Posts Tagged ‘ruti talmor’
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).
When I was in Accra, my boss Kelvin let me work pretty much on my own schedule. One of my weeks was umm…more focused on hip life culture than on the JAC, you might say.
Hip life, which I mentioned in my last post, is a popular type of music in Ghana that combines traditional African high life and contemporary hip-hop. Artists rap in their local languages over African melodies mixed with hip-hop beats. If you hear a song by a Ghanaian artist on the radio, it’s probably hip life. Haverford prof Jesse Shipley is well known for his documentary Living the Hip Life, which I watched in Ruti Talmor’s African Masculinities class.
I was actually a little disappointed by hip life when I got to Ghana. What I read about it by Jesse and learned in my African Masculinities class was that the artists were forging a space for themselves, reclaiming their voices against the older generation. They generated a new form of expression and had real political influence. They swayed elections and were hired for important ad campaigns. From what I saw of hip life though, it was pretty much like American rap. It focused on money, cars, and girls, just with some Ghanaian words and beats. Don’t get me wrong, I love (love) Ghanaian music. When a car would go by blasting music, people in the street would spontaneously start dancing because the rhythms are so wonderful. It’s just that, most of the music was as ordinary as everything else. I think perhaps earlier hip life lyrics were more political, but as the style got more mainstream, so did the words.
Anyway, Jesse knows a lot of big hip life artists. One of his best friends is Reggie Rockstone, the “Godfather of hip life,” who started it all back in the 90s. Reggie is a legend in Ghana. He’s as famous as it gets. And of course, my friend Saskia who worked with Jesse knew him too, and Reggie thought she was just the greatest. He would text her at all hours of the night, but it was always an adventure to meet up with him. Read on…
The Dei Centre, or: thank god there is a vibrant contemporary art scene in Ghana and it is beautifulWednesday, August 25th, 2010
At the recommendation of Steve Feld (an anthropologist in Ghana who is a friend of my mother’s friend, and who also turned out to be my professor Ruti Talmor’s professor back at NYU…small world), I got in touch with the people who run the Foundation for Contemporary Art (FCA), Ato and Adwoa. They gave me some great advice and a number of people to contact and places to visit.
Thanks to Ato and Adjoa, I visited the Dei Centre — it supports NYU students doing art in Ghana and is basically an amazing collection of contemporary, mostly African art. The work at the Dei Centre is more politically charged and cutting-edge than at the Artists Alliance, which tends to be more traditional (market scenes, ladies, etc.). There was more multimedia work at the Dei – canvases made of beads, collage works, layered sculpture-paintings, a wall of adrinka symbols made by the old Italian ambassador to Ghana.
A number of artists overlap with the Artists’ Alliance, including Larry, Wiz, and George Hughes. But there were also more younger artists and a greater range at the Dei Centre. I was thrilled to see challenging, political artwork in Ghana, and a space for younger (though still successful) artists alongside more established ones. Plus, the staff there could not be nicer. Michael, Michael, and Jennifer, three university grads fulfilling their year of service, were happy to show me around the center and tell me about their work.
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…