“At the turn of the century many artistic and curatorial endeavours were pointing towards the expanded field of art as the horizon with more possibilities than the Modernist and Post-modernist canons could bequeath. My encounter, in the early 2000s, with kąrî’kạchä seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching project during my undergraduate years at KNUST oriented me to doubly come to terms with the potentialities of this expanded field, and to espouse the risks involved in testing its limits— i.e. to explore it to the abyss to find out what other horizons may be immanent, adjacent, and/or beyond it. The moment I came to understand this ominous, vulnerable, precarious, and vitalist undertone of his teaching method was when art as such became meaningful to me.”— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh.
“It is out of tension that being is born. Becoming is a tension, and being is the child of that tension of opposed forces and tendencies.” Kwame Nkrumah1
Approaching a topic such as the one outlined in the title of this essay demands a framework consistent with emancipatory politics. I find Nkrumah’s maxim in the epigraph suitable not only because his thought system resonates with the political substructure of the biennale in terms of the dialectics of subjectivation he theorises— by squarely addressing notions of multiplicity, difference, becoming, and heritage— but also because I believe there is much in this beginning point to unpack by way of restituting the photographic form into the space of multiplicity, given the gravity of the biennale which serves as Africa’s sole and most important largescale exhibition dedicated to lens based practices. This essay is however not a review of the most recent edition of the biennale. It will not give much information about the five chapters, curatorial decisions, seventy five artists’ works, nor exhibition sites. It is rather considered as an experimental effort to think through the thematic framework of the biennale based on its conceptual and philosophical proposals.
“Maa ka Maaya ka ca a yere kono” is the theme for the biennale. The phrase, theorised in the context of personal identity by the Malian ethnologist, historian, and author Amadou Hampâté Bâ, vis-à-vis Bambara and Fulani worldviews, loosely translates from Bambara into English as “the persons of the person are multiple in the person”. To paraphrase Bâ, the concept of the person is, from the outset, very complex2; which is to say that a person is always and already multiple from the vantage points of the physical, psychological, and spiritual conditions that shape personhood (Bâ prefers to call this “interior multiplicity”). In this system the being of personhood is neither absolute in their singleness nor wholly complete unto themselves. Here Bâ not only affirms the dynamism of contingency at play in this interiority, he also introduces the counter-intuitive (and arbitrary) universal dimension even within the particularity of personal being. And this dimension could be said to be the excess that is intrinsically constitutive of the production of cognitive reality but which is at the same time patently disavowed3 by purist and individualist ideologies. Ultimately it can be posited that the immanent tensions that pre-condition being are eternally present in any procedure of subjectivation (the event of becoming a subject), and it is in this spirit that I map Nkrumah’s tactically hysterical discourse on being and becoming4 to Bâ’s. Nkrumah’s aphorism encapsulates what I have already mentioned as the dialectics of subjectivation (or further summarised as the paradox of becoming), and since Bâ’s framework is not mutually exclusive to this thought I proceed for the remainder of this essay on this bricolage.
The third edition of CritLab took place in Tamale and was hosted at the Agyeman Osei Hall in Red Clay. For the most part of fifteen days participants and facilitators were co-present with works on display from the permanent collection of Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) Tamale and Red Clay. For the duration of our stay in Tamale, the city became the site of many generative encounters, artistic interventions and pedagogical exchanges. The selected artists, critics, and curators learned with and from each other as well as local artisans, filmmakers, producers, schools, fashion houses, open markets, city corners, and other creative spaces. The scheduled and unscheduled site and studio visits also took us to SCCA Tamale, Nkrumah Voli-Ni, OBL Studios , Sanatu Zambang, the Centre for National Culture (Tamale), Nuku Studio, and to the Trends Runway fashion show in Tamale, amongst other locations. Besides the rich intellectual stimulations between co-facilitators, participants, and audiences, the city of Tamale was also ignited with temporary interventions such as performance lectures, interactive games, installations, participatory and site-specific projects, among others.
CritLab is a combined residency and professional development programme that aims to build a network of art professionals who desire to push the boundaries of global art thought, production, criticism, and exhibition making. Exit Frame Collective (Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, Bernard Akoi-Jackson, Kelvin Haizel, Adwoa Amoah and Ato Annan) inaugurated this annual peer-to-peer pedagogical project for artists, critics, and curators in 2020 as part of its efforts to deepen the critical intellectual infrastructure of professional art practice in Ghana. There is no fee for participation. CritLab is structured to mobilize readings/discussions, site, and studio visits, seminars, film screenings, workshops, presentations, discursive, relational and other contingent formats in the direction of emancipatory pedagogy. Exit Frame runs the programme with co-facilitators (artists, researchers, historians, curators, academics, and many more) from all over the world.
CritLab 2022 Participants: Nana Efia Serwah Barning (GH), Ayine Akolgo (GH), Edward Prah (GH), Maame Araba Baboa Opoku (GH), Isaac Gyasi (GH), Eugenia Asarewaa Kwateng(GH), Sihle Sogaula (SA), Ernest Atsukofi Akaba (GH), zozoTransistor (a.k.a Zoë Binetti) (CH), Ama Adoley Newman (GH)
Co-facilitators: George ‘Buma’ Ampratwum (Ghana), Gideon Appah (Ghana), Nuna Adisenu Doe (Ghana), Exit Frame Collective (Ghana), Chiara Figone (Dakar/Milan), Isshaq Ismail (Ghana), Nkule Mabaso (South Africa), Baerbel Mueller (Austria/Ghana), Nontobeko Ntombela (South Africa), Laurel Richardson (U.S.A), Shane Aslan Selzer (U.S.A), Gesyada Siregar (Indonesia), Łukasz Stanek (U.S.A)
Volunteers: Kimathi Agbanu, Franklin Yohuno, Sam Amegavi, Elizabeth Johnson, Bright Ahadzivia, Ernest Ofori Sackitey, Abbey IT-A
Partners: blaxTARLINES, SCCA Tamale, FCA – Ghana
Supporting institutions: Goethe Institut, Accra
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Notes on Contemporary Ghanaian Art: Histories and Emergences
A General Picture
To come to terms with the complexity of the art of our times let us look back and 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, leisure, 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 will purify itself from within while affirming its autonomy. This rationale has tended to an aesthetic sensibility that eulogizes medium-specificity1 by privileging the medium of artistic expression, be it painting or sculpture, over every other aspect of coming to terms with art as such.
But the history of modernism— from its early, high, and late periods— is also inundated with polemics on art with consequent shifts and changes: more particularly when taking the interventions of the transgressive avant-gardes (constructivists, dadaists, dissident surrealists), the neo-avant-gardes (neoconcrétismo artists, minimalists, conceptualists, feminists, and so on), and the postmodernist movements into account. Modernist presuppositions about authorship, originality, and purity of medium had generally entered into a crisis from the early decades of the twentieth century into the postwar period. This resulted in a disposition that would, first of all, begin from profaning this purist ethos and postulate art as an attitude to making, a “situation of being”2, rather than always resorting to preset styles, idioms, or conventional media. By the 1960s artists had begun to move beyond generic categorizations into creating ambiguous objects as well as situations which lacked clear classifications. Pre-1960s formalist discourse was largely based on structural terms— grounded on the internal part-by-part relations within a work of art— but after the neo-avant-gardes breakthroughs and the genre-defying work produced thereafter, form came to be established as unpredictable, more open-ended, and subject to “infinite extension” (as Scott Burton put it when describing the works in Harald Szeeman’s watershed 1969 exhibition titled “When Attitudes Become Form”3).
If modern 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 mind4, 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. This was achieved for example by relating the artwork 1) to particular conditions within its physical location, i.e. lighting, topography, distance, temperature, etc., 2) to the spectator’s realtime bodily and sensual engagement in spite of the “disembodied eye” and 3) by creating 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 such5.
The Case of the Gold Coast
Suffice it to say that there exists a plurality of modernisms and that 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”6 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 underclass7.
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 education8 in colonial Gold Coast effectively proceeded to determine its artistic world-picture while effectively 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”9. As such, art education in the Gold Coast was “conducted on the literal, optical and descriptive reading of the world”10. Meanwhile, the two-year teacher training subject in art, Hand and Eye Work11, was introduced in the Government Training Collegein Accra in 1909. Ghanaian sculptor Vincent Kofi has described its form as “still life drawing” and its method as “drawing just what you see”12.
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 Coast. In a speech delivered at a staff meeting at Achimota College14 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].”15 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”.16 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.”17).
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”18 at Achimota19. 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 Achimota20. 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 state.21
Note: The above text was originally written in 2020. A version of this modified version will be featured in the forthcoming publication by Nuvo Publishing Ltd., titled ‘New Perspectives: Contemporary Art from Ghana’ in 2022.
1 For more on the formalist discourse of New York school critics such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, see Greenberg (1960) and Fried (1998). This discourse necessitated the binary distinction between art and non-art, the latter of which was likened to theater. Fried, apropos Greenberg, contends that “what lies between the arts is theater” (Fried 1998: 164), and that “theater has an audience— it exists for one— in a way the other arts do not; in fact, that this more than anything else is what modernist sensibility finds intolerable in theater generally” (Fried 1998: 163). But further on in Fried’s exposition he distinguishes theatricality (which he equates to what he terms “objecthood”) as the quality distinct from theater that is opposed to modernist art.
2 See Szeeman (1969).
3 See S. Burton, “Notes on the New” in Szeeman (1969).
4 See O’Doherty (1986).
5 Terry Eagleton describes postmodernism as the “movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is sceptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends towards cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.” See Eagleton (2003:13).
6 See seid’ou (2014b: 011).
7 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 (2014a: 2).
8 “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 seid’ou (2014b: 016).
9 See seid’ou (2006: 59).
10 See seid’ou (2006: 58).
11 “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 19th century 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]”. See seid’ou (2006: 58).
12 See seid’ou (2014b: 010)
13 For further information on this see seid’ou k. et al. (2015); seid’ou (2006); seid’ou (2014a); see also Contemporary And (2015).
14 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 seid’ou (2014a: 23)
15 See Stevens (1930: 149-150).
16 See Stevens (1930: 158).
17 U.S. Bureau of Education (1874) as cited in seid’ou (2014b: 011).
18 Stevens. (1930: 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.
19 “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” seid’ou (2006: 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” seid’ou et al. (2015: 136). Also see seid’ou (2014a:12).
20 I paraphrase seid’ou in seid’ou (2014a).
21 “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.” seid’ou (2006:124). Also see Ohene-Ayeh (2019a).
Photos by Frederick Okai, Apex Hafid, Kelvin Haizel, IUB.
blaxTARLINES was invited to participate as invited guest in the ongoing documenta fifteen by Jakarta-based lumbung member Gudskul. Kelas Bareng, which translates to Joint Class in Indonesian, is jointly organized by Gudskul, Städelschule (Frankfurt), blaxTARLINES, and Nordland kunst-og filmhøgskole (Oslo). The documenta-edition of Kelas Bareng involves relational, discursive, and pedagogical approaches to creating parallel counter-extractive economies of art production and exhibition making practices that foster collectivism, independence, care, friendship, sharing and working well together (i.e. Lumbung, the Indonesian word for rice barn). Inspired by blaxTARLINES’s disposition of “transforming art from commodity to gift”, the lumbung values of generosity, care, sharing, transparency, independence, etc., and Nongkrong (Indonesian slang for ‘hanging out together’), strategies of “Friend-Making, Learning from Friends, and Self-Organising” are deployed by participants of Kelas Bareng through activities such as cooking and karaoke sessions at GudKitchen (an outdoor kitchen at the back of museum), site visits, participatory performances, kitchen-table conversations, happenings and other public and convivial situations.
blaxTARLINES’s participation in d15 marks the second outing for a Ghana-based artist in documenta after Ibrahim Mahama, who participated in documenta 14 (2017). We look forward to more of such moments in the near future and also to hosting our fellows from around the world.
Infinite gratitude goes out to the following persons and institutions for the financial, emotional, administrative, and logistical support:
Gideon Appah, Ibrahim Mahama, Prof. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, Prof. Edwin Bodjawah, Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu (Castro), Dr. George ‘Buma’ Ampratwum, and all faculty of the Dept. of Painting & Sculpture, Samuel Baah Kortey, Lisa Soto, Ato Jackson, Daniel Quarshie and all artists who donated their works to the fundraising, Goethe Institut, German Embassy Visa Section, Christoph Retzlaff (German Ambassador to Ghana), Luisa Wegener (German Embassy, Ghana), Staedelschule, Gudskul, Nordland kunst- og filmhøgskole, and all of our comrades who have extended general support.
Kelas Bareng (Joint Class) is an ongoing experimental pedagogical project which emerged out of collaborative efforts between the educational institutions Gudskul (Indonesia), Städelschule (Germany), blaxTARLINES KUMASI (Department of Painting & Sculpture, KNUST, Ghana), and Nordland kunst- og filmhøgskole (Norway) in 2020. The joint class has so far been held virtually on Zoom. In each respective institution students and facilitators gather ‘live’, if the Covid-19 regulations allow, so as to be able to exchange with their friends and collaborators overseas. The event is co-organized by Gesyada Siregar, MG Pringgotono, JJ Adibrata (Gudskul), Philippe Pirotte (Städelschule), Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (blaxTARLINES), and Knut Åsdam (Nordland).
Previous guests of Kelas Bareng have included: Hilmar Farid, Nontobeko Ntombela, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Raqs Media Collective), Shubigi Rao, Farah Wardani with Anwar Jimpe, Pius Sigit Kuncoro and Natasha Sidharta, Ericka Flores Hidalgo, Selom Kudjie, Margarida Mendes, Dicky Takndare (Udeido Collective), Commune6X3, and Camille Norment.
Kelas Bareng at Fridskul:
On the invitation of lumbung member Gudskul, Kelas Bareng shifted from its virtual space into the inaugural live sessions held at the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, Germany, as part of documenta fifteen (d15) from 7-11 July 2022. For the period of d15 the Fridericianum is transformed into Fridskul (Fridericianum as School), serving as a site and/or repository for shared resources such as knowledge, stories, and experiences. The documenta-edition of Kelas Bareng deployed a generative series of relational, discursive, and pedagogical approaches to creating parallel counter-extractive economies of art production and exhibition making practices that foster collectivism, independence, care, friendship, sharing and working well together (i.e. Lumbung, the Indonesian word for rice barn).
Participants from each school gather to learn together in the spirit of mutual exchanges while producing, sharing, and recording knowledge. In the context of the overarching curatorial framework for d15, lumbung— which inheres principles of collaboration, participation, inclusivity, generosity, and humor— Kelas Bareng functions as one of the experimental pedagogic models that serves to deepen the “tradition of sharing” and “harvesting” already at play in the artistic and economic models set in motion for d15. Inspired by blaxTARLINES’s disposition of “transforming art from commodity to gift”, the lumbung values of generosity, care, sharing, transparency, independence, etc., and Nongkrong (Indonesian slang for ‘hanging out together’), strategies of “Friend-Making, Learning from Friends, and Self-Organising” are deployed by participants of Kelas Bareng through activities such as living together in the Fridskul dormitory, cooking, dancing and karaoke sessions at GudKitchen (an outdoor kitchen at the back of museum), site visits, participatory performances, kitchen-table conversations, happenings and other public and convivial situations.
Inspired by both autochtonous and industrial systems of pottery production Frederick Ebenezer Okai’s solo exhibition, Earthy Structures and Contingent Breakthroughs (2022), assimilates ethnographic traces, monuments, and signs [re]assembling them into new forms such as videos, sculptures, site-responsive sound installations, immersive virtual reality and spatial experiences.
Nested within the interior and surrounding spaces of the inter-linking domes of the Gyamadudu Museum are Okai’s experimental works complicating ceramics and pottery as we know it. The artist’s improvised, quasi-ethnographic approach [re]stages and [re]imagines historical and existing pottery practices in Ghana. On the one hand, the artist has travelled “across the country to scout for pottery objects from different spaces [breaking] them into shards only to reconstruct them into new objects.” These relics have been collected from regions including Bawku (Upper East region), Sirigu (Upper East region), Afari (Ashanti region), Bonakyire (Bono East Region), Jejeti (Eastern region), and Fesi (Volta region), and reference pottery traditions which date as far back as the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the “new objects” are not always heterotopias of broken shards assembling a plurality of times, cultures, and places, originally foreign to each other, into singular montages; they are also remakes and post-produced bricolages constructed from a wide array of readymades including welded pieces of galvanized steel wire meshes merged with average and larger than life-sized vessels, and repurposed ceramic objects (cups, plates, bowls, jars, etc.) used and imported into the country from Asia, Europe, and North America.
By activating interior wallscapes, entrances, ceilings, and floors within the exhibition environment— inspired by rural and postmodern architecture, pottery cemeteries, and indigenous kiln designs— the exhibition invites the audience into a fictional world of discovery with structural (modular, part-by-part), architectural, and relational or contingent encounters. Insofar as fiction etymologically points us to the act of forging, the ensemble of utilitarian, ritualistic, mundane, and ephemeral objects transformed by the artist acquire sculptural, spatial, aural, haptic and other transgressive tendencies.
The works are experiments in the strictest sense of the term. That is to say, beginning a process without preempting the outcome; or embarking on a journey on which the artist must learn from his creation at every moment in time so as to understand where it may lead; that at any point in the process the works simultaneously exist as complete and incomplete things, always espousing the potential of becoming more than what they are at any particular moment (complemented by the artist’s preference for biscuit-firing all the clay objects on display). It is this experimental value adventurously finding expression in the works— simultaneously incorporating traditional and institutional (modern) pottery methods— and striving beyond them, which signifies their breakthrough from conventional limits…
Earthy Structures and Contingent Breakthroughs is dedicated to Okai’s mentor, the ceramicist and educator James Kwame Amoah (b. 1943), retired senior lecturer of the Department of Industrial Art (Ceramics Section), Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), for the warm guidance and mentorship he has provided for the artist over the years.