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Artists return to Ghana to showcase their art and build opportunities for the next generation

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

by Alvin Johnson (edited by Abena Serwaa)

Gallery 1957 ran three exhibitions simultaneously in Accra in September featuring work by some of Africa’s most acclaimed contemporary artists. The showcase included a group exhibition curated by Ekow Eshun, a solo exhibition by Yaw Owusu, curated by Azu Nwagbogu - and a presentation by artist Priscilla Kennedy - winner of the Gallery’s Yaa Asantewaa Art Prize 2022. I went along to see the artworks and spoke to Ekow and Yaw about Ghana’s art scene.

Internationally acclaimed African artists are choosing to bring their art back home to the continent and helping to expand opportunities for budding artists in the process.

This is the observation from writer and curator Ekow Eshun, speaking to AKADi Magazine at the sidelines of his September exhibition curation with Gallery 1957 at Kempinski Hotel in Accra.

Ekow’s ‘In and Out of Time’ is a group exhibition, which runs until 12 December, brings together 13 established and emerging contemporary artists from across Africa and the diaspora. Names include Yaw Owusu, Amoako Boafo, Godfried Donkor, Emma Prempeh and Kwesi Botchway.

The exhibition draws on the Akan concept Sankofa (to return to the past to move forward) and explores how artists use paint, collage and moving images to highlight African cultural notions of time.

Ekow explained that Western ideas of progress “inevitably put people of African origin at a start point of underdevelopment, and the West at the final point of civilisation and progress.”

However, through his curation, artists challenge these perceptions and explore African perspectives where time is collapsed, non-linear, and informed by African traditions and cultures.

We are in the middle of a unique period,” Ekow said at the sidelines of the exhibition. “There have been successful Ghanaian artists before.

"There hasn’t quite been this time before when we’ve had a generation of artists like Amoako, Kwesi Botchway, Gideon Appah, Ibrahim, who have studied in the same places, who are making work that is celebrated internationally and are then choosing to locate themselves in Ghana to build spaces in Ghana - to expand opportunities for other artists, for schoolchildren to see art and so on.

“These artists are building a whole set of opportunities for Ghana in general to continue to flourish. If you can build an environment here - something that has deeper roots - you can build something that people can grow from.”

Ekow Eshun/ Gallery 1957
Ekow Eshun/ Gallery 1957

Award-winning artist Yaw Owusu shared Ekow’s sentiments and believes the growth of Ghana’s art scene are creating new spaces for artists.

“I got into Gallery 1957 right after school – as an undergraduate,” he said. “At that time, there weren’t any internationally acclaimed gallery relationships in Ghana. Most artists were represented by foreign galleries. But then Gallery 1957 started its programme and expanded beyond just Ghana, which was great.

“I think over the past years, there’s been a lot of growth in terms of art spaces opening up and conversations going beyond artists based in Ghana and artists being part of the global conversation on art.”

Yaw also pointed to the investments that have emerged out of these developments including artist-led spaces such as Ibrahim Mahama’s Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, and Kwesi Botchway’s WorldFaze Art Studio in Accra.

“Collectives are coming up now, and there is a whole ecosystem of artists growing and blooming and it’s really exciting to see that after six years,” Yaw said.

“The joy of an exhibition is it’s an invitation to explore,” said Ekow Eshun

Reflections from the public

Between interviews, I had time to soak up the art from both Ekow’s group exhibition and Yaw’s solo showcase and interact with other visitors to the gallery.

Rather than feeling that he had to be an expert in art to understand the pieces, I found that elements of nostalgia, and cultural familiarity that were woven into pieces resonated with me.

Emma Prempeh’s work and the use of black cloth in her painting reminded me of our funeral practices. The way we mourn, the clothes we wear at funerals, how our mothers cover their hair with scarves.

Priscilla Kennedy’s work tells the story from the perspectives of women around the world that are protesting in rallies, and trying to promote female empowerment. That was something I liked about her art – she focuses her art on things that are personal to her.

She mentions that she wears the beads and they are a part of her cultural heritage. She visits Bonwire and Makola to collect some of these items and incorporates them into her art work.

An image that brought back childhood memories for me was one from Godfried Donkor’s ‘Battle Royale II’ paintings.

It showed a boxer who was painted in front of a house featuring the Indomine instant noodles brand. There was a time, and it is still in vogue in Ghana now, when people’s houses were painted to promote the company's product, which brought back childhood memories for me.

The aim is that exhibitions like Gallery 1957’s will encourage the everyday public to engage with art and not think that these works require expert knowledge.

"Some of the ideas are complex but the joy of working with artists is that they work without words," Ekow said. "They work through images.

“When you create a show like this, the invitation to artists is not to explain any of this but to offer their way of seeing. So, the show becomes a collection of perspectives. You don't need art historical education - you can look at the picture – some you might like, some you won’t.”

The value of the pesewa

Yaw’s solo exhibition: ‘Everything You Touch Is Gold’ was also a learning experience for me. Yaw takes the pesewa - Ghana’s lowest currency denomination - to explore where we place value in our currency.

Artist Yaw Owusu and Alvin Johnson
Artist Yaw Owusu and Alvin Johnson

Yaw’s artwork explores finance, economies, and politics, and combines ancient Kente motifs and geometric forms that use textures and colours to tell stories. “This is the most special project and my most ambitious so far,” Yaw told me.

Yaw explained that the pesewa is a composite of copper-plated steel manufactured by the Royal Canadian Mint and shipped to Ghana. “What does it mean politically for an independent country to not be able to make their own money,” Yaw asked.

His work also highlighted that whether a person is a billionaire or at the other wealth scale, both still own at least one pesewa.

Yaw is demystifying that time in Ghana when the pesewa was considered to be worthless. And rather than people accepting these coins after buying goods, they would reject them or even throw them away rather than carry the coins.

He's taken this ‘seemingly’ worthless coin and turned it something that people would like to buy and hang on their walls.”

If you are planning on going to the exhibition, here are the details:

Gallery 1957 II, Accra - Located in Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City & Galleria

Mall, PMB 66 — Ministries, Gamel Abdul Nasser Avenue, Ridge — Accra

Ghana, Telephone: +233 303967575

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