Everyone says the art world in Ghana is down in the dumps. The government doesn’t fund it, schools hardly teach it, and the market for it is practically nonexistent. In some secondary schools, I’ve read, subjects like agriculture, economics, and management can even count as an art credit.
When I first got to Ghana, I was seriously disheartened by the lack of art or innovation in daily life around the city. I come from New York, where there are world-class museums, galleries in every neighborhood, coffee shops with poetry readings, guerilla art on graffitied garage doors, and sculpture in the tiles of subway walls.
In Ghana, you can count all the museums in the country on, well…three hands. The Accra National Museum is frankly pathetic. It has two large rooms and zero contemporary art. You’ll see posters for parties, clubs, and casinos all over the city, but pity the fool looking for the whereabouts of the art scene.
There is plenty of tourist art. Men hawk paintings and wooden carvings on the street. You can find bracelets and beads anywhere. But the vendors are just trying to make a buck, and they give the tourists exactly what they are looking for. Each work is like the next; there is no innovation.
And it’s no wonder. How can people afford to be interested in art when many of them are struggling just to put food on the table? Coming from New York prices, I smiled to myself when people would complain, “Ghana is expensive-o!” But it’s true: compared to wages, living expenses are very high. If your child says he wants to be an artist, you are going to worry how he is going to eat or support himself, let alone a family. There is no Williamsburg, no obvious community of artists to reach out to, and the government sure won’t support your projects.
After my first few days in Accra, I spent a month in a village, where the concerns of the art world left my mind. Then I came back to Accra in July, and I found my initial perceptions most wonderfully shattered.
The government might not do anything for art, but the artists are doing it themselves. There are a number of established artists, all of them friends with each other, most of whom have their main market in the West, who are taking steps to foster the art world and create a space for art in Ghana. They have their own galleries, their own gatherings, their own followings. They support themselves, and some of them support the next generation of aspiring artists too.
I befriended a number of the top artists in Ghana simply by contacting them (email, Facebook, phone) and asking to visit their studios. I found them through George Hughes, a well-known Ghanaian painter and performance artist currently in upstate New York who came to Haverford last semester for the symposium Look Both Ways (organized by my prof Ruti Talmor, who does anthropology work in Ghana). I ended up acting in George’s performance at Haverford last minute, playing a sort of golden nymph in a strange ritual. Anyway, he recommended a few of his artist friends in Ghana to get in touch with, and these people slowly chipped away at my perceptions and worries.
So I met Larry Otoo, Kofi Setordji, Wiz Kudowor, and Ablade Glover, all amazing artists who have found great success despite the lack of support for art in Ghana (though many did, luckily, have the support of their families). Larry is one of the gentlest and kindest Ghanaians I have met and became my dear friend. Kofi runs an incredible art space for the public and teaches the next generation. Wiz makes warm, gorgeous paintings and speaks sharply on the Ghanaian art world. Ablade, well, is the most renowned painter in Ghana and founded the Artists Alliance, which I personally think should be considered the national museum.
Get a taste of my adventures with these artists in the coming posts…