At some point, each of us spends time on the outside looking in, whether it’s with a new social group, an unfamiliar culture, or a foreign land. At the best of times, this new perspective can inspire us to reevaluate our own culture and assumptions – at the worst, it can leave us feeling alienated and afraid.
The Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association, known as RIVAA, is currently hosting two shows that explore the world through the eyes of an outsider – one looking at the connections and relationships in life and the other at the isolation one can feel.
At Gallery RIVAA, Robert Kippur: A New York Outsider offers a glimpse into the tormented mind of a recently deceased artist who lived his life not only outside the traditional art world but, it seems, outside of society in general. An African Winter, on display at the Octagon Gallery, offers a colorful and optimistic look at life in Nigeria by Owen ‘Miracle’ Maseli. Both shows are on display until the end of the month.
Robert Kippur was a tormented and isolated New York bus driver who suffered from crippling nightmares and anxieties. A self-trained artist, Kippur made large-scale paintings depicting the pain, agony, repulsiveness, and chaos he felt.
Kippur’s body of work was discovered only after his death through a public administrator auction of his apartment. “It was administered that way because of Kippur’s complete isolation. The only two people in contact with him were his psychiatrist and his architect,” says Island resident and art dealer Sanjay Kapoor of Kapoor Galleries and Humbaba Fine Art. Kapoor purchased the entire collection.
Kippur’s work falls in the genre of “outsider art,” existing outside the accepted boundaries of contemporary art and serving as a challenge to art itself. His technique includes wide brushstrokes, almost-too-vibrant colors, and incredibly thick layers of paint that make some of the figures appear three dimensional. The paintings are so vivid, they pull the viewer into them.
The Gallery RIVAA exhibit marks the debut showcase for Humbaba Fine Art and the first time Kippur’s paintings have been shown publicly. The gory nature of Kippur’s work fits perfectly alongside the legends of Humbaba, a monster known for its cruelty that guarded the cedar forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In his press release for the show, Kapoor acknowledges his soft spot for misunderstood monsters, underscoring the personal appeal Kippur’s work had.
“I deal in ancient Indian and Himalayan art from antiquity to the 18th century. I purchased [Kippur’s] entire body of work and stored it around the same time I moved to the Octagon. When I met Esther and Tad at the Octagon gallery, we made plans to put this show together.” Kapoor believes Roosevelt Island is just waiting to be the new art gallery row of Manhattan.
Robert Kippur: A New York Outsider is on exhibit at Gallery RIVAA, located at 527 Main Street, through February 25.
Unlike Kippur’s work, the paintings of longtime artist Owen ‘Miracle’ Maseli’s are full of warmth and happiness. Maseli, who hails from Lagos, Nigeria, first came to Roosevelt Island to visit his brother.
After exploring the RIVAA Octagon Gallery, he started dreaming of a solo show in the United States. He met with RIVAA President Tad Sudol, and together they discussed Maseli’s idea of hosting an African show during Black History month. Maseli says the resulting show, An African Winter, which is currently on display at the Octagon Gallery, is a play on words since there is no winter in Africa – at least not like the ones North American’s experience.
“I made the paintings warm by adding lots of color to show what a winter in Africa is, and I painted daily life, which is very different from here,” he said. His goal was to show Americans how life in Africa is different both physically and culturally.
Maseli has lived in Nigeria his entire life. “For me,” he explains, “art was from childhood. I composed music, and did carvings, paintings, and drawings on everything. I even used to draw on my bible,” he chuckles. “It was just a very natural path with me.”
Maseli studied art and painting at the University of Benin, in Nigeria, and has exhibited his art in both solo and group shows in Nigeria. An African Winter is his first international exhibit.
Like winters, Maseli says that relationships between people are also much warmer in Africa. “When I first came here I was surprised at the distance between people. When you are in Africa you always imagine America where everyone is friendly and together, but it is not the case. In Africa people are always together, and maybe that is what I try to portray.
“Here you see someone in the street and you say ‘good afternoon’, they walk past you. In Africa there are no barriers, although modernization is taking that away. And it is a shame. Africa is very different from here.”
One of Maseli’s paintings, Lean on Me, shows two people, one with a pair of ears and the other with a pair of eyes. “They are interdependent,” he explains. “It is about true situations in life – we all need each other; we are not always strong.”
“I am grateful to RIVAA,” Maseli says. “Both Tad and Esther have put much effort into this show, even when not all the paintings were delivered.”
African Winter is on display at the Octagon Gallery, located at 888 Main Street, through February 26.