Wisdom Edinam Kudowor shakes his head. I asked the painter what kind of reactions he got during his last visit to The Netherlands, to the fact that he produces modern art that, in general, doesn't betray the African hand of its maker. There is no fan in his studio in Accra and the Ghanaian heat is beating down on us. Wisdom Kudowor, a.k.a. WIZ, seems to have been inspired by the tropical temperatures in his studio when he painted a series of canvases lined up against a wall. Driven by ecstasy
is a series of abstracts of a pair of lovers, dripping with sweat. According to WIZ, western viewers often are surprised when they find out that the colourful semi-abstracts came out of the hands of an African artist. Although the situation has improved over the last ten years, art collectors and gallery owners still associate African art with wooden statues and masks. Only a few people know that there are African artists who finished art school and whose work refers to recent developments in the international art circuit.
WIZ's story is no exception. Ghanaian painters and sculptors that are renowned in their own country, often have a hard time securing a place in the international art world.
Some talented street artists, whose work confirms the image of Africa as a primitive, exotic continent, fare much better. Take for instance the sign writer Almighty God, whose colourful paintings on hardboard have been showing up everywhere over the past years. Or the Ghanaian coffins shaped like chickens, airplanes, cell phones or beer bottles that received so much attention in the western world. In Ghana these artists are looked upon as craftsmen.
However, the concept of "artist", as we know it in the western world, is not a new phenomenon in Ghana. Even before independence, the grand old men
of Ghanaian modern art were active.
The works produced by these artists fitted right in the nationalist thinking of the first president Kwame Nkrumah. According to him, contemporary artists should be the ones to create a new national identity. For that reason, the state commissioned artists to create portraits, mosaics, sculptures, murals and national symbols. The state also bought artwork to decorate government buildings.
Kofi Antubam is one of the most important artists of this period. He designed the doors to the building of Parliament, and he also created three seats of government that were inspired by "traditional" African shapes and symbolism. One of these seats is shaped like the throne of a chief and has been richly decorated by Adinkra symbols[i]
. The new president John Kuffuor, among others, took place in this seat at his inauguration.
One of the biggest art collectors of Ghana recounts how he took painting classes from the famous artist Kofi Antubam, in the fifties. As a fourteen year old boy he was used to drawing cowboys, Indians and Roman soldiers. However, Antuban forbade his pupils to paint things '' 'un-African'. He wrote down subjects on the black board from which the pupils could choose, like "chiefs" or "fishermen". When a classmate proudly presented an English landscape, Antubam was furious. He yelled: "Where do you think you are, in England?" The drawing was ripped up.
This tale illustrates the change that had taken place. Before it had been a compliment to be called oboruni (white man). Now the Ghanaian people had to be proud of their culture, and turn away from Europe. Images of African village life, devoid of any European influence, formed the main ingredient of the work produced in this period. Artists painted women carrying pottery on their heads, chiefs and fishermen.
Realism was the style. Artists claimed that, like their western counterparts, they were entitled to a realistic visual language. In the art school of Kumasi students were taught to work in realistic styles, a result of the fact that the school had been modelled after British art schools. Some artist did choose to work in an abstract style. However, instead of literally copying the abstract fertility statuettes of their ancestors from the villages, they preferred to create their own African identity by developing further so-called traditional forms. The well-known painter Kobina Buckner, who used abstract forms of African sculpting in his paintings, expressed it thus:
"The present generation has an onerous task of retrieving from the past all that is sublime in our culture and preserving it for the future generations...This exercise of retrieving the past for the future combines the past which is old and revered with the present which is new and fresh".
Well-known western symbols were remodelled into an African remake. The celebrated sculptor Vincent Kofi created a statue of Christ that bears little resemblance to the suffering figure of Christ in western culture. Jesus is a powerful, big, black man whose feet are shaped like the like those of an elephant. His flat head and the long ringed neck represent the aesthetic ideal of the Akan[ii]
The collapse of Nkrumah's reign in 1966 put an end to the close connection between artists and the state. What followed was a succession of military and civilian regimes until, in the eighties, lieutenant colonel Jerry Rawlings established some political stability. To many artists, the concept of a shared cultural past represented in a national "African" style, lost it's meaning. The promotion of a black African identity turned out to be a
construction that was limiting artists in their freedom of expression. Some artists started rejecting the idea that western influence and modernization would make Africa less African. Furthermore these artists had come to the realisation that foreigners had come to associate images of chiefs and village life with underdevelopment and tradition. If Ghanaian artists aspired to be taken seriously by the international art world, they had to start focus on new theme's.
One of the leading figures of this Ghanaian renaissance was painter Ato Delaquis. In the seventies he started portraying urban marketplaces, colourful buses and bars filled with dancing and beer drinking Ghanaians. The representation of urban life became a trend among Ghanaian artists. Not all artists went as far as to paint bars and discotheques, but most did abandon the cultural statements of the fifties and sixties. Take for instance the women in the marketplace. Her marketplace increasingly became an urban marketplace. And in the nineties the first market vendor holding a cell phone appeared on a painting. Instead of the traditional horn players, artists started portraying black jazz musicians. And very carefully, and on a very small scale, they started speaking up against poverty and high unemployment in Ghana.
The economic conditions kept on improving, which had a positive effect on the art world. The growth of tourism in the nineties, motivated hotels to organize expositions, and to purchase art for their hotel rooms. Businesses started investing in art. New galleries kept opening up. The biggest and best known gallery these days is the Artist Alliance,
run by the renowned Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover. And contemporary African art could increasingly count on interest from abroad. They were invited to hold expositions in the United States, Europe or Japan. All these developments created a top layer of artists in Ghana that can live off the sale of their work.
The trend of artists refusing to express a specific black African identity held its ground. Today, artists prefer to look at themselves primarily as artists, not as Africans. The paintings and sculptures of Kofi Setordji carry a universal message. In the first place I'm a human being. That is my only fixed identity. I can change myself into an African, a Frenchman, or an Englishman. That is only a formality, a matter of a passport. I can always change my nationality, my social identity. But I can't change the fact that I'm a human being". Where before artists used to paint "African" work, today they focus on the universal character of their work. The colourful works of Agorsor, that are full of movement, mostly reflect his own life as a musician. Music is a universal theme to Agorsor. "I don't limit myself to one style. My work is universal. Sometimes I make something that people look upon as the work of a white man. But then I tell them; no, that's me".
The various styles of the artists are no longer the expression of a group identity, but rather of personal ideas and philosophies. Take for instance the philosophy of Glen Turner, a painter whose work focuses on the idea of an independent Africa that goes it's own way. Because Africans no longer know who or what they are, they should forget about the west for now, and make a trip in the past to look at their heritage from a distance. Glen Turner feels that "It would be silly to reinvent the wheel. However, by reinventing the wheel you get the technology and the know-how in your brain. Then you can do with this wheel whatever you like. Even stand still." To turn back to his roots, Turner uses Adinkra symbols, masks and Kente[iii]
cloth in his paintings.
The opening up of the market provided the artists with a whole new set of themes for their work. Furthermore, urban society somewhat loosened up the moral which enabled artists to get their inspiration from more sensitive elements of Ghanaian society, like religion or sexuality. Also, artists were influenced by their experiences on trips abroad.
Larry Otoo is a very successful painter who regularly holds expositions in Europe and the United States. "You meet other artists and talk to them about your work. That experience is of great influence. You realize you don't live in isolation". Larry Otoo's foreign travels inspired him to start doing abstracts. For a long time abstract paintings were unusual in Ghana. Globalisation turned on Ghanaian artists to abstract art. Ten years ago it was difficult to sell abstract work. Many art lovers were expatriates or tourists who wanted to bring home a souvenir with the image of "traditional, African" life. The few Ghanaians that purchased art, preferred to see a nationalist piece of art. The opening up of the international art market has resulted in a demand for abstract work.
Artists have gained more freedom to experiment, and to surprise themselves. And then they even get to sell their work. Take Frank Asomani, who has gained a lot of success with his paintings of distorted heads. Ten years ago that could not have happened. Hopefully the international art world will continue to open up its gates to these talented young artists.
Fosu, Kojo (1993), 20th Century Art of Africa (revised version). Kumasi: Design Press. University of Science and Technology
Svasek, Maruska (1990), Creativiteit, Commercie en Ideologie. Moderne Kunst in Ghana 1900-1990. M.A thesis. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.
--------------------- (1997), "Identity and Style in Ghanaian Artistic Discourse" in Contesting Art. Art, Politics and Identity in the Modern World. Editor: Jeremy MacClancy. Oxford: Berg.
Woets, Rhoda (2001) De wording en ontwikkeling van het intellectuele kunstregime in Ghana. M.A thesis. Amsterdam: Free University.
i - Some 80 Adinkra symbols represent various expressions concerning love, hope, power and wisdom. They are imprinted on white cotton cloth by means of stamps made from calabashes. This fabric is worn to funerals. Nowadays we also find Adinkra symbols on paintings, means of transportation, storefronts and jewellery. The most famous Adinkra symbol represents the almighty character of God. <<
ii - These peoples from the south and centre of Ghana share a mutual and linguistic background. <<
iii - Kente cloth consists of colourful woven strips that are sowed together to form a large piece of cloth. The various designs have their own symbolism. Originally Kente was used as clothing by Ashanti royalty. In the eastern Volta region they produce Kente that is less colourful. <<