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Annan Affotey explores misinterpreted identity through red eyes in his portraiture

Annan Affotey’s work comes from an intrigue into the stories and meanings behind faces and bodies. “I often paint people around me, including family and friends (and myself). But I also take inspiration from public figures and models who use the power of body language and expression.”

His “red eye” portraits hold a haunting beauty that invites viewers to question the emotions and really look into the stories behind the faces. When we asked him about this portrait series, Affotey tells us the concept is one of “misinterpreted identities”. “When I moved to the US from Ghana, I was often questioned why my eyes were red and whether it meant I hadn't slept or was doing drugs, neither of which was true. And it became a symbol for misinterpreted identities.” For the artist, facial expressions are important because they speak to a person's emotions. “It's the classic "a picture is worth a thousand words." The first assumptions made about people are based on sight. So things like skin colour, clothing, accessories, background, setting, and pose dictate emotion. There's no guarantee those things match the character underneath.”

The artist uses a bright backdrop against his Black subject to highlight the contrast between the two, and also impact the way the viewer sees his subjects. For Affotey, this isn’t just an artist technique, but a commentary on the way we are seen as people, Black people especially, “we're often identified by what we're compared to (or against)” as he tells us. Affotey’s work is a social commentary on this, asking his viewers to take a second look at what they read from his portraits and why.

When we asked Affotey how his work has evolved since he began practising art, he tell us that exposure to more artists allowed him to realise what makes his work unique. “Things like strong poses and techniques like my knife strokes were key areas that I pursued and experimented with. This meant I gave up some of my earlier techniques.” In addition to that, geography has also been a notable impact in the style and content of his work over time. Having lived in both the US and Ghana over varying periods, the now Oxford-based artist has grown to mould his work to the experiences that surround him depending on where he finds himself. “In Ghana I focused on things around me and what I knew (markets, women, children, etc.) In the US, I saw many similarities of human experiences and dove into that, exploring themes like music and dance.”

Beyond creating work that speaks to him and his lived experiences in the outside world, Affotey also wants his work to speak deeply to his viewers. In fact, this is such a crucial part of his process, that he only sells one to people who note the messages and impressions they read from his pieces. “The paintings are meant to convey emotion and open people's eyes to the human experience. However, I hope that more people can see my work - even if they can't buy it - and that it can add to their lives as well. That's the beauty of social media, museums, and galleries.”

Words by Aisha Ayoade


Ed Gentry
Ed Gentry

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