because it’s an event. You sit for a portrait, possibly for days, like sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch, revealing your inner-self. Okafor recognises that, “there are no limits or boundaries to how far our gifts and talents can take us. And because I want to be the best at drawing I work to try to learn, understand and develop my art, drawing accurately and precisely, using graphite pencils, charcoal and black coloured pencils.” Alongside John Singer Sargent, Van Gogh and Warhol, Okafor shows that there is nothing as significant, nor as eloquent, as the human face, and that you cannot fake a gesture. However, Okafor’s New-Realism is a complex new reality all about faith, myth, history, mystery and actuality. With his keen eye, and steady hand, Okafor draws out the wonders of ‘life’. This is his new genre. If the Albemarle Gallery is closed, flatten your nose up against the glass window. You don’t want to miss a portrait on display here. Estelle Lovatt FRSA, art critic and broadcaster.


1 Corine Bailey Rae Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 28 x 40 cm (11 x 16 in)


2 Self Portrait II (Nwanebuni) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 54 x 59 cm (21 x 23 in)


3 Maya Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 55 x 82 cm (22 x 32 in)


4 Daniel Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 58 x 81 cm (23 x 32 in)


5 Rochelle Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 41 x 58 cm (16 x 23 in)


6 Melvin Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 41 x 57 cm (16 x 22 in)


7 Laura (The Glorious Leaf of Bay Laurel) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 56 x 67 cm (22 x 26 in)


8 Zahra (Forever in a Moment) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 58 x 81 cm (23 x 32 in)


9 Richard Clifford Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 73 x 58 cm (29 x 23 in)


10 Lois (White Rose) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 72 x 58 cm (28 x 23 in)


11 Sir Derek Jacobi Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 66 x 58 cm (26 x 23 in)


12 Shazia Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 75 x 58 cm (30 x 23 in)


13 Sarabjit Sidhu Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 50 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in)


14 Maya & Anna (She has her Eyes) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 41 x 51 cm (16 x 20 in)


15 Rochelle II Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 41 x 58 cm (16 x 23 in)


16 Stephen Sutton Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 41 x 57 cm (16 x 22 in)


17 Mia III (Sensitivity) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 49 x 58 cm (19 x 23 in)


18 John-Paul (For Love that is Agape) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 75 x 53 cm (30 x 21 in)


19 Her Majesty Queen Noor Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 54 x 41 cm (21 x 16 in)


20 King Hussein Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 47 x 38 cm (19 x 15 in)


21 Sarah (Eclipse) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 53 x 67 cm (21 x 26 in)


22 Her Royal Highness Catherine (The Duchess of Cambridge) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 91 x 68 cm (36 x 27 in)


23 Mother Teresa Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 36 x 26 cm (14 x 10 in)


24 Tinie Tempah Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 27 x 40 cm (11 x 16 in)


25 Kerry (Glow) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 41 x 58 cm (16 x 23 in)


26 Toby Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 56 x 56 cm (22 x 22 in)


27 Nicole (Undaunted) Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 45 x 41 cm (18 x 16 in)


28 Elizabeth Taylor Graphite, charcoal & black coloured pencil on archival paper 37 x 27 cm (15 x 11 in)


An Evolution Nwanebuni (Self Portrait II)


Kelvin Okafor

Born 1985

London

Education 2005-2006

City & Guilds of London Art School Foundation Art & Design

2006-2009

Middlesex University BA Fine Art

Selected Exhibitions & Events 2013

The Discerning Eye, The Mall Galleries, London Chester Arts Fair, Chester Macmillan De’Longhi Art Auction, London Tate Labs Workshop - Tate Modern, London Cork Street Open Exhibition - August Show, London Talk & Demo - Cork Street Open Exhibition, London Royal Society of British Artists, Mall Galleries, London Melvin, The de Laszlo Foundation Award Watercolour & Works on Paper Fair, Science Museum, London Cork Street Open Exhibition - Winter Show, London Timeless, Runner Up Best of Show

2012

National Open Art Competition, Chichester – London Adam, Visitors’ Choice Prize Vibe Gallery, London The Threadneedle Prize, Mall Galleries, London E17 Art Trail, Pictorem Gallery, London

2009

Middlesex University Fine Art Degree Show, London

Selected Publications / Articles / Interviews 2014

Artists & Illustrators, April issue 2014 Ten2Teens Magazine, February-April issue 2014

2013

The Pixl Club, October 2013, Art Competition Judge Beyond Education Magazine, July-September issue 2013 Pride Magazine, May issue 2013


The de Laszio Foundation Award

Rising Generations | Art of Tottenham

David Lammy MP at Parliament

Crowds at the Science Museum


BBC News

Neil Lawson Baker National Open Exhibition Science Museum

Macmillan De’Longhi Art Auction

Talk & Demo - Cork Street Open Exhibition Cork Street Open Exhibition Rising Generations | Art of Tottenham Boris Johnson MP


Š Albemarle Gallery 2014


Publisher: Albemarle Gallery | 2014 Text: Estelle Lovatt FRSA | Art Critic and Broadcaster Curator: Tony Pontone | Albemarle Gallery Catalogue Design: Andy Somerford | Albemarle Gallery Photography: Tony Harris Framers: Pictorem Gallery Printers: Oldacres, London Special thanks to: Kathryn Roberts Š ALBEMARLE GALLERY 2014 All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any other storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. ISBN 978-1-909111-19-6


Kelvin Okafor Portraits  

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