Cheerful, vivid, and fresh are adjectives describing paintings by Ivorians Adams and Blanchard Magoe.
Arriving in Johannesburg in the late 1990s these dapper gents brought their skill and appreciation of the naïve painting tradition from Ivory Coast. This tradition is well established in the Gran Bassam area, near Abidjan, a legacy of French colonials who introduced it to locals.
Although this tradition is largely supported by landscapes, Blanchard’s painterly vision of these plump ladies is also underpinned by the genre of colon sculptural art in West Africa where women were depicted with garments of European dress like bikinis or high heels and sculptures of men with symbols of wealth, occupation or status such as wristwatches, torches, guns and motorcycles.
Once in gritty Johannesburg, the practicalities of daily life meant that Adams and Magoe plied their trade as sign writers as well as artists to make ends meet. For Blanchard, the easy familiarity of painting local household products, for sign writing campaigns, served as a source of inspiration and was assimilated into his work. Some of his paintings took on a charming style reminiscent of 1950s advertising campaigns: women facing the viewer, endorsing a product or demonstrating their joy at the convenience of these commodities. The technique used to paint the faces is also similar to that used on barber posters from Ghana and Ivory Coast.
The subject of these works reflect a foreigner’s memories of idealized women from back home combined with the new ideas, local products and promise of appetizing cuisine in Southern Africa. They show urban ladies whose sunny smiles, garments, and head-ties remained transfixed in time, unchanged throughout the artists’ career in this country. This is a nostalgic, romantic but also tongue in cheek glimpse into the private life of African women, fulfilling their domestic roles with flair in the home.
One might also say that these are not the early buds of May, but rather roses in full bloom. These depictions are of matrons or almost icons of universal mothers. Their embrace promises comfort, stability and peace.
Adams and Blanchard marketed their work through craft distributors in South Africa and these small scale pieces quickly reached popular acclaim.
Portrayed with the bright colours and patterned charm of West African cotton textiles , they sold mainly to locals in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
These images portrayed the otherness that at that time, South Africans, after the end of apartheid, were unfamiliar with: the beautifully attired and groomed women of North Africa and Ivory Coast. The marketing of these paintings were perfectly poised at a time of transition to offer something new. Perhaps the mostly women who loved and collected these paintings, also identified with and recognized parts of themselves, in these images.
At that particular time, prior to Zenophobia, these pictures appealed to many Joburg mothers’ aspirations for a positive, stable rainbow nation.