Amoako Boafo: A New Style of Portraiture

Beginning last year, the spotlight has been on this young Ghanaian artist who has redefined the codes of portraiture.

Amoako Boafo in his studio. Photo © Francis Kokoroko / Courtesy Dior
Amoako Boafo in his studio. Photo © Francis Kokoroko / Courtesy Dior

“He completely changed and innovated – texturized – the way portraiture is done,” declared Mariane Ibrahim, owner of the eponymous New York gallery which, in October 2020, hosted the I Stand by Me exhibition dedicated to Amoako Boafo.

Boafo was arguably the most talked about artist of 2020. Success came to him in a momentous year that spotlighted the Black Lives Matter movement. While some buyers seem to have realized that their collections lacked diversity, others have identified Boafo's paintings as the perfect investment.

Amoako Boafo, 'Cobinnah with Yellow Nails', oil on paper, 98 x 70.1 cm, 2019. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Phillips
Amoako Boafo, 'Cobinnah with Yellow Nails', oil on paper, 98 x 70.1 cm, 2019. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Phillips

However, Boafo has recognized the flip side to his success as well. Last year, he told Artnet, “I don’t know exactly what I have to do to stop them from selling works at auction." In order to regain control of the speculative bubble that had formed around his works, he himself bought, through a third party, his work The Lemon Bathing Suit at an auction at Phillips in February 2020 – but things didn't quite go to plan.

Born in Ghana in 1984, after the death of his father, Boafo lived with his mother, who worked as a cook. He spent his free time painting and supported himself as a semi-professional tennis player, until an employer of his mother offered to pay his university fees. In 2008, Boafo graduated from Ghanatta College of Art and Design in Accra, where he also won the award for best painter of the year.

Amoako Boafo, 'Untitled' (Portrait of a Young Man), oil on cardboard, 53.7 x 52 cm, 2018. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Sotheby's
Amoako Boafo, 'Untitled' (Portrait of a Young Man), oil on cardboard, 53.7 x 52 cm, 2018. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Sotheby's

In 2014, he moved to Vienna with Susanda Mesquita (the Austrian artist who is now his wife and founder of WE-DEY.IN, an exhibition space for the community of LGBTQ+, black and other minority artists in the Austrian capital), and enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts. In the meantime, struggling to find his place in Austria, he began to make portraits of black people he met, drawing inspiration from the style of Viennese expressionists and secessionists, in particular Egon Schiele. Instead of a paintbrush, Boafo began painting directly onto the canvas with his fingers. In 2017, he received another award, the Walter Koschatzky Art Award for an artist under 35. 

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In 2018, Boafo was still not well known. Meanwhile, artist Kehinde Wiley stole the show with his portrait of then US President Barack Obama. An advocate of emerging African art, Wiley discovered Boafo on Instagram and contacted him to buy one of his paintings.

View of the exhibition Amoako Boafo 'I SEE ME', Roberts Projects, 12 January - 23 February 2019, Los Angeles. Photo © Roberts Projects
View of the exhibition Amoako Boafo 'I SEE ME', Roberts Projects, 12 January - 23 February 2019, Los Angeles. Photo © Roberts Projects

But Wiley didn't stop there. He wrote to his gallery owners (Stephen Friedman in London, Templon in Paris, Robert Projects in Los Angeles, Sean Kelly in New York) about Boafo: “This is an artist that I’m buying myself, I think he is one of the great new figurative artists". A few weeks later, Boafo's first American exhibition, I SEE ME, organized by Roberts Projects in LA, sold out on the second day. 

In early 2019, Frieze Los Angeles opened its doors and Boafo's works on display there attracted the attention of major collectors of emerging black artists. Demand for the work of black artists, especially figurative artists, had been on the rise for about three years at the time, and Boafo was right at the centre.

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Over the summer of 2019, Amir Shariat, dealer, collector and former director of Deutsche Bank, visited Amoako Boafo in his Viennese studio and marvelled at his works. He called two collector friends, Don and Mera Rubell (who had recently bought Boafo's paintings) and offered Boafo an artist residency at the Rubell Family Collection, one of the most important private collections of contemporary art in the world, founded in 1964 by the Rubell couple in Miami. This residency, an important opportunity, had previously brought artists like Oscar Murillo and Sterling Ruby to worldwide fame.

On 13 February 2020, Phillips hosted its Contemporary & 20th Century Art Evening Sale. The catalogue featured The Lemon Bathing Suit, a 2019 oil on canvas painting by Boafo. Collector Stefan Simchowitz had bought it for $22,500 from Jeffrey Deitch with the promise to keep it in his personal collection but, soon after, sensing a good deal, decided to auction it off at Phillips. The work, then estimated between $40,000-65,000, sold for $880,971. It was bought by a young London collector, Ari Rothstein, on behalf of a client: Amoako Boafo. 

Amoako Boafo, 'The Lemon Bathing Suit', oil on canvas unframed, 205.7 x 193 cm, 2019. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Phillips
Amoako Boafo, 'The Lemon Bathing Suit', oil on canvas unframed, 205.7 x 193 cm, 2019. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Phillips

Boafo, seeing the market value of his works, made an agreement with Ari Rothstein and his business partner Raphael Held. As he did not have enough money to buy the work himself, he promised the two dealers to create works of art for them. The total value of these artworks was $480,000, one large and two medium: Self Portrait (2019) and Untitled (2019) were sold at Sotheby's between May and June 2020, and Untitled (2019) at Phillips in July 2020, for a combined total of $664,000. However, before that, having no written agreement with Boafo, the two dealers promptly re-offered The Lemon Bathing Suit at a private sale at $300,000, but the work sold for much more than that. This transaction generated a solid profit for Rothstein and Held.

Amoako Boafo, 'Self Portrait', oil on paper, 99.5 x 69.5 cm, 2019. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Sotheby's
Amoako Boafo, 'Self Portrait', oil on paper, 99.5 x 69.5 cm, 2019. Photo © Amoako Boafo / Sotheby's

"When the dust gets settled, when things calm down, I want to go over all the people who think they can f*ck me over. You can’t tell me you want the painting for yourselves and then sell it. You can’t take my painting and then put my painting to auction. They think it’s OK – because, well, that’s the game," said Boafo.

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The artist, who returned to Ghana to work during COVID-19, said he wanted to pay much more attention to the people he works with or to whom he sells works. In the meantime, sources claim that he has started buying Ferraris, although Boafo corrects: one, and used.

The secondary market is difficult to regulate. In 2020, over twenty works by Boafo were auctioned, thirteen for over $80,000 and six for over $200,000.

In 2020, the Guggenheim also acquired one of his works (other major institutions like the CCS Bard College Hessel Museum of Art, the Albertina in Vienna and the Rubell Museum in Miami also have Boafos in their collections), Dior collaborated with the the artist for its spring-summer 2021 collection, and the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago held a major exhibition devoted to his work (I Stand by Me, September 10 to October 24, 2020). 

Boafo's portraits of black people speak of him, his past and his present. His series Black Diaspora, which began in 2018, is a celebration of life through colors and daring figures: his goal is to challenge the preconceived ideas that associate the notion of blackness with negative stereotypes. By portraying individuals from the African continent and its diaspora, Boafo sheds light on the perception of beauty and self, inviting reflection on diversity and complexity.

Much of his work is inspired by his upbringing. In his works, he questions the machismo with which he grew up: the idea that men should be aggressive and powerful. His messages are intense, but his works seem delicate, the subjects always appearing serene and luminous.

Amoako Boafo, 'Noir', oil on paper, 70 x 100 cm, 2018. Photo © Amoako Boafo
Amoako Boafo, 'Noir', oil on paper, 70 x 100 cm, 2018. Photo © Amoako Boafo

“I use painting as an instrument, both literally and to navigate the human experience… The hands and faces of the figures in the works have been finger-painted, [which] allow[s] me to create freely and to achieve an expressive skin tone, formed by blue, red and brown tones," said Boafo in an interview with Wallpaper*.

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In his vibrant portraits, the subjects are thus the only elements of the painting to be the subject of a formal analysis. Viewers should pay attention to themselves, their posture, what they are wearing and the characteristics of their skin. His subjects are often placed within the frame of the canvas, echoing his signature embedded in a rectangle: a trick also used by Egon Schiele.

Amoako Boafo, In yellow with Malcolm, oil on paper, 160 x 180 cm, 2018. Photo © Amoako Boafo
Amoako Boafo, In yellow with Malcolm, oil on paper, 160 x 180 cm, 2018. Photo © Amoako Boafo

Why has Amoako Boafo revolutionized the art world? Because his artworks give us exactly what we need now: something new, fresh, special and profound. Works that embrace and are an active part of a change, in art and in life.

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