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Financial Times

DEREK FORDJOUR: PAINTING THE BLACK EXPERIENCE. The rising artist’s exquisite abstract patterning explores realities of African-American life.

By Jackie Wullschläger

In a decade or five, which painting will recall how 2020 felt? It must convey grief, fragility, claustrophobia, also resolve, unity, sensuous joy in small things, during a year paralysed by the pandemic but galvanised towards social reform by George Floyd’s killing.

One such is the contemporary history painting “Pall Bearers”: the standout in Derek Fordjour: Self Must Die, opening next month at New York’s Petzel Gallery. When George Floyd was killed, another Floyd, boxer Floyd Mayweather, paid for his burial in a gold casket. Fordjour has painted a man killed like a dog, leaving earth like a king.

Descending a staircase in a compressed, vertiginous space, six black men with pink gloves carry the coffin, tilting it towards us: an accusatory, hard, gleaming cylinder adorned with a soft mauve wreath. Extravagantly dressed in mulberry suits, orange waistcoats, glamorous as singers in a band, dignified, a cohesive sextet, they are also vulnerable, uneasy, broken.

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Fordjour, 46, is a rising name. His billboard mural “Half Mast” showed at the Whitney last year; his inaugural museum show, presciently called Shelter, launched pre-lockdown, in January, at Contemporary Art Museum St Louis.

But since impoverished student days Fordjour has painted on mulched newspaper (the Financial Times, in fact), building sumptuous layers in acrylic, oil pastel, charcoal, cardboard and foil strips. The effect is raw, homespun, alluring: from a distance the collages cohere into decisive, memorable images, close up the devil is in the detail.

The pallbearers’ features are fragmented: jagged assemblages of cardboard squares, newspaper piercing through. They reject our gaze, seek protection in invisibility: they close their eyes, lower hats to block their faces.

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