all three pictures the primary colours blue and red struggle with each
other in a luminous colour
palette. The background
is enriched with accents of violet and azure which, through textured
layering, begin to emulate a vast sea. The impressions of
two-dimensionality coupled with contrasting depths of colour and
tonality alternate in these pictures. Black marks the bulk of the figuration
who, in endlessly long rows, form the internal structures of the ships.
Others seem to 'swirl' freely in groups outside of the ship forms.
Everything belonging to these figures is black: the manacles, indicated
by curved lines shackling the figures together at the torso and neck,
as well as the codes of letters and numbers. These lists are subtly
found in the pictorial ground, in the contours of the ships, and
individual human figures.
The third primary colour, yellow – the complementary colour of violet –
is a strongly lightened nuance assigned to the inner surfaces of the
galley ships. This yellow is further used for the brushstrokes that
partially outline the bow or the stern of ships and then merely run out
into flowing traces of colour. Are these ships that have long since
sunk into the sea? Wrecks that remain visible at the water’s surface?
Ghost ships? In any case, this fragmentary representation is
reminiscent of them. On each canvas, an individual dab of orange marks
a single patch of numerical codes and lettering creating a signalling
effect, like drawing pins used to display advertisements on a notice
board. At this point, it becomes clear: alongside the exploration of
the motif, the act of painting as such exhibits itself as medium in
This can be experienced once again in the application of dripping paint
in the same colour palette. In addition to a thin glaze, it also
stretches in flowing tracks of colour like fine prison bars across the
canvas. Or does the viewer see traces of blood and tears? Together with
splashes of paint (especially in the third hull of the central
picture), they blend over the opaque black figures, who are essential
elements of the pictures. Defiguration
can thus not only be read in the aforementioned 'shipwrecks', but is
often caused by flow marks and splashes of paint that visually
dismember the figures. Figurative
can be found in the detached groups between the ship hulls or the
lined-up 'swimmers' at the stern of the last ship in the central
picture. The latter are seemingly positioned to appear as if their
souls have just begun to take flight diagonally across the ship.
The interpretation of a concrete
is left to the viewer because OTGO's works do not follow any scheme of
narrative, pictorial storytelling. This means that the viewer has to
discover the respective work, piece by piece. If they allow themselves
to do so, they 'stumble' over the ambivalence in the themes of the
slave ships and of the galleys in the triptych The Galleys of Souls.
This is because the depiction contradicts the title when trying to make
out oars on the ships, or when trying to understand the arrangement of
the slave bodies displayed inside as that of oarsmen in chains. The
hands of those chained together remain invisible – the limbs that
symbolise freedom, as the artist suggests. Despite the omission, one
is tempted to interpret some of the adjacent numbers and letters as
coded oar shapes in the broadest sense. But even these codes do not
reveal their secret, as they jump back and forth between anonymity and
identifying labelling. The artist often uses the common Mongolian word ‘bool
for ‘slave’. This can be seen, for example, in the middle picture
between the second and third hull. Shorter lists of names then provide
some variety, as in the third piece on the right edge of the canvas.
These names are taken from historical figures around the world who were
victims of slavery.
To determine a metamorphosis in OTGO's paintings, such as a 'change of
status' to a liberated slave or a transition from life to death, the
viewer searches the exhibited movement patterns and sometimes
spasmodically splayed extremities of the figures outside the ships.
Whether these figures actually stand for still-living swimmers, flying
souls, or dancing dead cannot be determined from the depiction per se.
Even without shackles, those outside the ships remain faceless
silhouettes in the same colouring as their brothers and sisters on
board. All together they recall the fate of slaves on such crossings,
whose lives often ended unnoticed and swiftly.
In the search for art-historical and
to OTGO's The Galleys of Souls, three aspects should be mentioned as
examples: Firstly, if one radically detaches oneself from the subject
and wishes to focus solely on figuration and colouring, Helmut
Middendorf's two-part painting Electric Night
(1979, distemper on untreated cotton, 200 x 300 cm, Städel Museum,
Frankfurt/M.) is an option. The figures of the then ‘New Savage,’ from
the Galerie am Moritzplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg, depict dancers at night
and therefore might initially appear contrary to OTGO's slave figures.
However, Middendorf also designed his figures in a correspondingly
minimalist manner, as dark silhouettes in a colour mixture of blue and
red. Moreover, their twitching arms and legs are not unlike those of
the figures outside the ships.
Secondly, if one searches for African-American objects and structural
analogies in the painting, it is also worth referring to one of New
York's 'scene stars' of the 1980s: the graffiti artist and close friend
of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). In the streets of
SoHo he left messages under the pseudonym SAMO© (for "same old shit",
the persistent racism). Similarly in his paintings, such as Irony of a Negro Policeman
(1981, oil, acrylic, and coloured pencil on canvas, 122 x 183 cm,
private collection, New York), writing comments on the respective
subject matter. Thus, the relationship between text and image is to be
discussed in his art – a circumstance that also applies to OTGO's
triptych The Galleys of Souls, although the writing there (‘bool’ and
other names) is both more subtle and semantically unspecific than in
Thirdly, numerous films now address slavery from different
perspectives, the suffering on slave-trading ships, or the ancient
galley punishment. Examples include the historical action story Harriet
(2019) about the African-American freedom fighter and women's rights
activist Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), Steven Spielberg's Amistad
(1997), or the literary adaptation Ben
(2016) based on the novel by Lew Wallace, to pick just three US
productions of the last twenty-five years.