Tubman African American Museum to be first to display artist Alfred Conteh’s ‘Pimp Series’

The artist’s representational works use pop culture and historical imagery to comment on African American culture.

The Tubman African American Museum, a Knight Arts grantee, will be showcasing the compelling and sometimes controversial work of Atlanta-based artist Alfred Conteh. The exhibit, which runs July 13–August 10, is an overview of Conteh’s body of work, which includes mixed-media assemblages, paintings and sculptures. An opening reception and gallery talk by the artist will be held July 20 at the museum.

“Most of what he does are these kind of mixed media, highly symbolic, highly stylized paintings,” explained curator Jeffrey Bruce. “Most of the paintings have some sort of constructed wood, assembled kind of quality to them.”

The exhibit is titled, “Alfred Conteh: Non-Conformist Artist,” and as the title would suggest, it is very hard to pigeonhole Conteh’s work. His free-standing sculptures are completely non-objective studies of color, form and texture. His paintings are colorful, yet dark. Some of his works contain subtle discourse on African American culture. Other works have in-your-face text and imagery that is loud and abrasive.

According to his website, he uses a variation of symbolism, historical elements, themes and imagery in his representational work. On the other end of the spectrum, he feels compelled to stop “leading the viewer down the road of visual symbolism” and allow rhythm, composition, texture and color to express itself without the intrusion subject matter.

Conteh’s sculptures are non-objective works focused on shape, volume, texture and color.

For Conteh, this exhibit is a bit of a homecoming, because he is originally from the Macon/Fort Valley area. After high school, he attended college at Hampton University in Virginia, where he received his BFA in 1997. He later moved to Atlanta, where he maintains his studio. While the exhibit does not focus on a particular aspect of the artist’s wide-variety of styles, it does feature the first exhibition of six works from the artist’s contentious “Pimp Series.”

“These work have never been exhibited before,” said Bruce. “We will be the first institution to show these works.”

The curator described the series as using the pop culture image of “the pimp” to provide commentary about African American culture. Each piece contains imagery and a large paragraph describing a different type of pimp. Examples include “The Athlete Pimp,” “The Preacher Pimp” and “The Natural Pimp.” While the simplistic nature of the titles could easily lead the viewer to believe they already know what direction the artist has taken and move on, the texts are often surprising. Each adds a deeper sense of understanding and a bit of confusion.

“The Natural Pimp” by Alfred Conteh.

In his work, Alfred Conteh struggles to be a non-conformist. The wide and varied nature of the work featured in this show are a clear indication of that fact. But his representational work is clearly about the portrayal of African Americans in the media, and upon reflection, it’s conceivable that his non-objective work might stem from a desire to escape the burden of trying to deal with such a huge issue within his work.

According to the curator, the struggle between being defined as an artist who happens to be African American, and being defined as an African American artist, has been a longtime issue for artists. Conteh’s body of work seems to be divided between the two camps, either from of a desire to be neither, or a desire to be both.

Tubman African American Museum: 340 Walnut St., Macon;