Art and its role in telling personal, family and collective histories

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother's Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother’s Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma

On March 6 2016 as Ghana marked 59 years of independence, Gallery 1957, a new gallery with a curatorial focus on contemporary Ghanaian art by the country’s most significant artists celebrated its inaugural exhibition. With over 400 people in attendance, My Mother’s Wardrobe, a new creative work by Serge Attukwei Clottey captured a diverse and equally enchanted audience.

Founded by Marwan Zakhem, the gallery has evolved from over 15 years of private collecting and offers an ideal location for both local audiences and international visitors to discover new artists, and to gain a deeper understanding of the breadth of their practice through curated exhibitions. With an initial curatorial focus on contemporary Ghanaian art, the gallery will present a programme of exhibitions, installations and performances by the region’s most significant artists under the creative direction of Nana Oforiatta Ayim. The artist, Serge Attukwei Clottey, is the founder of Ghana’s GoLokal performance collective and the creator of Afrogallonism, an artistic concept commenting on consumption within modern Africa through the utilisation of yellow gallon containers.

Based in Accra and working internationally, Clottey’s powerful testimony to his mother in the aftermath of her death explores narratives of personal, family and collective histories. In continuation of the artist’s established use of assemblage, he considers the value of material as a tangible experience of loss. His works examine the powerful agency of everyday objects, with particular focus on the significance of personal clothing.

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother's Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957 Photo Credit: Nii Odzenma

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother’s Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957 Photo Credit: Nii Odzenma

I recently interviewed Nana Oforiatta Ayim, founder of ANO, and Creative Director of Gallery 1957 to gain a better understanding of Clottey’s work, Gallery 1957, the creatives industry and intrinsically the role of art in exploring and reconciling Ghana’s past and present.

Tell us about yourself

I write, make films, and work as a cultural historian, which involves uncovering or creating new narratives, particularly of what is now known of Ghana, and the regions that surround it. I live in Accra, Ghana, where I founded and run the cultural organisation ANO, and where I am the Creative Director of a new art space, Gallery 1957.

Tell us about ANO, (what does it stand for) how did it come about and what inspired its inception?

The name ANO is an aberration of the Akan word εno, which means grandmother. In Akan mythology, an old woman or grandmother is the ancestress of humankind. And even though, at traditional occasions, at festivals and funerals, it is often the men that play the role of elders, it is the old woman they go out to spiritually consult. I liked this notion of the origin of beings being female, of this alternative history to the dominant one in our largely Christian country, which is of the first human being a man. ANO is largely about the uncovering and re-writing and -formulating of alternative, more covert histories to challenge dominant, sometimes reductive ones. –

It is also a suffix in the language Esperanto, which I love for its ideal of a common language, one that would transcend national divisions, and that means belonging. In a global narrative, which has for so long been dominated by one side, and in which our cultural offerings, our philosophies and ways of being, were to some extent denigrated, I very much liked this ethos of belonging, of us all sitting at the same table, as equals, with all right to be there, no one sitting higher or lower than the other, most especially in a world that still differentiates on a spectrum from first to so-called third world countries.

The third meaning for it is as a short form of A.N. Other, a pseudonym for the unknown or anonymous. I remember going to museums in Europe when I was younger, and often seeing very sparse plaques alongside sculptures or masks, giving very little context or meaning to why they were there, where they were taken from, who created them, and from within what greater narrative they came. There was a sense that these objects like so much else that came from the continent of Africa were raw material, objects of inspiration for ‘greater’ artists with greater understanding, consciousness and agency. And so ANO is also about retelling histories on their own terms or at least attempting to, and in this way giving them more rounded truths.

Has ANO changed since its inception? If so, which significant changes have happened?

I first started working with the notion of ANO as a mobile platform in 2002 curating exhibitions at the Liverpool Biennial, organising events at the Royal Festival Hall in London, making films etc. The most significant change has been ANO’s settling into a physical space in Accra, and also expanding into more large-scale encompassing projects, like the Cultural Encyclopaedia.

Serge Attukwei Clottey, Love and Connections, 2016, Plastics, wire and oil Paint, 95 x 89 inches, ©the artist, courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra

Serge Attukwei Clottey, Love and Connections, 2016, Plastics, wire and oil Paint, 95 x 89 inches, ©the artist, courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra
How do you choose the artists who receive residency such as in the case of Serge Clottey?

It all happens quite organically. ANO is not a static institution with fixed paradigms and goals. It has been very porous and open, listening to and seeing what works, what synergies there are with other creatives, and then acting upon them. The residency programme emerged from shared interests and the notion that mutual collaboration could be of benefit.

What gap if any do you see in the art and creative works industry in Ghana?

I feel that whatever gaps there are are being addressed by people’s ingenuity. New institutions are springing up, like Gallery 1957 and the Archiafrika Gallery of Design and Architecture. The government is putting some funding into the arts, even if it could do a lot better. Institutions, like the National Theatre are starting to engage with young artists, like Ibrahim Mahama and Serge Attukwei Clottey, and of course artists keep pushing at their own boundaries. I think it is a very good time creatively in Ghana, and I’m excited to see what emerges over the next few years.

What role do you see art playing in creating a platform for reconciling socio-cultural, economic and political discourse beyond ANO?

I think art provides another way of seeing, of thinking, of understanding. I think it highlights things that might be obvious to everyone around, but that are not being addressed, as well as things that might not be obvious at all. I think that the more attention is paid to it, the deeper our engagement with our environment will be, as well as that with our own selves, and that in itself is the strongest foundation for any discourse or development.

You have been quoted as saying the following profound words on reconciling art and loss with regards to Clottey’s work:

“According to custom in many parts of Ghana, a person’s wardrobe is locked up for a year after their death then released to relatives, often leaving the person’s offspring with little or nothing of the material memory of that person. Textiles and materials in Ghana, and other parts of West Africa — each weft, line or mark — are potent carriers of memory, of communication, and the artist weaves into his sculptures subtle traces of loss, remembering, and of rebirth.”

In your view, does Clottey’s artistic work resonate with most Ghanaians?

I am going to do a series of talks at Gallery 1957 around his works for schools and universities and workers, and I’m very excited about the exchanges that will happen as a result of that. I think Serge’s work is deeply embedded in Ga cosmogony and offers an aesthetic and provocative way of looking at our past and recreating our future, and it is always a spectacle, which in itself excites people’s attention. The challenge now is to get the work and the discourses around it seen by more people than those naturally drawn to art, and I hope to do that with a series of films around Serge and other artists, their work and the deeper themes.

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother's Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother’s Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016, courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, photo by Nii Odzenma
My Mother’s Wardrobe is a result of Clottey’s residency with ANO, whose remit is to uncover hidden and alternative, personal and collective histories, which make up what is now known as Ghana. Can you tell us about other projects you are working on and what to expect in 2016?

There will be a lot of projects in 2016! Another collaboration with Serge on the Korle Lagoon around the themes of nature and its invasion and the mythologies around this within Ga philosophy, as well as a book and film on his work. A collaboration with Zohra Opoku for Gallery 1957, as well as a book and film on her produced by ANO. And an exhibition with Serge, Zohra, and Ibrahim Mahama at the end of the year at LACMA in Los Angeles, for ANO’s Cultural Encyclopaedia project. There will also be a preliminary tour of the country with what I call Living History Hubs, mobile museums, to gather and exhibit material cultural and upload it onto the Cultural Encyclopaedia site. And finally, an exhibition at Gallery 1957 with young artist and performer, Elisabeth Efua Sutherland which resonates deeply with ANO’s remit, as its subject is the role of the feminine in myth-making.

What advice would you give to upcoming artists in Ghana?

To listen deeply to whatever it is that resonates with them the most and to follow that impulse. To look around and see what inspires and challenges them in their environment, as well as outside of it. And to keep working at it, despite all the obstacles, and even without initial support; to create and express even if it is on their street corners or in their family compounds or in a market place, and to keep delving. I feel like it is consistency and integrity of purpose, as well as clarity of expression that draws support, in whatever form, to itself.

Lastly, why is this exhibition a must see for all?

The exhibition is a must see, because Serge is a very talented artist at the full potency of his creative expression. He is experimenting with form and he is delving into the various layers of his environment and bringing them forth in ways that are unexpected and that enchant and expand. The exhibition is a testament to ingenuity, to diligence, to just what is possible, and because of that I think acts a source of inspiration.

 

This article first appeared in my blog post @ Africa at LSE .

Paint a Canvas of Africa

I really wish I knew how to draw/paint; I’ve always dreamed of one day being able to pick up a paint brush and getting lost in colour, textures and emotion. Maybe it’s a block, maybe it’s not, but for now I’ll settle with knowing how to draw stick people, stick flowers, stick mountains and stick cars. I am constantly in awe of people who have the talent.

There’s something about art, music and words that draws us closer to God, nature, to our essence of being human and strips us to our basics. They make us authentic. Think about that love song that once made you cry, smile or laugh. Or the words of a friend, or from religious scripture that gave you courage and hope. There so many examples to pick from.

Stephen Covey in his renowned book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People reminds us that the creative process is one of the most, if not the most terrifying part of being human because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen or where it is going to lead. You don’t know what new dangers and challenges you’ll find. It takes an enormous amount of internal security to begin with the spirit of adventure, discovery, and creativity. Without doubt, you have to leave the comfort zone of base camp and confront an entirely new and unknown wilderness.

Creativity is indeed the God-force extending itself through us and to us; the artist is the channel. Art evokes emotion, one gets lost in its dimensions and finds themselves again.

There’s an art piece that does just that for me. ‘Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies’ by Wangechi Mutu.

This piece grapples with the sensitive topic of female oppression and the need for women’s empowerment to achieve our development goals as a continent.

Ms. Mutu has kept the story of the female at the centre of this piece and it’s a reminder that women and girls are the backbone of society. Through this piece of art she depicts women’s ‘bodies’ as the place where various social hierarchies are inscribed and as the place most vulnerable to change social norms; transforming them for the better. It attempts to break down the barriers that stifle progress in society.

This piece depicts a man, woman and monkey on top of each other doing a risky balancing act. The man is crouched down with his head facing up, feet firmly perched on the grass and mouth ajar expectant of the woman to meet his needs. While the woman on the other hand is above him bending over backward as if to reach his mouth but her arms are being held back by the monkey.

The woman bending over backwards is a reminder of female oppression which continues to engulf the African society today. This same woman who is expected to meet the man’s needs is being held back by tradition. The blood splotches portray to me the effect of a relationship rooted in abuse.

Dear readers, talks on gender equality is not noise. If one looks at the richest nations in this world, particularly if we zero in on the Nordic countries, one will realize that they have cemented the fact that achieving gender equality is not idealistic when improving society; it’s mandatory and they have kept their aspirations on this lofty. I encourage you to do a study and one of the things you’ll realize is that the development institutions in these countries report to the gender and finance Ministers. Closer to home, have a look at Rwanda, the country that holds the no. 1 position in the global ranking of women in parliament.There’s nothing obscure on why these strong economies do so.

Where women are given equal opportunities they make a real and lasting difference for everyone. Too many studies have been done and the results have indicated the same thing, when you invest in women, you invest in generations; women invest back in their families 90% of their income, men 30%. This is not about power play, it’s about interdependence.

This piece continues to challenge me especially when thinking about the current state of affairs in Africa, and the changes that need to be made for effective and sustainable development.

Which creative piece does this for you?

Of art, sports, serenades and youth empowerment #Senegal

Beautiful does not begin to describe Dakar, Senegal’s capital city.  I feel like the word beautiful actually does it some injustice; perhaps magnificently beautiful is more befitting. When the flight captain went on to tell us that we were 10 minutes away from descending into Leopold Sedar Senghor airport, I let out a not so quiet shrill “I know!” Excitement had clearly overtaken me. The view of the waves, the peninsula, the swaying palm trees and the clean coastline were all breathtaking to say the least.

After an 11 hour flight transiting through Benin and Mali, we had finally arrived in Dakar.

Reason for being in this magnificent city was the Third High level dialogue on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance that was being convened by the Africa Governance Architecture platform within the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission.

Fast forward to when we were leaving the airport; some of us, me included, began to comment on the beauty of the Senegalese, not to mention their lean body sizes. “Hmmm… interesting,” I thought to myself.

As we drove into the city, I couldn’t help but notice and feel the vibe of the place. The place is bustling and yet despite the high temperatures in the late afternoon, several people were jogging by the road, others trading in the market squares and others seemingly enjoying after work catch up conversations.

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The most astounding thing crossed my field of vision; young children were wrestling in a sandy pitch alongside the road, with several others cheering on in excitement. I am not quite sure on why this struck me, but allow me to carry on.

The children’s smiles and laughter are still so vivid and next to them was a football pitch with what looked like slightly older boys playing. It’s safe to say that all were deeply engrossed in their games oblivious to their surroundings.

Continuing with the bus ride to our destinations, it dawned on me that we had past neither 2 nor 3 football/wrestling pitches but an estimated 7. “Phenomenal,” I thought to myself. The Senegalese government had made a conscious effort to allocate spaces for sports activities.

To be honest, I couldn’t keep track of the number of runners that we had passed. Some were in groups, others by themselves. Across the city, they could easily have been in the hundreds. “Goodness, does everyone run here?” asked one of my colleagues. Her question had indeed confirmed my train of thought.                           IMAG5376_1

Allow me to fast forward again to my first morning in Dakar. This is the view that I had. Beautiful isn’t it?

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But another thing aside from this had struck me; I could see dozens of people in the ocean doing some sort of exercise.

“This people really do like to work out,” I thought to myself again and brushed off.

At the end of the two day meeting, colleagues and I decided to enjoy a good meal out in the town, it being a Friday night and all. I am in fact grateful to one of them for insisting that we do so by the beach. We had somewhat accustomed to the place and it was no surprise seeing some people running by the beach while others lifting weights at 9 pm in the night.

Having enjoyed our beautifully cooked meal and being burnt out from fatigue, I left my colleagues to catch a good night cap.

What happened after is what I’d like to call the true meaning of missing out. My colleague and good friend Nerima narrated to me on how they had been serenaded as they took a stroll by the beach. Her narration is as follows.

“So this guy snuck up on us and started beating his drum which of course startled us, I think I actually jumped. At first I was thinking…hmm what is this? Then it started to dawn on us on what he was doing and we started clapping and supporting him. It made me smile, I was so happy.”

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Be it in Goree island, which is known for its rich history dating back to the slave trade era; or the very streets of Dakar; one is bound to see both the young and the old carrying their Koras (traditional string instruments) around with them or strumming away either in solitude or to an indulged crowd.

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(A young man playing his kora by the pier in Goree Island)

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(A young man crossing a street in Dakar, holding in hand his Kora)

As we drove to the port to catch a ferry to Goree Island, once again, one could not help but notice all the high quality sports amenities that had been set up along the coastline. Be it basketball courts, hockey pitches or soccer pitches. It was remarkable.

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(The basketball courts)

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(Children’s play area)

This then begs the question; is it any wonder that Senegal is one of the most stable countries in Africa?

The AU high level dialogue that had been convened was a forum whose aim was to escalate actions being taken to silence the guns that are ravaging and hampering progress on our continent. These are wars whose main perpetrators and victims are the youth. I can’t think of a better place to illustrate the magnitude of what good investments in young people’s energy and passion can do. Whether jobless or otherwise, there is something about sports that allows one, especially the young, to release frustrations, be good managers of their time, build a culture of teamwork as well as be peaceful ambassadors.

From the young man who serenaded my colleagues on the beach due to the freedom of expression, or the freedom to just authentically be; to the young boys wrestling in the sandy pitches, it is evident that all have been brought together by a cultural thread of oneness be it in sport or art. This underscores the importance of creating a positive identity among ones people. The Senegalese know not which ethnic tribe they are playing a sport with nor serenading to. All they know is that they do enjoy doing this with their friends in a healthy manner. This reminds me so much of the Ubuntu philosophy which states that I am because we are. Let us all try and emulate the noble example that is  Senegal.

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(Dakar sunrise)

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