Contemporary art’s coming of age in Ghana

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As the first African country to acquire independence from European rule, Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, is increasingly under the spotlight for its new and growing contemporary art scene.

Back in 2009, President Barack Obama emphasised this development on a trip to the country’s capital, Accra, by saying: “The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra, as well.”

Now in 2018, although still in an early stage, Accra is seeing exponential development through new institutions that are giving artists a voice; one of which is Gallery 1957.

Founded in 2016, by Marwan Zakhem, the Gallery opened the doors to its second space in 2017. Akԑ yaaa heko or One does not take it anywhere, the last exhibition that ran until February at Gallery 1957, presented the work of “renowned fantasy coffin maker” Paa Joe in collaboration with performance artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland.

“His fantasy coffins are a huge part of Ghana popular culture, and there is something both beautiful and poetically melancholic about his work,” says Victoria Cooke, the director at Gallery 1957 II, when asked about a past show that particularly impressed her.

The exhibition explored Ghana’s Ga and Fante communities and their specific funeral practices through Paa Joe’s coffins accompanied by performers reenacting funerals in traditional dress.

Paa Joe and Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, Akԑ yaaa heko One does not take it anywhere, opening [Gallery 1957, Accra/Nii Odzenma]

After gaining independence in 1957 (the gallery’s namesake), art and culture had the potential to reunite and create a new national identity. But since then the focal points have shifted.

The Ghanian government provides next to no public funding for contemporary art, which makes the sector and most commercial galleries independent. This hugely affects Ghanian artists: “Creativity is privilege so much of the talent in Ghana will fall through the net,” says Cooke.

Ghana’s representative to the 2001 Venice Biennale, Godfried Donkor, has had the art world notice his birthplace. Based in Europe since 1973, in 2017, Donkor was hosted on a four-month residency at Gallery 1957, resulting in the solo exhibition The First Day of the Yam Custom: 1817. The work exhibited reimagined a 19th Century illustration of the Asante region of Ghana by the English explorer Thomas Bowdich.

Donkor is not the only one who has had an effect on people taking notice of Ghanaian contemporary art. “The success of Ibrahim Mahama internationally has had a huge effect on people taking notice of Ghana. The artists were always here though,” Cooke explains.

Mahama, who still works out of Ghana, has had his large-scale installations exhibited everywhere from the Documenta 14 to the Tel Aviv Art Museum.

Godfried Donkor works on The First Day of the Yam Custom 1817 at his studio in Accra [Gallery 1957/Nii Odzenma]

“It’s a shame that it is predominantly white males who lead the ‘blockbuster exhibitions’ at museums in London and worldwide. Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse. All the great painters are inspired by Africa. It’s a shame it isn’t spoken about. A vital part of art history is missing,” says Cooke.

On March 6, 2018, Ghana’s independence day, a new exhibition will inhabit Gallery 1957. The US-born artist, Florine Demosthene, will have completed a five-month residency program at the Gallery and has been working in Africa in recent years, exploring themes of race and gender. Drawing on her own life, her work re-evaluates the socio-political structures and conditions that surround black female sexuality and physicality.

There are a plethora of progressive young Ghanian artists, but the absence of proper platforms make it hard for their work to be seen, which is why, in the past, many had to leave the country in favour of a better chance at a career.

Thankfully this is changing, and with the creation of a proper platform for their art, there is no telling what kind of changes and progress could be made. A big step towards the right direction was the creation of the 1:54 African art fair in 2013.

In a 2017 TED Talk, the founder Touria El Glaoui explains that art “is instrumental because it ignites change. Seeing diversity in race and ethnicity in contemporary art is the only way that we will see changes in the art industry but also for the relationship between Africa and the Western canon.” So 1:54 is dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora with annual editions in London, New York, and Marrakech.

Florine Demosthene, Untitled Wound#2 (2018). Mylar, ink, glitter and pigment stick on paper [Gallery 1957/Florine Demosthene]

On the African continent the contemporary art scene revolves primarily around Lagos, Nairobi and Cape Town, explains Cooke, noting that “this is due to money and accessibility internationally.”

On the bright side “Ghana has one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies which of course means that there is the opportunity to develop and cultivate an art scene. There is also KNUST university in Kumasi which is producing some of the countries finest artists.”

Heralded as the gallery that is paving the way for the contemporary art scene in Accra and all of West Africa, Gallery 1957 is trying to provide that missing platform, and the world is starting to take notice.

With its first location in Accra’s Kempinski Hotel and its second in the Galeria Mall, the gallery is focusing on West African art and creating a more developed contemporary art sector as well as bridging the gap between local and international practices without forcing ‘African Art’ as a style – a grouping that Cooke feels uncomfortable with as “it is loaded and unclear what is meant by ‘African Art’.”

Common cultural heritage versus cultural change plays a leading role in Ghana’s contemporary art scene. Ultimately art has been a part of Ghana for centuries, there is, for instance, a rich tradition of graphic arts, it is only purely aesthetic art that is a modern development.

“For me, everything is inspired by the African continent so to love art is to love African art,” Cooke says and when asked what the most important thing to happen in the future is, she replies simply: “Free art schools”.







Featured image by Nii Odzenma, courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra.

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