Contemporary Visual Art from Ghana
by George Hughes
Museums and galleries all over the world regard traditional African art of high aesthetic value. A reputation ignited by the overwhelming influence African art had on modernist European artists at the beginning of the twentieth century. This impact and positive status of traditional African art has over decades resulted in laudable exhibitions, acquisition and documentation of such antiques. Nevertheless, not much favorable interest and documentation is offered most contemporary art of Africa. It is being criticized for being universal and failing to meet the stereotypical African art tradition. This is also the case for contemporary art in Ghana.
Contemporary art in Ghana
The idea of grouping Ghanaian artists is an anomaly because of its complexity. The artistic climate of Ghana is made up of a variety of styles. This stylistic pluralism may be due to several factors and influences such as ethnicity, religion, education, westernization, globalization and aesthetic preferences of the individual artist under consideration. The complex social structure of the Ghanaian society is due in part to the fact that there are about 79 languages spoken in a country whose population is about 19 million in the year 2000. The Ghanaian cultural melting pot is compounded by the fact that several religions are being practiced. It is within this social fabric that most Ghanaian artists coexist and evolve their aesthetic ideas.
Stylistic groupings create problems such as marginalization, especially when such divisions reference the hierarchy of what is, and what is not art – a barrier that pushes some artists to the periphery and favors a few others.
The intent, purpose and dynamics of ongoing African art has changed to become much more eclectic because of the continent`s experience with proselytism, slavery, and colonialism. Art of any historic era is a direct reflection of the circumstantial ambience past and present within that very setting. Culture is dynamic and susceptible to influence and change. Current art created in Africa is a fabric of the cosmopolitan melting pot, a protean of its past, a reality of its present and a determinant of its future. To this effect, therefore contemporary Ghanaian visual art is a direct offspring of the poly-traumatic African chronicle.
From a general perspective, one may be tempted to categorize Ghanaian visual artists into groups due to which generation they belong to, or the stylistic similarities and differences, within their work. I am much more interested in looking at the Ghanaian art scene from a panoramic viewpoint of the various artistic modes of expression. I am also compelled to concentrate only on those fine artists who have gone beyond formative years, attained a personal stylistic consistency, allowed progressive experimentation, and have been working. This is by no means a complete representation of all the Professional visual artists working in Ghana today.
Contemporary Ghanaian visual artists are usually unaffiliated to any artistic movements. They are open to a tremendous exploration of indigenous and universal ideas, formal or informal, and are poised to exhibit their works to both local and international audience. In addition some of these independent fine artists create work that shows evidence of experimentation, of research, and an openness that seeks to break the barriers of cultural stagnation through the combination of emotional and intellectual acuity. Ghanaian artists receive art training from varied sources. Some are self-taught and the majority of them receive formal training in Ghana and abroad. They either receive tertiary education at the College of Art, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, training from private institutions such as Ghanatta or Ankle School of Art, both located in Accra apprenticeship from private sign writing workshops, or are self-taught. There are evidently aesthetic differences in the works of artists who receive training at academic institutions and those who go through apprenticeship at sign writing workshops. These differences are not necessarily qualitative but rather stylistic alternatives made by the artists as a result of the opportunities and circumstances they encounter, a conclusion that may displease two schools of thought – firstly, those who believe that College education absolutely yields art of the highest caliber, and secondly those who deride formal training as adulteration and derivative of Western ideas, hence inauthentic. I am compelled to state that artists whose works are often described derogatory as naïve, folk, derivative, grotesque, universal, or academic, and therefore inauthentic may actually be making tremendous inroads and breaking the barriers of the status quo beyond reason, and tradition. After all what do artists need, but an irresistible amount of tenacity beyond hurdles. Influence, either conscious or subliminal is a powerful experience that grips thirsty minds. The concept of borrowing aesthetic ideas from other cultures has been instrumental in the development of art in various societies. Roman artists borrowed ideas from Greek art. European cubists` fascination with and adaptation of the treatment of form in traditional African sculpture is credible and commendable. It is with the same curiosity and empathy that some contemporary Ghanaian visual artists embrace African and Western art forms.
Symbolism and tradition
A distinguishable group of Ghanaian independent artists are those who are conceptually inspired by African symbols and traditional forms such as adinkra motifs, traditional stools, sculptures, and also ideas about African identity. Oku Ampofo and Vincent Kofi are earlier Ghanaian sculptors who borrowed extensively from traditional African concepts of stylization, emphasis, distortion and symbolism. Public commissions of relief panel murals and busts and monuments of Saka Acquaye, resonate the traditional African practice of the artist`s duty to State. Owusu Ankomah uses in his prints and paintings colossal male figures superimposed on ideograms and symbols. Through an acute reductive system of visual selection Ankomah attains profundity with suspended shapes that defy gravity and attain a metaphysical significance. Martin Dartey, greatly influenced by traditional African art, uses his knowledge in African history as leverage to deliver sociopolitical themes in his paintings.
Artists under this group create work by perceiving and interpreting forms, structures and activities within their immediate environment. The human figure, groups and crowd scenes become the central themes with the figurative artists. Generally the figures, draped in traditional costumes, are in action and either idealized, stylized and/or abstracted. These artists do work that celebrates the everyday realities of Ghanaians such as scenes at the congested open markets, crowded beaches, dancers, musicians, horse riders, lorry stations, bustling beaches and all the paraphernalia that comes with crowd scenes. The pioneer of figuration in Ghana who worked before and around the 1950s and 60s was the late Kofi Antobam. Antobam`s work features natural proportions of humans in complex compositions with content set on royalty, and scenes from the everyday lives of Ghanaians. Since independence forty-five years ago, great transformations in the Art of Ghana have taken place. Several artists have developed alongside one another, with mutual, overlapping influence and juxtaposed parallelisms. Veteran artists within the figurative group are sculptors like Oku Ampofo, Saka Acquaye, Vincent Kofi. and painters like Ablade Glover, Ato Delaquis and Amon Kotei. Color orchestration appears in the work of Amon Kotei through the use of the female model going through her daily chores. Whereas Ablade Glover`s impasto surfaces metaphorically exhume the elegance within the female form, Ato Delaquis creates detailed, color-modulated panoramic scenes of Ashanti warriors and vehicular scenes. Abstracted and condensed color fields act as a delicate veil in Wiz Kudowor`s pointillist figuration of idealized forms. Robert Aryeetey uses subtle colors and creative lines to evoke figures poetically. Evidently there is the rarity of politically fuelled work being done in Ghana. However Kofi Setordji defies the clichés within the everyday festive subject matter and engages the viewer with his succinct socio-politically charged themes. In addition Godfried Donkor`s bold and graphic references to Slavery, the Diaspora, and the plight of minorities encroaches on an avoided content. Donkor is based in London and works in digital and painting media.
The transcendental artists create work that eludes direct representation because these works are symbolically encased within intangible percepts and constructs. In other words what you see on the surface is color and form yet underneath is immense meaning that can only be hinted at either by the title or in dialogue with the artist. The transcendental artists distance their selves from direct communication of meaning and rely deeply on the subliminal, masking and camouflage. In essence the quality of their work is gold foiled in dust. An exponent of this group of Ghanaian artists is Atta Kwami who through his paintings and installations makes intellectual references to familiar Ghanaian local structures such as kiosks, stalls, and suburbs. Kwami creates the transformation of the familiar and often ignored subject matter into an elevated aesthetic, through concise color and shapes. Nanart J.D. Agyeman interprets Ghanaian proverbs in detailed and colorful linear shapes at once mystical and visually organic.
In the last two decades some creative Vocational designers such as carpenters, seamstresses, tailors, and hairdressers have attracted the attention of Western historians. A notable achiever within this group of designers is Samuel Kane Kwei and his custom- made coffins that replicate in sculpture recognizable forms such as cars and boats. Caroline Monda Dartey, wife of the Painter Martin Dartey designs African beads and bags from an intellectual perspective. Hopefully her example will inspire female artists in Ghana to pursue professional careers in art.
This recognition of Ghanaian artisans and designers as fine artists has widened the parameters of what is art, and poses the question – who determines the fine art of a people, and upon what qualitative criteria is the measure of fine art based upon? The most crucial question to pose however at this juncture is whether the functional intent of the designers disqualifies them as fine artists? It is however reasonable to state that if most fine artists, who create art for its intrinsic value are seeking recognition in the mainstream, so too some may argue designers would not disallow the respect of galleries, and museums, should the opportunity arise. If the idea of art as a universal language still holds, then it is not harmful to allow all art to be tested and to undergo study and scrutiny, within relative knowledge, empathy and expertise of connoisseurs without recourse to suspicion. The above may seem almost impossible because of the magnitude of art produced by humans all over the world. The closest one can get to this ideal of an open exposure will still require a clear distinction of quality in terms of differences between excellence and mediocrity, between formative and mature and between kitsch and the classic.
Works of art emerge from diverse sources with varied intent and therefore it is wiser to keep an open mind, slow to judgment. If art can thrive on convergent and divergent ideas, of influence and tradition, of the rejection of conventions, and by borrowing from unprecedented sources across board, then the idea of a pure art devoid of influence does not exist and cannot be used as a measure to qualify the authentic in art. Thanks to primitivism, postmodernism, modernism, tradition and academism. Above all thanks to the freedom of expression. This is not a blind wholesale concert that allows every piper to horn along. Rather it is an epiphany of reality that within various times and settings there happens to be multiple alternatives and applications of various qualities of Art. Within these diverse settings is the bitter hierarchy of what is acceptable and unacceptable, a phenomena instituted by those in authority, by society, by institutions, by trends, factions, artists and finally by posterity. In the end Art is the victor.