Trokon Nagbe: The World Gives Life – A Solo Exhibition at Skoto Gallery, New York

I was delighted to visit Skoto Gallery during my recent trip to New York City and experience a very warm welcome from the co-owners – Skoto Aghahowa and Alix du Serech – who both took time to introduce me to their arts space, share information about the history of their past exhibitions and provide additional biographical insights and thematic context about the artist in focus.

Skoto Gallery opened to the public on the 5th floor at 529 West 20th Street more than two decades ago, becoming one of the first in NYC’s Chelsea district to specialise in showcasing African contemporary visual arts. Since its inception in 1992, the venue has hosted a number of major group exhibitions and solo shows by established and emerging artists from the continent and the global African diaspora – including many notable Caribbean and African American artists – working across a range of genres, forms and media. 

Installation view of the exhibition ‘The World Gives Life’ by Trokon Nagbe. Photo: Carol Dixon.

At the time of my visit in mid-February 2020 the gallery was showcasing the exhibition ‘The World Gives Life’ (16 January – 29 February 2020), comprising 28 recently completed mixed-media works and paper-based installations by Liberian-born, Brooklyn-based, multidisciplinary artist Trokon Nagbe (b. Bassa County, Liberia, West Africa).  Nagbe’s solo exhibition was themed around issues of history, memory, and migration, and was primarily presented through an assemblage of very delicate, torn and perforated lengths of white rice paper juxtaposed with wall-mounted images of maps and travellers. Each of the thin, tissue-like sheets of paper was suspended from the ceiling throughout the L-shaped gallery space, and naturally swayed to-and-fro to create an atmosphere of fragile beauty, ephemerality and blemished purity – almost as though the artist was using these hangings to reflect on the precariousness of human life and the fragility of our corporeality, with each minute tear, knot and puncture symbolising the ways our lives and bodies are continuously exposed to repeated adversities that can gradually erode away our sense of wholeness and well-being.

Detail of the rice paper installation ‘Holding to Life’ (2019), by Trokon Nagbe. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Each arrangement of the grouped sheets was positioned to enable visitors to peer through the torn and perforated sections and achieve partial and distorted views of the various mixed-media works displayed at eye level around the gallery walls. Two of the most thought-provoking of these wall-mounted pieces featured circular designs made from a combination of concentric charcoal swirls, dry pigments in natural hues and carefully positioned photo-transfers – titled ‘Matriarch’ (2015) and ‘Patriarch’ (2020).

‘Matriarch’ (2015) by Trokon Nagbe. Charcoal, dry pigments, oil marker, dirt, photo-transfer. Dimensions: 107 x 122 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Nearby, another abstract composition used similar materials to the afore-mentioned paired work but presented the concentric circles in the form of an amorphous gold, green and aquamarine organic design – titled ‘Growth’ (2009) – which gave the impression of viewing a living organism (through a microscope), with its cells multiplying and metamorphosing over time and space. The resulting growth effect was also evocative of the gradual spread of an expanding cityscape, with each wave of urban development encroaching onto new territories to re-shape the boundary of the conurbation.

‘Growth’ (2009) by Trokon Nagbe. Charcoal, dry pigments, and oil marker. Photo: Carol Dixon.

At the centre of the gallery was a thread-based orange tunic, embedded with metal nails and suspended from the ceiling, which provided a focal point for the exhibition, positioned at the L-bend to create a stark, counter-point feature for the delicate, perforated white paper sheets.

Detail of the thread tunic, embedded with nails – ‘Tunic, Power Figure’ (2010), by Trokon Nagbe – positioned at the centre of the exhibition. Photo: Carol Dixon.
Installation view of the exhibition ‘The World Gives Life’ by Trokon Nagbe. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Among the small number of figurative works on display were a series of portraits depicting a man dressed in a traditional turban and flowing robes, styled in the attire of a nomadic herder or trader embarking on a long journey across potentially hostile, arid terrains.

Untitled Portrait I (framed), 2019, by Trokon Nagbe. Mixed media on Mylar. Dimensions: 20 x 27 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The gallery’s interpretation literature about the artworks suggested that the artist was motivated to create these images to reflect a series of art historical tropes “imbued with rich allegory and significance” about the transitions between the traumas of colonialism and the movement towards post-colonial modernity, self-determination and liberation. Therefore, the deliberately ‘orientalised’ image of the male traveller was transferred onto paper and superimposed over cartographically-themed collages to “bear witness to a political and philosophical consciousness” about the changing meaning and interpretation of migration, border-crossing, re-settlement and identity formation in an increasingly globalised world.

Untitled Map (unframed), 2019, by Trokon Nagbe. Mixed media on Mylar. Dimensions: 30 x 30 cm. Photo: Carol Dixon.

It was certainly worth braving the elements on a cold mid-February morning to travel to Chelsea on the lower west side of Manhattan and take full advantage of the unhindered opportunities a beautiful space like Skoto Gallery provides for contemplating artworks at a leisurely, uninterrupted pace.

Entrance to Skoto Gallery on the 5th floor of 529 West 20th Street, New York. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Further information about the gallery, its forthcoming exhibitions and its archive of past shows is available online at https://www.skotogallery.com/.

Address: SKOTO GALLERY, 529 West 20th Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10011.

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