Architecture and Song

Across the Way (2023), acrylic gel on raw canvas, 96˝ × 78˝

detail of Across the Way (2023).

detail of Bop (2023), acrylic on raw canvas.

Across the Way (2023), acrylic gel on raw canvas, 96˝ × 78˝.

Prelude (2019), acrylic, collaged elements, custom pedestals, 36˝ × 36˝ × 36˝.

Sky Party (2022), mixed media on raw canvas, 45˝ × 36˝.

Orange Jazz Club with Unresolved Emotions (2022), acrylic on raw canvas, 65˝ × 55˝.

Orange Pyramid with Parade (2022), acrylic on raw canvas, 14˝ × 11˝.

Love Song (2022), acrylic on paper mounted to panel, 48˝ × 36˝.

Psalm (2023), airbrushed acrylic and acrylic gel on raw canvas, 108˝ × 84˝.

Mildred (2023), acrylic gel on raw canvas, 65˝ × 55˝.


Hasani Sahlehe (b. 1991, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands) works in a variety of media and has participated in numerous exhibitions throughout the Southeast. In 2023, he was featured in solo shows at Tif Sigfrids in Athens, Georgia; the Adams and Ollman gallery in Portland, Oregon; and at the Atlanta Contemporary. A graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, Sahlehe lives and works in Atlanta. In February 2024, GR editor Gerald Maa interviewed him by email. Their conversation has been lightly edited.


Gerald Maa (GM): I came to know your work from the paintings in your Tif Sigfrids and Atlanta Contemporary solo shows. So diving into your work over the years has been a delightful surprise. It has clarified to me that not only are you invested in experimenting with color but have moreover made a deep investment in thinking color in relation to texture, by way of material. Could you talk a little bit about how you how you came to experiment with color in this way?

Hasani Sahlehe (HS): Painting, the genre, is about paint. I remind viewers that they are not only experiencing color, but they are experiencing something physical. In college, my teacher Michael V. Brown was a color fanatic. It rubbed off on me. He introduced me to the idea that paints are chemical compounds. Each pigment has unique characteristics. For instance, you might be able to get two or three colors out of one tube of paint, depending on how that particular paint is applied. Or, you might mix a specific red with a certain blue and get a muddy green (instead of purple). Paints do what they want to do, and I’m interested in finding out what it is they want to do.

GM: Having looked at your work over the years, I also get a sense that your experiment with color also has to do with catching light. As Goethe says in Theory of Colors (1810): “Colors are deeds of light, what it does and what it endures” (tr. Douglas Miller). It was—pardon the pun—illuminating to see that the earliest work featured on your website is sculptural. What about the matter of light, especially as most of your work now is hung as paintings are conventionally hung?

HS: I was attempting to create experiential works using light, space, iconography, and of course painting. I’m doing the same thing now. But, everything is condensed. All of the previously mentioned elements emerge solely from the paintings. I see myself working with light and space in the future, though.

GM: Interesting. How has your continued interest in experimenting with iconography informed these abstract paintings you’ve been working on? What has the move further into abstraction taught you about iconography?

HS: My interest in iconography has informed these new paintings in a couple of ways. On one level, color has become icon, each field potent with meaning. On another level, icon has become archetype. The current compositions are informed by recurring architectural motifs.

GM: So the architectural must be central to your sense of creating, as you say, an “experiential” work . . .

HS: Yeah, I think so. Or at least structure. And awareness of place.

GM: I get the sense that in your work, with a place, there is always a story of some sort. I love how some of the titles explicitly state the debt to architecture, but when they do, they generally mark off a scene, like Gold Building with Party or, one of my favorites, Orange Jazz Club with Unresolved Emotions. When do the titles start to materialize in the process? What do the titles do—or not—when you are conceptualizing, composing, and/or working out a piece?

HS: The two works referenced were part of a series of paintings presented at Memphis’s Tops Gallery in 2022. For that body of work, first I chose the base color, which would inevitably end up in the title. Then, I would start rendering the location. Finally, I would think of the complete title based on the painting’s characteristics. Titles help direct the viewer. Lately, I’ve been generating titles almost like a distinct creative act. Then I’ll make a painting and apply the title to the painting. 

GM: What have you been up to most recently? What are you excited about right now?

HS: The most recent paintings are imbued with many of the ideas that we’ve been talking about. But the idea of architecture seems to be at the forefront. Architecture of painting, presence, space, and song. All of these ideas are subtexts to the root of my work, which has always been perception. 

GM: I see that now. I see the shift from buildings as figures, at least in the series that I pointed out above, to buildings as architectural form. How does this shift to architectural form impact your decisions about scale, and vice versa? Your practice continually ranges widely in terms of size. Does the experience of size shift when architecture is at the forefront?

HS: The most obvious decision is to make bigger paintings. And when I make smaller paintings I allow individual colors to occupy more space.

GM: What are the colors doing, then, in the bigger paintings? Does it have to do with the “experience” and “perception” that is at the root of your work?

HS: Yes, exactly. Color creates space. Bigger paintings mean more space. Visible space can influence inner space. 

GM: What exactly do you mean by inner space?

HS: I mean inner being. Or inner life.

GM: I love how the sense of “song” has come onto the scene with the recent work. It makes me think of when art critic Walter Pater famously stated, “all art continually aspires towards the condition of music.” His “hedonism” is built on art tending to the nonrepresentational and ephemeral as a way to have form and content be as synonymous as possible, which makes the experience of that artwork phenomenological and pleasurable. With this recent work, the expansiveness of the lyric is rapturous. Who are some of the painters and what are some of the paintings that are at the forefront of your mind as you work on this current work? In what ways do you see yourself working with and/or against them?

HS: I have a secret love for lists. I’m going to indulge myself. Sorry. 

Painters: Ellsworth Kelly, Marina Adams, Stanley Whitney, Polly Apfelbaum, Suzanne Jackson, Cody Tumblin, Chris Martin, Austin Lee, Katherine Bernhardt, Mark Rothko, Summer Wheat, Daniel Boccato, and Richard Mayhew. 

Light and space artists: Fred Eversley, James Turrell, Unknown architects of sacred pyramids, mounds, sites, and monuments.

Musicians: Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Sharrock, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Tupac Shakur, Bon Iver, Stevie Wonder, P-Funk, The Awesome Jam Band, Lord Shorty/Ras Shorty I, Dennis Brown, Bob Marley and the Wailers.


Images © 2024 Hasani Sahlehe. Images appear courtesy of the artist.


Hasani Sahlehe (b. 1991, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands) works in a variety of media and has participated in numerous exhibitions throughout the Southeast. In 2023, he was featured in solo shows at Tif Sigfrid’s in Athens, Georgia; the Adams and Ollman gallery in Portland, Oregon; and at the Atlanta Contemporary. A graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, Sahlehe lives and works in Atlanta.