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Kajahl - The Masks of Ancient Gods

Words:

Edd Norval

Photos:

Kajahl
May 13, 2022

Imbued with the power that can only come with an ancient force, something capable of great beauty and destruction, Kajahl captures authoritative figures, composites of the real and imaginary, from some of Earth’s greatest civilisations, in his evocative work that explores the intersection of art, history and culture.

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Influences come from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East to develop a stunning iconography of powerful figures, some wearing masks, all anonymous, that tell us as much about the artistry of the time as the artist painting them now. That’s the thing with masks and the unknown. Do they hide who you really are or do they allow you to be your true self, unhindered by society’s expectations? Does the anonymity allow his audience to put their own stories onto the figures?


Whether king, queen, warlord or warrior, the figures’ gravitas seeps from Kajahl’s works, spurred on by their postures and poses, the paintings themselves are celebrations of their protagonist's virtues and achievements. We are supposed to look upon them with awe. We most certainly do.

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Just as the figures appear to be composites of various historical periods and peoples, Kajahl’s own process follows a similar trajectory, embodying the role of explorer through his vast archival research, through books, museums and his own travels to far-afield lands like Ethiopia, Kenya and areas of Central America. The spirit of his figures lives through the artist himself.


Engaging with the physical and material reality of history, as well as its intangible assets like mythology and storytelling, Kajahl is able to build more than characters, but universes for them to inhabit. Expanding on the archetype of the alchemist in one of his paintings, the props become as significant as the man using them, a painting that could be considered portraiture as easily as it could still-life.


Resurrecting obscure and esoteric moments of history, characters that lived in the shadows whilst others had books written about them, means that Kajahl can use fiction to deal with subjects that are unequivocally rooted in fact. His mini narratives, each unfolding in the highly descriptive detailed paintings, do the work of an ethnography paper, telling stories through a carefully curated static image.

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Fantastical by nature, the artist imagines the dreams of historical figures for his paintings. How did people from the past imagine themselves to be? What were their dreams? In this sense, Kajahl is giving life to their fantasy and paying respects to the largely African-American cast of characters who have, for the most part, been mis- or completely un-represented in art history.


Subverting the way that we think of the characters, whose likeness is most recognisably found in the ‘blackamoor’ style of art - a European decorative figurine that often depicts its protagonists in subservient roles - Kajahl’s paintings are retelling history, shining a light on those figures left to dwell in the shadows of time.

This is the case no more. Kajahl has given them their due, placing them at the centre of history's stage.

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