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Koby Martin: The Rising Star

From Amedeo Modigliani and Vincent Van Gogh, to Frida Kahlo and Jean Michel Basquiat - I have long pondered how some of the most iconic artists endured such profound personal trauma, and whether perhaps conversely, it was this deep affinity with pain that inspired their masterpieces. The notion of the tortured artist is far from a new one, in fact, it’s probably as old as art itself. As such, there are several schools of thought on whether an artist can truly even be considered great if they have never loved and lost, or indeed experienced some form of debilitating vulnerability. Whilst the jury is still out on this age old debate, one artist who is not a stranger to battling with the demons that are loss and suffering takes the view that ‘the best art comes from pain’. Koby Martin, a Ghanaian born artist now based in London, is on a smooth, and fast track to becoming one of the most acclaimed young emerging artists in recent years. His 2017 coming of age solo exhibition, ‘Boy in the Field’ was an emotionally charged display of work that vividly depicted the trauma the artist endured, and eventually overcame, as an immigrant in the UK under threat of deportation. Having attended the private view of ‘Boy in the Field’, I found myself deeply moved by each of the 10-piece paintings displayed on the white washed walls of the unit 9 Gallery in London’s hip Shoreditch area. Whilst the traumatic experience, masterfully captured by Koby in a mixed media fusion of digital and acrylic on canvas was personal to him, the themes the work addressed were strikingly universal, lending his work greater gravitas and significance. It was therefore of no great surprise to me to learn that the majority of his paintings were spoken for ahead of the closing of the three day exhibition. Several months after the success of ‘Boy in the Field’, I learned through the grapevine that the artist was planning a new exhibition titled ‘Asiamah’ and had already completed five out of 10 large scale paintings that would feature in his new exhibition to be held at London’s old bohemian quarter, Soho. Admittedly, the cynic in me felt a morsel of doubt that the artist could live up to the brilliance and intimacy of his ‘Boy in the Field’ exhibition. It felt too soon, and of course, how could he upstage the performance art act that so perfectly supported the narrative of his paintings? It was over lunch on a sunny day in South London, at a local gastro pub owned by an old school friend of mine, that Koby Martin would extinguish all my doubts, and have me basking in his impending greatness. “You are only as good as your last work,” were the words that parted from the artist’s lips after taking a sip of his Coke. He smiled almost cheekily to himself, as one does when they are privy to a secret that you aren’t aware of but are dying to know. After a few minutes he relented, obviously picking up on my dismayed reaction, and wanting to put me out of my misery. He picked up his phone and started scrolling through his gallery to give me an exclusive preview of some of the paintings he was working on. I was immediately impressed by the size of the works; he had scaled up on the size of his canvases since ‘Boy in the Field’, which for me signaled his growing ambition and confidence as an artist. However, it was only when he informed me that the theme of his exhibition was to be centered on death and revival in tribute to the passing of his late father that I realized that ‘Asiamah’ was not only going to be bigger than his previous exhibitions, but also more emotionally powerful. “So why Asiamah?” I asked as I settled the bill, and we prepared to leave after an indulgent lunch of Cajun fries and southern-style buffalo wings. “Asiamah is my last name,” he smiled. “It means ‘good things are about to happen for you.’”

Raphael Dapaah is an art critic, promoter and collector based in the United Kingdom. Follow him on Instagram @dg_luxe

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