Before The Bigger Splash, Vincent Michéa Aarti wa Njoroge
I am not quite sure where Vincent Michéa (b. 1963) resides today. According to Jack Bell Gallery in London, where half a dozen of his recent works have been on display, he lives in his “hometown” Dakar (even though he was born in Figeac, France), while another source states that he “lived in the ‘Paris of Africa’ from 1991-1995” and now commutes there from his home in the original Paris.
Independence Party (Detail)
Putting that confusion – and the debate on what constitutes ‘hometown’, origin, allegiance – aside, what is clear is that these square metre acrylic canvases, despite dating between 2009 and 2012 (though Michéa’s own website gives slightly different dates for some works), exude the optimism of an era not long after independence, with the clothes and afros, an advert for a now-defunct American airline, and Mediterranean colours even though we are on the much hazier, rougher Atlantic. (Roy Lichtenstein’s burst into pop art, to which Michéa’s work is justifiably compared, was also in the 1960s.)
On my left as I walked in was Vamos a la Playa (2012 according to Jack Bell; 2011 according to Michéa), with a seated, smiling, bikini-clad woman leaning on a man reclining on his side. Through deft pointillism, reserved incidentally for many of the human subjects in these paintings, we can see their expressions. Only the content of the tête-à-tête they are so intimately enjoying is left to my imagination.
Dakar Beach Zone
Almost at the other end of the exhibition, the same portrait is in fact a framed painting, placed on top of some steps, propped up against a whitewashed building. Michéa has zoomed out in Dakar – Beach Zone (2012) and the couple’s mood is even clearer, as the dots are blurred. I feel less voyeuristic, too. To the right are more paintings and an easel. Michéa likes to display works of art in what could be an outdoor studio.
The second work in clockwise order, the first of two self-portraits, has given the exhibition its title. Michéa’s large pointillist figure, his torso wrapped in a towel, looms over a crowded swimming pool, the privileged few enjoying what must be a Sunday afternoon at the club. Several individuals have raised both hands, mostly to hold onto a rope. A group of what appears to be young men sit on the edge, four of them with their ankles and feet in the water, one observing a woman taking the steps into the pool. Is this Before The Bigger Splash into a less certain era?
In the background, the London 2012 Olympics’ men’s cyclists’ road race is showing on the gallery’s Mac.
The Bigger Splash (Detail)
I see the ocean for the first time in Dakar Punto Final (2011 according to Jack Bell; 2006 according to Michéa), the one work that has been sold by the last morning of the exhibition. Here, too, is the city, tidy; in the foreground, a grand edifice from the colonial era juxtaposed with a Senegalese flag, the manicured lawn, guard post and its guard a few metres away, and two zebra crossings. Bar a solitary pedestrian in a long blue robe defying the heat, the street is deserted of all human and vehicular traffic. Behind is a denser mass of buildings and trees.
Among the blocks of white, green and orange flies a solitary French tricolore.
Next to the coastal urban scene, a widely-smiling couple is dancing western-style against a bold green background in Independance [sic] Party (2010). He is in a grey suit, she in a red dress, holding a black clutch bag, hair put up. This is one of a series of the same painting, where only the colours differ.
Although painted in 2009, Ma Pincée de Tuiles (Self-portrait), has, once again, historical references: the cars, the advertisement, itself painted on a wall, for non-stop Pan Am flights between Dakar and New York. A sign in the bottom right-hand corner resembles the branding on the ubiquitous Dutch wax material worn in the region. Indeed, “[t]he artist's palette is made up of the bold colours and hard edges common in West African fabrics”: lurid green and orange recur, for example in trees and on rooftops.
At times there appears to be an errant white patch on some leaves. Between the wide-angle views and the close-up attention to Michéa’s detail, this is an exhibition that proved that you only need a small selection of carefully curated works by a clever artist to feel satisfied. Time to catch the return of the cyclist.