The African sun has a particular clarity, its pellucid blue sharpens what it gazes upon. It also has a quality of haziness that seems to draw the viewer into its magic. It both challenges and entrances. With the light, inevitably, comes the shadows. Those deep absences of light have their own intensity. There are no greys here, just the stark simplicity of blackness.
African art has long reflected that. This art which has been described as “primitive” in the derogatory, in fact, has a more positive meaning as it takes on the sense of “primacy”, an elemental source, an essential part and reflection of the landscape and culture in which it was created.
Artists have long been fascinated with African light and African art. From the 19th century onwards, European artists were fascinated, challenged and inspired by the art they encountered in their travels through the “Dark Continent”. Even as early as 1875, Auguste Renoir was in North Africa marvelling at the light there and responding by creating works such as The Jewish Wedding. Similarly, John Singer Sargent was entranced by swirls of smoke dancing in the light and recorded that in Fumee d’Ambre Gris in 1880, an awed exploration of that same light. It was when artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Braque and others encountered these works, it can reasonably be claimed that Modernism truly began.
Marco Ruben Malto II exists within that tradition, not only taking on board the African experience per se, but mediating it through those Western artists who have gone before him, through the history of Art in which he has grown and been nourished. But Malto also brings his own Filipino aesthetic to bear on the Namibian sky. He embraces the challenge as those who came before him did, basking on the inspiration it brings.
In his previous artistic endeavours, Wrapped and Unwrapped, he worked with lumpia wrappers. This work was notable for its opacity, the almost washed-out colours, pale and wan, which work could have only come into existence and been produced in the Philippines by a Filipino.
The Colors of Black represents almost a sea-change in Malto’s work. The title of the show reflects the positive and dynamic reaction of the artist to his immediate surroundings. It is almost as if he is compelled to confront the light and darkness all around him, and record this vivid intensity. Even if it is the most commonplace, as in Jacaranda in Spring, and with the most commonplace of materials, pen and paper.
This almost visceral reaction forces his hand, literally and metaphorically, into creative life. As he grows to imbibe more of the culture, and interacts with the people and history of Namibia his work deepens and matures and becomes more complex. To look at Klein Windhoek is to see an artist in thrall to the African sun. Rain Dance, with its azure-blue skies dominating represents an artist with real feeling for his subject. And there can be no finer distillation of Western and African art than the magnificent Encarnacion, with its putti in fervent Adoration of the African Madonna, in a scene that Raphael would recognise.
This show, then, represents a true distillation of the sounds, peoples and landscapes of Namibia, the colors of black, the colors of Africa.