Obi Agwam: Sweet Lies from Lonely Stars

Jan 13 - Feb 11, 2024

30 Orchard St, Gallery 1

Harkawik is pleased to announce Sweet Lies from Lonely Stars, the first New York solo exhibition of Nigerian born, New York based painter Obi Agwam. Agwam’s portraits are the tender fantasies of stars isolated from their constellations. The paintings, “sweet lies,” are titled from lines in Agwam’s journal, and vibrantly foreground the emotional reality of the black experience over the formal omnipresence of societal superstructure. The artist’s characters are high torque metaphors created in a lexicon inspired by rubber hose animation, the history of black representation in American cartoons, and the cinematic color theory that emotionally and spiritually color codes these representations. They float above landscapes of circumstance in forms that ground them in it, nearly lost in dream, but chained to a searing honesty that combusts like a burning memory.

Each character’s universe is real. In My Introduction is an Act, a man holds life in one hand, and death in the other. He feels the heat of choice, yet, the viewer sees a spotlight. His environment is a setup, but he lives his whole life inside of it. Facing the audience in cartoonish contortion, he is the empyrean idea of introspective freedom that is more of a facade than a building. He is as free as the rules he observes, as the man that hugs the block in Going Nowhere Fast, as the names of the streets on the corner say.

Ego Death is a jazz funeral for the person Agwam used to be. He attends his own funeral, celebrating the falling of resentment and pride to the past. Time is kept in a sun sensitive cyanotype palette by a bunny in blackface on a healing journey. There is joy in its passing. Liquor is poured out For The Ones That Left who ascend in regal shades of purple. In Weeping Willow, Agwam draws the viewer’s eye from cream to dark shades of blue. The warmth of shades of yellow pushes you away from the edge and into the depths of the crying tree personified. It is not a conscious choice, but the eye still chooses sadness. Fell in Love in the Ps recalls, among other things, the portraiture of Yoshitomo Nara. A marionette cut from its puppeteer sinks pink toward head over heels. They are deep in the dialectic between the individual and its animator and the truth is— what animates you? In Love Taken, Love Lost, are you giving it away? Or is it being taken?

Agwam moves through his authored universe with a confidence and assuredness. Never allowing his brush to linger, he leaves his paintings willfully open, like a ball of yarn just beginning to unspool. In Wish I Knew Why We Never Said Goodbye, Agwam considers emotional vulnerability through the Vulpecula constellation of the Northern sky. He renders the sampled line from his journal, the wish, visual, emphasizing the feeling of loss through deterioration. The burning bridge between stars formerly in constellation becomes a comforting fantasy, a yearned for disaster in place of the untraceable corrosion of connection, and the growth of distance that becomes loss, but regardless of fire and tormented skies, the water below is calm.

—Toniann Fernandez