Derek Fordjour: the slow rise of a magician-painter

Derek Fordjour has become a key figure of the new figurative scene in the United States these past few years. A rare artist both in terms of market presence and aesthetics, he has developed a singular pictorial universe centered on the glorification of the African American community. Fordjour’s taste for bright colours as well as his painting technique based on a rigorous overlaying process produce rich textures and convey a vibrant energy. These unique characteristics have led both major institutions—from major American museums to David Kordansky who now represents the artist—and collectors—Drake, Jay-Z or Beyoncé—to take interest in his works. His new solo exhibition with Kordansky, which is currently on view in Los Angeles, is a triumphant testimony of an artist at the peak of his art.


A typical sport painting by the artist

Derek Fordjour was born in 1974 in an affluent family of Ghanaian immigrants in Memphis, Tennessee. According to his own words, he was a “child artist“ who started making art at the age of three. In high school, he had a privileged relationship with his art teacher who advised him to study art at the university, which he did. But this first academic experience was a bit of a disappointment for the artist, who left New York and came back to his hometown to work. A few years later, he resumed his studies at the Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he met other aspiring African-American artists who helped him regain confidence in his art. Soon after, he earned a Master’s Degree in art education from the prestigious Harvard University in 2002.


But it was not before his late thirties that he truly found his way artistically, partly thanks to an encounter with his idol and fellow African-American painter Kerry James Marshall, who gave him precious advice for his career. Although unusually old for a student, he enrolled at Hunter College in New York to study painting. In 2014, while he was still attending art school, Fordjour had his first breakthrough solo show in Bushwick, Brooklyn, at the age of 40. At that time, he had fully developed his own unique style based on a profusion of materials and colors.


This beautiful painting was presented by David Kordansky during Art Basel 2021

The artist starts each of his paintings by overlaying cheap pedestrian materials from cardboard to newspaper and aluminium foils on the canvas. Once he obtains the depth and the texture he desires, he cuts into the materials to create a scene with the help of sprayed acrylic and/or oil paint, pastel and charcoal to name but a few. This process gives a vibrant aspect to his works while making them instantly recognizable. The intense energy conveyed by his paintings is strengthened by the artist’s subjects. The latter likes to represent athletes and performers who take part in cultural rituals, from sport events to magic shows. Most of his characters are black and accomplish the same gestures, which emphasizes the collective aspect of these practices.

This painting holds Fordjour's auction record with a price of $250,000

Despite the joyful aspect of his representations, Fordjour tries to highlight the underlying conflicts between individuals and the collective. This is all the more true for African American people, who often have to deal with strong inequalities before breaking through the dominant culture.


Fordjour’s first acclaimed show was followed by his first artist residency at the Sugar Hill Museum in New York in 2016. This led the prestigious Whitney Museum to commission him to produce a large-scale painting for its permanent collection. In the late 2010s, he started working with Night gallery in Los Angeles, Josh Lilley in London and Petzel Gallery in New York, who offered him a series of solo shows. Since that time, Fordjour has developed a multidisciplinary approach to his exhibitions which now culminates in his first show with David Kordansky this Spring. For instance, the Californian gallery has allowed him to build a tunnel to get into the exhibition space, which also hosts a daily magic show starring black performer Kenrick “Ice” Mcdonald. These installations and performances are the continuation of the paintings so that it becomes harder to determine the separation between art and reality.


An installation view from Fordjour's current show at David Kordansky

Despite his universal acclaim within the art world, only a handful of minor paintings have been presented at auction yet. The main reason for that is the artist’s network of major collectors who are loyal to his work. Among them are some of the most famous American music stars, from Drake to Jay-Z and Beyonce, who bought him a series of 10 colorful portraits of black athletes in 2019. Furthermore, his works are held in the most prestigious museum collections, from the Whitney to the LACMA.


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