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Review: Affecting, powerful portraits of black Atlantans in solo show

Alfred Conteh’s extraordinary paintings and drawings of ordinary Atlantans are memorable and affecting on many levels. But one of their primary appeals is also their most basic: Conteh’s portraits remind us of how rarely museums and galleries devote themselves to depicting African-Americans as subjects.

And if you can’t be seen as heroic, as valued, as worthy of portraiture, Conteh’s work argues, then how can you be elided in other ways?

Conteh’s solo show, “Two Fronts: Surface and Reason,” at September Gray Fine Art Gallery reimagines portraiture for a modern age with images that have photography’s immediacy and painting’s resonance in this catalog of citizenry and the struggles of quiet, ordinary existence.

Conteh’s subjects are an elderly woman with the battle-ready expression and closely cropped hair of a lifelong fighter with little time for pretense or vanity; young men with tattooed forearms and muscle shirts with expressions of defiance and despair; the middle-aged and the very young, marked by resolve and fear and determination and exhaustion. They are captured in profile, from below, venerated like marble busts perched on a museum pedestal as part of the rich diversity of the city, all black and all residents of Atlanta.

Conteh’s portraits are set against colorful, streaked and pocked, patterned backdrops that pluck them from the realm of lived reality into some eternal place, the realm of mythmaking and commemoration. “Mama Waiting” in charcoal and acrylic on paper is a madonna and child for the 21st century, whose mother with a pile of braids on her head clutches her child closely, her expression wary, even frightened rather than beatific, a stardust of pattern backdrop to their portrait.

Conteh’s technique is masterful, but it is his enormous empathy and regard for his subjects — and urging that we regard them similarly — that registers most profoundly. In a series of images that move from portraiture to fabulism, these figures tower with sci-fi proportions, “patinated colossi” Conteh calls them, over churches and convenience stores and fast-food joints, like sentinels keeping watch over the city.

In “Lick City Welcome,” a young man with the proportions of a skyscraper lords over Atlanta’s highway, a beacon of what curator Jeremiah Ojo calls an alternative economy: the patched together, struggling entrepreneurialism that exists side by side with Atlanta’s boom town corporations and stadiums. Their expressions are occasionally proud or happy, but more often wary, hesitant and guarded, pointing to difficult lives.

One of Conteh’s most beautiful portraits, “Braylon,” of a cherubic preadolescent child still holding onto his baby fat, is rendered in rich conte, charcoal and acrylic browns, his face lustrous and lit from within. When you think of how malignant the pop culture and political portrait of black Americans has been: as thugs and gangsters, unredeemable residents of crime-riddled and blighted inner cities, Conteh’s portrait of a child is a vivid, declarative rejection of such lies and goes a long way toward humanizing people so often marginalized and overlooked. Black children like “Braylon” or the little boy, “Jevonta,” grinning and holding his arms in a muscle-man gesture of strength — both poised on the precipice of the future — become beloved and vulnerable figures.

Conteh’s subjects’ faces are streaked with corrosion and the effects of weather like the bronze statuary that defines city avenues and squares. Their bodies are mottled and marred by time’s passage, streaked with tears and marks that have tattooed their faces as expressions of an inner condition. Conteh’s treatment of his subjects affirms the centrality of these people as representatives of the human condition: the mothers and workers and children and hustlers as worthy of their own commemoration.

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