South Africa has the most established art scene in Africa, so it was a real treat for me to be in Cape Town. The main spots I found were Woodstock (trendy “high” art galleries), central Cape Town around Long Street (somewhat more touristy), and Stellenbosch just outside the city (several museums, plenty of wineries-cum-galleries).
Posts Tagged ‘art world’
Wiz Kudowor was perhaps the gruffest of the artists I met, but he warmed up as we kept talking. Walking into his studio was like a dream come true for an art geek like me. He has huge canvases of abstract figures, cityscapes, and adinkra symbols. His work has a textured airbrushed effect, because he uses rollers to create the shapes and layers, and a knife to sharpen the edges. He has a number of favorite subjects or “types” of paintings, one of which is a quilt made out of squares of color. Curves of blanket bend and wave, and two embracing figures emerge from under the depths.
Wiz does not say much in person. He prefers to let his art speak for itself. (“But shouldn’t I get something in return for traveling all the way to your studio?” He smiled but stayed silent.) Wiz did, however, let me look at an interview he had in a Nubuke Foundation pamphlet from his recent exhibition there. (It’s not unusual that he was at Kofi’s place — the artists are all buddies. The show Kofi was going to display cancelled last minute, and Wiz stepped in.)
In that interview, at least, Wiz had plenty of sharp words to share. “Right now,” he said, “it looks like we wait for certain westerners to come and ‘discover’ some artists in the country; then they suddenly become canonized and then the discussions start revolving around them. What are we doing ourselves? We have such a huge storehouse of talent in Ghana, but what are we doing about it? Ghanaian art is probably not making waves internationally because we’re not adventurous enough” (Bernard Akoi-Jackson, March 2010).
I couldn’t agree more.
As quiet as Wiz was, he was happy to show me his work. He let me pull out all his paintings, from the tiny ones piled against the windows to the huge ones packed in by the wall. He had me take them all the way out so I could have a full look; he lined up diptychs and triptychs properly.
As I was getting ready to leave, I took out a small square of canvas I’d admired. It was painted blue with brushed shades of purple. “I’d be interested in buying this piece from you, if you’d be willing to sell it and it weren’t too expensive,” I said.
Sitting in his chair by the window, Wiz breathed in and out. He looked at the wall, then he turned and said, “It’s yours. Let me sign it for you.”
Kofi Setordji runs the Nubuke Foundation out in East Legon. It sits on a gorgeous property outside of the hustle and bustle of Accra. He has a sleek white-walled gallery, a stage for performances and readings, and a grassy seating area scattered with sculptures. A popsicle-orange bar functions during events, and murals line the gallery building and stage.
Kofi hosts artist discussions every first Sunday. He brings local artists into the gallery. He works with students at the university who become not just his students but also his collaborators. They write the articles in his Art Focus publication; they made the mural behind the stage. His student Kobe sat down to chat with me about how the colors are complementary, but the contrasting shapes represent the stratus of roles in society.
When I visited, Kofi was overseeing renovations of the grounds. “The stone should go here,” he was instructing. “Is the sign done?” We went out to inspect it, and he put a finger to the words “record.preserve.promote.” It was freshly dry. He smiled.
I didn’t see much of Kofi’s work, just one Picasso-like painting displayed by some couches outside the gallery. Kofi does more mixed media than his contemporaries. He is known for Genocide Monument, a sculpture piece that recalls Rwanda, of thousands of terracotta faces in the dirt. It is currently in Berlin. Indeed, most of Kofi’s work is elsewhere, or in his home. The Nubuke Foundation is focused on promoting and fostering other artists of Ghana, not himself.
Kofi is a busy man, but he took time off to take me to a nearby spot and chat with me about the art world, Ghanaian and American society, love, marriage, and everything in between. He has traveled the world and knows a lot about American culture. He challenged me with statistics from Michael Moore movies, and when I commented on Ghana’s waste management, he shot back at me with facts on America’s (which I agree with – America’s waste management is terrible too, in different ways). Kofi is a free thinker. He disagrees with many traditional Ghanaian ways of marriage and religion. He also cares very much about being kind and a good person. He has a general feeling of warmth toward humanity, and you can tell he is a giving person.
“If I pay and you give me change, I won’t count the change,” he said. “If that is what you want to give me back, I will accept that.”
Still, when the waiter came to give him change for the drinks (which he generously paid for), he counted it.
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…