Gallery 1957 is delighted to present Uncaged and Watered, a new solo exhibition by Ghanaian visual artist Aplerh-Doku Borlabi.The show features a new body of work created during the artist’s recent residency with the gallery in London and draws on expressions of liberation from social restrictions. Through a process of collaging different elements of vegetation, plants, and furniture, Borlabi has produced figures who take the viewer on a journey towards self-acceptance and emancipation.
Borlabi continues along his trajectory of exploring the overlapping characteristics between Black skin and coconut sheaths, which he uses as a signifier of his Ghanaian identity. Transported from the shores of Coco Beach, Nungua, a beach town in Accra, Borlabi is drawn to the coconut sheaths for their tactile and energetic connection to his homeland and ancestors. Metaphorically, the coconut sheath contemplates the tension between what is disregarded, discarded, and deemed ugly, and what is natural, strong, complex, multidimensional, and beautiful.
Taking further inspiration from Maya Angelou’s autobiographical text I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Borlabi uses his love of colour, texture, and composition to bring into existence his once-imagined liberty. This body of work demarcates a turning point in his career and was created in response to an indelible moment in his personal journey towards self-liberation. Having felt trapped in a mental cage – the kind strengthened by internalised social norms and pressures that prevent one from being their true self out of fear of disownment – he finally feels free to be his full self, with his full range of expression. Grateful for the lessons learnt along the way, Borlabi now feels like there is a path that he wants to journey alone, a garden that he wants to water at his leisure. His garden. Relishing in the delight of being able to freely do what moves him spiritually and make him feel full and whole, Borlabi also hopes that his new body of work will highlight the healing power of nature and be a further expansion of his previous ecological explorations, which have sought to interrogate the inextricable connection between nature and humanity.
Uncaged and Watered is a collection of portraits inspired by photographs that are both staged and candid, intimate and forthcoming. Taking inspiration from the rich and boundless space of his community, Borlabi seeks to resolve the ambivalence of common experiences and the shared impulse to be oneself in a world that demands otherwise. Using reference photos taken in Accra and producing these new works in London orchestrates a rewriting of the artist’s history that is refreshing and rendered in bright hues. Lush greens, which resonate the original environment of the coconut sheaths, bring an abundant liveliness to the canvases, offering the African portrait tradition a naturalistic and ecological layer that is unique in its approach.
For Borlabi, the introspective journey isn’t linear, and different experiences that come into your environment can aid in reflection and understanding. The radical softness of empathy towards the self must be rooted in a willingness to sit with discomfort to necessitate growth. Just as the coconut sheaths are meticulously and patiently assembled, the fractured journey of self-discovery requires a delicate touch.
The exhibition is accompanied by a critical text by Chantel Akworkor Thompson.