When he died in February of complications from pancreatic cancer at age 57, Detroit artist Rico Africa left behind a trove of colorful paintings. Those works will go on view in a posthumous retrospective at Detroit’s Cass Cafe that opens on Saturday.
Born Robert Berry in 1964, Africa came up in Detroit’s Cass Corridor art scene in the 1980s. That’s when fellow artist and Motor City Brewing Works owner John Linardos met him.
“He was always painting,” Linardos says. “He was a prolific painter.”
The show will feature about 50 of Africa’s works on the walls, with dozens more unframed works also available. Prices range from $100 to $3,500 and proceeds from the sales will go to Africa’s mother.
“It’s pretty much everything that had not sold over the years that was in Rico’s possession or that he had friends holding onto,” Linardos says.
Many of the pieces blend collage with oil painting.
“There’s a lot of narrative in his work, a lot of contemporary observations on consumerism, corporate America — it’s all just still so timely,” Linardos says.
He adds, “His work has always had very strong narratives. It’s not like it’s real murky.”
A common motif is the use of bright, almost radioactive colors.
Linardos says he even hosted a couple of shows of Africa’s work at Motor City Brewing Works where the work was illuminated with black lights.
“It literally radiated,” he says. “It was awesome.”
“He went through some distinct phases,” says Dave Roberts, a fellow artist, curator, and friend. “A lot of times he was working with images that are self-referential, self-portraits where he was portraying his place as a Black man, as a mixed-race person. That was a common theme.”
He adds, “He didn’t necessarily hold back in addressing some of the racial issues.”
Aside from painting, Africa was also known for his performance art project Transgendered Frankenstein, which featured spoken-word poetry with a live backing band.
Linardos says Africa’s circle of friends is trying to track down the recordings for a possible posthumous release.
“As a personality goes, he was just such a great, supportive guy,” Linardos says. “Just great wit, and really funny, and it comes through in his paintings, too. A lot of the stuff is very, very, very serious, but he also has that really cool ability to not take himself too seriously. A lot of his work has elements of humor, too, and I’ve always respected him a lot for that.”
“Rico really had like an outsized influence, and he really was always working to push boundaries and do really experimental or edgy work,” says Roberts. “He was coming at the art scene a little bit as an outsider, to a certain degree, where he was not as much as in the same circle as all the kids who went to art school. I think he was just such a social and gregarious personality that it put him in touch with so many people and gave him this influence over other artists.”
The exhibition opens at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 23 at the Cass Cafe, 4620 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-1400; casscafe.com. The show runs through May 27.