Notes on Contemporary Ghanaian Art: Histories and Emergence
To come to terms with the complexity of the art of our times it might be useful to look back to be able to place where we are in relation to events that antedate the present. Before all the chatter about contemporary art (the epoch that emerged after postmodernism from the late 1980s into our present dispensation), the category we refer to as art today has itself undergone many a transformation. Since the middle of the nineteenth century— the period within which the modernist paradigm of art is generally dated and the aeon of “art for art’s sake”— protocols related to ways and means of doing or making things had changed following the reconstitution of social organizational and governmental structures from feudal or monarchical systems into industrialized and commodity-driven ways of regulating work, labour and social life— i.e. the capitalist modernity which has endured till our present times. Embedded in modernist art is the tacit assumption that art would purify itself from within while affirming its autonomy. This rationale has tended to an aesthetic sensibility that eulogizes medium-specificity by privileging the medium of artistic expression, be it painting or sculpture, over every other aspect of coming to terms with art. But the history of modernism— from its early, high, and late periods— is also inundated with polemics on art with consequent shifts and changes. In the sense that modernist presuppositions about authorship, originality, and purity of medium generally entered into a crisis from the early decades of the twentieth century into the postwar period which resulted in a disposition of making art that would, first of all, begin from profaning this purist ethos and then considering art as an attitude to making and thinking about things rather than employing preset styles, idioms, or established media. Artists had, by this time, begun to move beyond generic categorizations into creating ambiguous objects as well as situations that lacked clear classifications— for example, Constructivists, Dadaists, and the neo avant-gardes of Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Feminist Art, and so on.
If modernist art offers the sacred experience of an autonomous and siteless work of art authenticated by the artist’s hand in its making and protected from the unpredictable dynamics of literal time and space within the pristine interiors of white cubes in galleries and museums for pure contemplation by the eye and the mind, then the late modern into the postmodern era proposed arguments that would secularize this conviction by shifting the site of interest from what exists solely on the pictorial plane of a painting or boundaries of a sculpture (which accounts for its shape as well as surface) into unpredictable site-specific dynamics. For example by also relating the artwork to particular conditions within its physical location (i.e. lighting, topography, distance, temperature, etc.) to the spectator’s realtime bodily and sensual engagement—in spite of the “disembodied eye”— and a consciousness of the social and political implications of the work of art. Further, if modernist avant-gardes were driven by a stylistic approach to making art (inextricable from its dependency on the medium of expression) before considering the content of their work, later artists would invert this by making the medium or formal expression of an idea secondary to its content, and context i.e. its physical and external permissive conditions. Postmodernism also challenged the transcendent and totalistic essence of modernism and replaced it with a relativistic ethic by beginning its critique of modernist singularity from difference as such.
Suffice it to say that there exists a plurality of modernisms and their evolutions have not been uniform across the world. Concurrent with the first and second industrial revolutions, the so-called Enlightenment age— which gave birth to the notion of a unilinear direction of history with the European man at its center— consequently effectuated a colonial anthropological program which mediated non-European cultural contexts. So much so that from the late nineteenth century onwards official art in former British colonies in Africa and south-east Asia, for example, was determined by inherited functionalist child-centered educational programmes originally designed for working-class populations in the metropole to churn out “bread-winners who could keep the pot boiling”1 with such subjects as cartography, illustration, calligraphy, penmanship, and handiwork. This means-ends system had factored out Fine Art as the exclusive preserve of the gentry and privileged mechanistic drawing as the primary basis of picture-making for its underclass2.
In the case of the Gold Coast (pre-independence Ghana) the history of modernism is mediated by British colonial presence and the dogmatic actualisation of the utilitarian essence of educational systems left over by other European merchants and Protestant Missionaries (Swiss, German and Scottish). This was based on the false separation between liberal and vocational education. The imperious implementation of this de-contextualised and mechanistic ethos of late Victorian era art education in the 1800s3 in colonial Gold Coast effectively proceeded to determine its artistic world-picture while essentially immuring any subjective or experimental attitude to the practice of art. That is to say, “in the Victorian and pre-World War II epochs the colonial subject was afforded a very narrow conception of visuality which sidestepped important aspects of the complex incentives afforded by the practice of the discipline, even at a time in the history of art when alternative forms of visuality and representation were beginning to elicit legitimation”4. As such, art education in the Gold Coast was “conducted on the literal, optical and descriptive reading of the world”5. Meanwhile, the two-year teacher training subject in art, Hand and Eye6 Work, was introduced in the Government Training College in Accra in 1909. Ghanaian sculptor Vincent Kofi has described its form as “still life drawing” and its method as “drawing just what you see”7.
Incidentally, it would take a nativist colonial art teacher, George Alexander Stevens, to initially pose any significant intellectual opposition to such weaknesses in British education in the Gold Coast8. In a speech delivered at a staff meeting at Achimota College9 in 1928 in which he made recommendations for curriculum reforms Stevens explicitly repudiates the Educational Code of 1887 created by the British colonial government by emphatically stating that “[o]ne cannot trace in the [Educational] Code any real policy of artistic development in the [Gold Coast] by means of the educational system”. He viewed the latter as “drawn up as if there were no indigenous arts in the country at all, whereas these were then in a much more flourishing condition than they are to-day [sic].”10 Stevens continues with the insightful remark that “[t]he scientific and mathematical subjects which have been allowed to creep in under the general term ‘drawing’ in the form of geometrical, model and scale drawing, must go back to their proper place”11. This “proper place” recounts the class-based structure of segregation in art education familiar to Stevens since the nineteenth century in industrial Europe and North America (as was the case in the Government Schools of Design in Somerset House and South Kensington in London and its kindred in the American Boston Normal Program by which it was official policy to teach drawing as a subject in public schools, not in any way that could “enable the scholar to draw a pretty picture, but [sic] to so train the hand and eye that he may be better fitted to become a bread-winner.”12).
Stevens was then a young graduate of the prominent Slade School in London and had been appointed as the first art master of the Government Training College and later Achimota College during the period between the World Wars from 1925 to 1929 in colonial Gold Coast. He mentored the sculptor and craftsman Herbert Vladimir Meyerowitz (who became his successor) as well as Margaret Trowell and Kenneth Murray— both becoming influential colonial teachers in Uganda and Nigeria respectively. Stevens had been influenced by Roger Fry’s primitivist formalism and was an advocate of teaching “indigenous village arts and crafts”13 at Achimota14. Stevens’s “multiculturalist” art programme which carried nationalist stimulus for the Gold Coast learner was continued by Meyerowitz who introduced the teacher training Art and Crafts Specialist Certificate (ACSC) course in 1937 at Achimota15. Among Meyerowitz’s students are Amon Kotei, Ernest Victor Asihene, Kofi Antubam, and John Christopher Osei Okyere— all of whom became prominent Gold Coast artists with some significantly shaping the postcolonial educational agenda of the newly independent Ghana nation state16.
The above is an excerpt. Read full text here: https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/texts/contemporaryghanaianart/
1 See seid’ou k. 2014. Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work: A Genealogical History. Global Advanced Research Journal of History. Political Science and International Relations ISSN: 2315-506X Vol. 3(1) 011.
2 British metropolitan educational policy “had reduced art education to a simple choice between fine art education for the gentry on the one hand [sic], and on the other hand, vocationalised education for working-class boys in the Government Schools of design in Somerset House and South Kensington.” See seid’ou k. 2014. Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College; G. A. Stevens, H. V. Meyerowitz and Colonial False Dichotomies. CASS Journal of Art and Humanities, 3 (1), 1-28. 2.
3 “Rev. Johann G. Auer, the first qualified teacher to work at the Akropong Seminary and inspector of schools proposed a comprehensive educational reform in 1863. The Auer Reforms were implemented later by the Rev. J. A. Mader, successor to Auer and the third Principal of the seminary (1868-1877). Among other things the Auer Reforms introduced the Middle School system which was later to be adopted by the British Colonial government and which operated unchanged until the implementation of the Ghana Education Reforms by the Ministry of Education in 1987.” See op. cit. seid’ou. 2014. “Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work”. 016.
4 See seid’ou k. 2006. Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme: A Philosophical inquiry and its contextual relevance in Ghanaian Culture [Unpublished PhD Thesis]. Kumasi: KNUST. 59.
5 Ibid. 58.
6 “Hand and Eye is a generic term for “free hand drawing and manual training targeted at the elementary education of working-class children. In European and American literature, “Hand and Eye” is a commonwealth of craft-based programmes variously referred to as Slojd, Husflid (Scandinavian), Travail Manuel (French), Manual Training (English), Arbeitunterricht, Gewerbeschule or Handfertigkeitsunterricht (German). It takes its theory from 19th century child-centered education schemes of Pestalozzi and Froebel. In its teacher training version, it was a drawing and craft instruction for the generalist teacher of children, not a course for a specialist artist. As a system of training it was underpinned by the objective of precise technical or contour drawing. […] In its 19thcentury dogmatic form, governments invested “hand and eye skill” in the mechanical, manual and ornamental arts with overt instrumental and remunerative value in socio-economic and educational policy. This was especially intended to aid the growth of industry and manufacture and, in the bourgeois formulation of working-class aspirations, to churn out bread-winners who could keep the pot boiling.” Op. cit. seid’ou. 2014. Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work. 010-011. George Alexander Stevens is cited to have described it as the “elemental mechanics of European drawing, painting and handicraft [light and shade, mixing of colors, accurate observation and perspective]” in ibid.
8 For further information on this see seid’ou k. et al. 2015. Silent Ruptures, Emergent Art of the KNUST College of Art. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 5. No. 10: October 2015; op. cit. seid’ou. 2014. Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College: See also Department of Now (interview with blaxTARLINES by Aïcha Diallo for Contemporary And (C&) in 2015). Published in C& print edition no. 7. Curriculum of Connections Focus: Education. 2017. 44-48.
9 The Government Training College was moved to Achimota as the Prince of Wales College in 1927 (later to become the Achimota College). It was founded by the then Gold Coast Governor Sir Gordon Guggisberg, Rev. A. G. Fraser, as Principal, and Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey, as Vice Principal. Achimota College was constituted of a secondary school and Teacher Training College. It is the nucleus which later splinters into Kumasi College of Technology which homed the Teacher Training College and School of Art after it had been transferred to Kumasi from Accra in 1952. The Art School remained in Kumasi to become what is presently the College of Art. In 1958 the Teacher Training College was also moved to Winneba as the Specialist Training College— what is now University of Education in Winneba. See op. cit. seid’ou. 2014. Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College. 23.
10 Stevens G. A. 1930. The Future of African Art. With Special Reference to Problems Arising in Gold Coast Colony. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 3(2), 150-160. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1155795. 149-150.
11 ibid. 158.
12 U.S. Bureau of Education (1874) as cited in op. cit. seid’ou. 2014. Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work. 011.
13 Op. cit., Stevens. 1930. “The Future of African Art”. 152. Stevens has also referred to native crafts of the Gold Coast as “bush art”, see Stevens G. A. (1962, February 22). Go Sukuu, savvy book, get sense. The Listener.
14 “Stevens’ own formative years had coincided with the early modernist period when Progressive educationists, taste outpourings from the Burlington Magazine and literature of the Arts and Crafts Movement were in currency and were drawing parallels between pure form, primitive art, archaic art and child art, and in the tradition of Rousseau and D. H. Lawrence, equating them with purity and sincerity.” See op. cit. seid’ou. 2006. “Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme”. 119.
“Stevens was an early advocate of a colonial variant of what came to be known in 1950s Zaria as Natural Synthesis which canonized Uli and other African traditions. He conducted research about local “crafts”, insisted that each student must study at least one local “craft” from their region, and he even used African artefacts as examples in his classes”. See op. cit. seid’ou et al. 2015. “Silent Ruptures”. 136; Also see op. cit., seid’ou. 2014. “Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College”. 12.
15 I paraphrase seid’ou in op. cit. seid’ou. 2014. Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College.
16 “Gold Coast artists and art teachers trained in the Achimota tradition would engage their practice as extensions of what we designate as the “Stevens-Meyerowitz unconscious”. But one suspects that despite hints of Meyerowitz’s direct influence on Antubam’s carving style in the dry, angular expressionist style and the horror vacui compositions, the more distant Stevens unconscious seems to be more obtrusive in Antubam’s preferred painting and composition style. It even appears the Stevens unconscious was more pervasive in Gold Coast and Ghanaian painting until, notably, the post-Independence period and the era of the African Personality project when approaches close to Meyerowitz’s style negre advocacies would receive significant impetus from persistent advocacies of sculptors Oku Ampofo and Vincent Kofi on the one hand, and the painter Kobina Bucknor on the other.” See op. cit. seid’ou. 2006.“Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme”. 124. Also see Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh. 2019. G.W.K Dawson: A Particular History of Ghanaian Modernism.Retrieved from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/texts/dawson/. Accessed on 23/01/2020. (the text was published in the exhibition brochure Galle Winston Kofi Dawson: In Pursuit of Something ‘Beautiful’… perhaps (15th March – 16th August, 2019) Dawson’s solo exhibition at Savanna Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Tamale, Ghana)