Painting on glass is tricky. Glass is not as forgiving as canvas or paper, and it stubbornly resists attempts by artists to convey texture. Yet when glass painting is done right, it shimmers like the surface of a lake — or the probing front of a camera lens. In Senegal, painting on glass is a science as well as a tradition: Masters turn out portraits on the backs of clear sheets, swivel them around, expose them to light, and generate an unearthly gloss and inner radiance that paintings with opaque backgrounds can’t match.
Ibou Ndoye has plenty of experience painting on glass. In some of his works, the glass is broken, and fitted into the openings in wooden frames, like a ladder or a film strip. “Neighbors Near and Far,” his show at the Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University, doesn’t actually contain all that much glass painting. It mainly consists of huge, boisterous, enveloping canvases hung like tapestries; one of these is so long and broad that it spills down the wall and rolls, carpet-like, on to the floor. But all of these giant images possess the fiercely illuminated, sun-blasted quality of Senegalese glass painting. Glass is a major part of Ndoye’s artistic identity, and the translucent spirits of Dakar animate everything this artist does. Ndoye, who lives and works in Hudson County, doesn’t need to tell us that he was inspired to make these grand canvases after a trip to Africa. He doesn’t need to give us much background at all. The work speaks, eloquently, about his passions and his perspective.
Glass painting in West Africa has roots in a lower-tech era. Yet its modern resonances are undeniable. When done properly, a glass painting is seen through a thin, shiny transparent layer. It’s not unlike the way we modern viewers apprehend most of the images we encounter: through the backlit flat-panel screens of laptops and phones. The people on the seven glass plates in “Neighbors Near and Far” have the candid, shocked-awake, slightly distorted expressions that FaceTime imposes on those who use it. One man, depicted in sandals and a kufi, has his hands up and an entreaty on his worried face; another, a woman, carries an accusation in her eyes and a barbed threat in her hair, which leaps in black spikes from her head and scrapes the rim of the dish. Some of these glass vessels are circles, others are octagonal like a stop sign; all are, like iPhone screens, too small for the lively faces they trap and pin behind glass.
The characters in the wall-hangings play to the audience, too. A group of women sit around a mancala, and though they’re mid-game, they’re not looking at the pits and the pebbles. Instead, they’re staring outward, with smiles on the verge of grimaces, as if they’ve been posed there by an annoying photographer. The “Young Brothers” peer out between the skinny trunks of trees as if to challenge a voyeur treading on their turf. “The Wrestler,” the grey-faced star of a kinetic mixed-media canvas of paint and collage, performs his feats of strength and balance for two crowds — an arc of dispassionate dashiki-clad viewers who stand behind him and the real-life art appreciators on the gallery floor, who will be, I reckon, quite a bit more engaged.
In these scenes, there’s no place to hide: Sun and clear sightlines make every gesture apparent. Ndoye’s characters act like they know it. They’re all onstage or on camera, and their awareness of the viewer is inscribed in the pieces. And it’s this, more than the patterned backgrounds or brilliant colors or interplay of figures or even the facial features of the subjects, that marks this work as unmistakably West African in tone if not in origin. On glass and on canvas, Ndoye paints people who know you’re looking at them. They’re being watched, and they recognize it, and they pull you in to the performance.
“Uprooted,” the other Black History Month exhibition currently on view at NJCU (this one is at the Visual Arts Gallery) addresses visitors in a thinner and sterner voice. The show features work by Newark-based sculptor and fiber artist Adebunmi Gbadebo, who works in a style that will be familiar to anybody who has seen recent avant-garde fiber art installations at area museums. Gbadebo makes large three-dimensional frames out of chicken wire and affixes massive amounts of fiber to the structure until it takes on the appearance of a huge fuzzy boulder or block. The boulder is suspended from a string and appears to float; the blocks are stacked into a great furry monolith of heft and subtle menace. Fingers of fiber climb a far wall as if they’re trying to escape the confines of the gallery. A long, thick rope snakes across the floor, daring visitors to pull it (don’t).
What’s really striking about these works, though, isn’t what they look like. It’s what they’re made of. All of Gbadebo’s artifacts are comprised of human hair — hair, specifically, from people of African ancestry. The artist does some amazing, gravity-defying things with the locks she’s collected: She masses it and hangs it in great bunches like animal pelts, she balls it up and stacks it, she pounds it flat until it has the consistency of paper and prints on it. So complete is her transformation of black hair that it often doesn’t look like hair at all. It’s possible to encounter, and even appreciate, Gbadebo’s work without ever realizing that the fibers she’s weaving, teasing, and flattening contain human DNA.
That is part of Gbadebo’s point, one that’s driven home further by her use of indigo dye, a substance associated with the slave trade. We don’t always notice the extent to which the manmade environment that surrounds us was built on the backs of black bodies. Yet to apprehend the full conceptual scope of “Uprooted,” the viewer needs to step back from the pieces and understand the backstory, the artist’s motivations and materials, and the conditions of the work’s creation. The show requires more than the basic transaction between the gallerygoer and the creator: It demands attention to something that can be missed if you aren’t in the know.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Museums in New York City have been mounting shows of that sort for years, and “Uprooted” does feel more like a Manhattan-style exhibition than anything I’ve yet seen in Jersey City. It’s hard not to contrast the Gbadebo exhibition with the tropical wave rippling at the Lemmerman. Ndoye’s figures establish an immediate relationship with the viewer. Gbadebo is quite a bit more parsimonious with her affections and with her energy, too. Instead of a rough neighborly handshake, she offers hard-won beauty. You’re welcome to observe it. Look at it long enough, and you might even get comfortable with it. But she’s certainly not going to do all the work for you.
Neighbors Near And Far: Ibou Ndoye
The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 3
Uprooted: Adebunmi Gbadebo
The Visual Arts Gallery
Visual Arts Building
New Jersey City University
Showing Until March 5
Artist Reception: February 19, 4:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Header: Ibou Ndoye