“His work is bound up in the social complexities that still exist in the islands, in particular the varied racial mix and the apparent contradiction between the rituals of Carnival and a society of deeply devout Roman Catholics”
Born in Ghana, but resident in London since he was eight, Godfried Donkor’s first solo show in South Africa, a selection of painting and collage, makes clear the influence of the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its impact on diasporic identities. Donkor’s interest in diasporic issues was prompted by his return to Ghana as a university student to attend his aunt’s funeral. The Caribbean, in particular the history of Trinidad and Tobago, also plays a central role in Donkor’s exploration of diasporic and black identities. His work is bound up in the social complexities that still exist in the islands, in particular the varied racial mix and the apparent contradiction between the rituals of Carnival and a society of deeply devout Roman Catholics.Many of the works in the Madonna series (2003-05), which explore the questions around the islands’ identities, share an image of the ship that Christopher Columbus travelled in when he first encountered Trinidad in 1498. The Madonna figure, traditionally a symbol of purity and motherhood, is here inverted and represented in the form of near- and fully naked women, collaged from soft-porn magazines. While the Madonnas are mostly represented in black and white, they are colour-coded in their titles, referencing the ways in which black skins are differently described in Trinidad and Tobago.Donkor’s paintings feature celebrated figures in the history of black boxing. In eighteenth-century America, slave owners fought their slaves for wagers, and it was from this betting sport that a rich history of black boxing emerged. Tom Molineaux (1784-1818), a slave who gained his freedom by earning his plantation owner large sums in bets, travelled to England to become a professional boxer. In 1810 he fought Tom Cribb for the English title, but lost in the 35th round; 15,000 spectators watched the re-match, which Molineaux lost again. Molineaux was trained by Bill Richmond (1763-1829), another ex-slave who himself had previously lost to Cribb, in 60 rounds of fighting.The exhibition included his From Slave to Champ series (1998) and Olympians series (2003), works that overtly reference the relationship between slavery, commerce and boxing. Each of the paintings in the former series combines a boxer and cross-sections of slave ships against a pale yellow background, the latter series presenting similarly rendered boxers against the pink stocks and shares pages of the Financial Times. The same figure of Bill Richmond is repeated across both series’, offering different contextual readings to the biography of the fighter. Donkor’s engagement of the history and legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery is an astutely formulated critique of how the representational modes of especially illustration and photography construct the identities of black boxers and island Madonnas.The artist’s practice is however less repetitive than the works chosen for display would suggest. While there are thematic similarities between the painting and collages that make them natural companions, they are visually too similar to be put on display without the respite of differently constituted works. Further showings locally will no doubt remedy this.