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Discovering the African Portraits of Gaby Hahn

Three Turkana Women, Paintings36 x 48

Gaby Hahn, an artist originally from Germany, spends part of each year in Africa, painting the people of Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia. Coming to painting late in life, she paints in a studio that sometimes serves as a school for African children that she established as part of her life mission.
    Her oils capture the sense of easy intimacy that she has developed with the people in this continent, especially her face-to-face portraits such as “Turkana Woman Carrying Sacks of Flour,” in which the young woman, her neck lengthened by an ornate yellow tribal necklace that appears to add at least a foot to her height, balances two heavy bags of grain, one atop the other, on her head. Still, she gazes out placidly at the viewer, as though totally unburdened, at home with herself and her lot in the only life she knows.
    The load is lighter for “Turkana Girl With Fish,” in which the subject is seen in profile with a single fish atop her head. She too has an elongated neck lengthened by an ornate red and yellow tribal device and the angle from which the artist paints her enables the viewer to contemplate her interesting hairstyle, with her head mostly shaved, but for a kind of ponytail in the back and bangs in the front. Like the previous model, she has a serene expression on her face that contrasts sharply with the anxiety one sees in the faces of so many modern city dwellers, causing one to consider that there may be benefits to the severe yet simple living conditions of these tribal people.
    One sees this apparent ease of being in Hahn’s figure groups as well. In “Three Turkana Women,” the subjects standing in a field display the brilliant colors and ornate patterns of their long, graceful garments, the elegance of which would not look at all out of place on a high fashion runway in Paris or New York. However, the two women Hahn depicts at work, stooping in a field like Millet’s famous “Gleaners,” in another painting called “Two Turkana Women Cutting Lucerne” wear garments that are simpler, if no less brightly pleasing to the eye. Here, too, the artist gives us a glimpse of the country’s expansive beauty, with the high grasses in the foreground where the women toil giving way to a yellow field and verdant green mountains.
    Along with other paintings of native people going about their day-to-day business, Gaby Hahn gives us pictures of animal subjects, as seen in “Elephant II,” in which a large pachyderm and its small offspring are viewed from behind, strolling along together in the wild in as orderly a manner as in a circus parade. But here in their natural environment they project a calmer dignity and kinship than such creatures ever do in captivity. The same can be said of “Elephant III,” in which one large animal fills the entire canvas, frontally posed –– if that word can applied to a creature of such size, captured in motion, its large, lethal-looking tusk aimed straight ahead! Here, the animal’s thick gray hide is depicted in loving detail by the artist, all of its wrinkles, tones, and textures delineated with accuracy, along with the texture of the tall grass beneath its huge feet. Here, too, the hide’s beautifully modulated grays, in concert with the small areas of deep nocturnal blue which remain visible beyond the animal’s great hulking bulk, demonstrate Gaby Hahn’s ability to capture and hold one’s attention with a less brilliant palette of hues than those which enliven her perceptive human portraits. 
 –– Byron Coleman 

Gaby Hahn, Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th St., Through April 16,  2013. Reception: Thursday, April 4, 6 -8 pm.

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