WHEN was the last time you read a press release from a mainstream art gallery which stated that the artist’s prayers provided a spiritual spark that catalysed the creation of the paintings and that those paintings are a visual “sermon” articulating faith, amplifying relationship with God, and providing a sanctuary for a world in need of healing?
The most likely answer would be never. Nevertheless, “Lakwena: Homeplace” at Hastings Contemporary describes Lakwena Maciver’s work (Feature, 28 August 2020) as painted prayers and meditations, while the BP Young Portrait Artist Award 2020 went to Egbert Modderman, a painter of characters and stories from the Bible.
Described as a devotional painter whose work is powerfully influenced by Bible verses and other readings that she studied in church, Genesis Tramaine is, therefore, one of several emerging artists who, by operating at the intersection of religion and the cultural Zeitgeist, are changing contemporary art-making through artistic practices that shape a new discourse. For these artists, faith is upfront and personal. For Tramaine, this includes naming her paintings as “Gospels” and listing the Holy Spirit and Yahweh among the compositional materials.
Courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech © Genesis Tramaine. Photo Hugard and Vanoverschelde PhotographyFighting Demons, 2020, “Acrylic, Gouache, oil Sticks, oil pastels, Yahweh!”
This exhibition emerges from Tramaine’s creative ruminations on the trials and tribulations that have defined 2020. Searching for a way to make sense of what she found troubling in our society — injustice, discrimination, and a lack of care for one another — she began her quest for answers in prayer and “was called by God to study the story of David’’. David’s story — because it involves an overlooked underdog prevailing in the face of insuperable odds — was a catalyst that encouraged Tramaine to grapple with the question “What does it mean to be chosen by God?”
Tramaine’s work, which references the urban expressionism of the 1980s graffiti scene in New York which gave us Jean Michel Basquiat, emerges from a spirit-led flow of painting in which layers of lines, colours, and images form over and within the portraits that she paints. The layering of portraits within a portrait, including fish, birds, and other animals, indicates an alignment with spirit.
Initially seeming to obscure and mask, instead these marks reveal the inner energies of her characters, their emotional and spiritual turmoil and creativity writ large on their faces. Large in scale, these works pulse with energy through a collage of vibrant lines, colour bursts, and bold contours. The curator, Larry Ossei-Mensah, notes: “Every brushstroke is channelling the pain, fear, anguish, optimism, and joy that we all feel as human beings but can’t always articulate. Looking at a Genesis Tramaine painting is a reminder of what it means to be ALIVE, PRESENT, and connected to the sacred.”
The spirit moves within each character, meaning that Abinadab is a brother, and Bathsheba is a saint. In Fighting Demons, we see an open hand of blessing held up, and in David and Goliath, the scene of victory, in which David holds up Goliath’s decapitated head, could also be viewed as David reaching out to the live Goliath — a case of killing by kindness.
Courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech © Genesis Tramaine. Photo Hugard and Vanoverschelde PhotographySinger of Psalm, 2020, by Genesis Tramaine, which she describes as “Oil stick, oil pastel, holy spirit”
The integrity of Tramaine’s work derives from the way in which her creations align with her practice. Not only is her artistic practice spirit-led, but, as a self-identified Black Queer woman raised in a Southern Baptist family and returned to a Southern Baptist Church, she and her wife have experienced significant prejudice, but have responded by seeking to make clear that “we’re all invited into the church as queer saints.”
Halima Taha suggests that Tramaine invites her audiences “to contemplate themselves in the presence of Divine spirit through the human face, which cannot see itself unless seen in reflection”. As each mark made has something new to reveal, Tramaine involves the viewer in the work by close looking at the layers upon layers that form each portrait. The intertwining of her figurative and abstract mark-making, therefore, offers viewers the opportunity to feel what it means to be in the presence of divine energy, as her layered motifs unveil the celestial DNA of her subjects.
This is the “evidence of grace” found in this exhibition and these paintings, which share the spiritual energy needed for our society to reframe how we see ourselves, each other, and the world around us. For Tramaine, there is another way of seeing, as the spirit is seen in every face. If we can but look through her eyes, evidence of grace will be seen in all we encounter.
“Genesis Tramaine: Evidence of Grace” is at Almine Rech, Abdijstraat 20 Rue de l’Abbaye,1050 Brussels, until 28 February. Phone 00 32 26 48 56 84. www.alminerech.com