Untitled (Couple Embracing)

/ Work of the Week

Untitled (Couple Embracing), Mid to late 20th century, Babacar Lô (b. 1929), Senegal
Glass, india ink, enamel paint, cardboard backing, and adhesive paper. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Given by friends of Lucille and Veltra Dawson, in memory of Veltra, and in honor of their wonderful years together, AFI.154.2015

With all of the modern technology that allows us to stay virtually connected during this challenging time, nothing can truly replace the warmth and comfort of physical touch.

This painting of a man and woman embracing is from the West African country of Senegal. The image has been painted on the back of a pane of glass – a tradition called sous-verre, or reverse-glass painting.

Reverse-glass painting is a traditional art form in several parts of the world, and was brought to Senegal in the early 20th century by Muslim traders from North Africa. Those early glass paintings depicted images of Islamic saints as well as important events in Islamic history and religious life.

Artists in Senegal expanded the tradition and began adding new subject matter such as portraits of men and women, scenes of people at work or home, revered public figures, and scenes from popular culture. Some scenes look back to traditional Senegalese life, and others are full of humor. These works are purchased by Senegalese people for their own homes, and by foreigners who collect African art.

The first step in making a reverse-glass painting is to draw the outlines in India ink on the glass. The artist can draw freehand directly on the glass, or trace a pattern. It is at this initial stage that the signatures or inscriptions must be added. They are written backwards so that they will be visible from the front. The colors come next, filling the spaces created by the outlines, starting with the details. The background, which is the last to be applied, sometimes covers the whole of the picture.

This image of a man and woman embracing against a backdrop of curtains is reminiscent of studio photography, a practice that began to flourish in Senegal in the 1950s. Photography, and studio portraits in particular, represented an important avenue for Senegalese people to creatively represent themselves. People chose their clothes, their poses, and often included objects that represented something about their lives. The man in this portrait wears a pith helmet, which became an emblem throughout Africa of an association with colonial foreigners.