**This lecture was given at the Citi FM/Citi TV symposium on art titled “Art and Identities” held at the Accra Metropolitan Assembly City Hall in Accra, Ghana on 12th March, 2020, as part of the Heritage Month series of events generally themed “Telling the Ghana Story”.

 

The Promise of Storytelling…

Greetings and good afternoon to everyone present. My sincere appreciation goes to the organizers of this event for the invitation to think through the topic “Art and Identities” as it relates to the broader theme of Citi FM and Citi TV’s Heritage Art Festival aptly named “Telling the Ghana Story”? The implication of this theme is self-evident for all of us to reflect on, contribute to and also to intervene in. What I mean is that telling a story can be the basis to innocently begin something far more profound than what one had initially set out to do. I have therefore titled my presentation The Promise of Storytelling and will use the remainder of my short time on this platform to interrogate the first principles of the topic at hand in relation to the theme of the festival. 

What does it mean to tell a story? Who has the power to do so? Is there a univocal Ghana story? Or can we further populate this to also consider the epithet in its plurality? In this sense what stories are there to be told? Inevitably, there are good stories, bad stories, uninteresting stories, horror stories and many others as such. Undoubtedly the series of events in the Heritage Art Festival will position itself to unpack the many cultural strands of this concern and so my focus will be on art especially— its history, potential, and subversive nature. 

Let me start by registering the trope of the storyteller. Insofar as stories are told, a story needs its teller. A storyteller is precisely the figure who assumes the position of an interlocutor— one who at the very outset of engagement must operate on the axiom of the equality of his/her own intelligence to that of the audience or audiences present1. Without this principle, the opportunity of storytelling breaks down altogether. If the storyteller tells stories to people (invariably belonging to various social classes and/or  demographics; i.e., adults, children, working class people, intellectually-/visually-/mentally-impaired or disabled people, and so on) then it follows that in that situation we are taking it for granted that whoever this message, moral or fable is being addressed to possesses the cognitive and experiential abilities to understand or make meaning of what is being communicated in their own unique ways. Once the story is shared, it may be understood, complicated, misinterpreted, personalized and re-shared by any of its listeners. This is the democratic ideal at play in the possibility of storytelling which disinfects the act from all forms of neutrality by elevating it into the realm of politics as such. We cannot forget that also present in every gesture of storytelling is the operation of myth-making. That is to say, the possibility of creating fantasies that could affirm, complement, antagonize and negate this reality in which you and I are confined. And so before we begin “Telling the Ghana Story” we must first of all consider that all these elements are already at play. The Ghana nation state, for example, is itself a mid-twentieth century invention— a necessary one, I must add, for reasons of political emancipation. Therefore the act of storytelling is always already an exercise in creation grounded in the combination of fact, fiction, repetition and related excesses. 

Secondly, the topic ‘Art and identities’ confers much to ponder. If we take the primary component we can ask what art is, in the first place. The history of art in Ghana could be elucidated from its precolonial beginnings into the colonial epoch right down to the contemporary paradigm as we have it today. Throughout human history, every oppressive or hegemonic regime has sought to hierarchize one aspect of the determination of art (or few) over all others. That is to say, to center one definition (or some) while stigmatizing, proscribing or attempting to erase all others possible; and it is no different with the story of art from Gold Coast to Ghana. In fact, to paraphrase G. A. Stevens (the young graduate of the Slade School in London who was appointed as the first colonial art master of the Government Training College and then Achimota College in the Gold Coast from 1925 to 1929) one could not trace any real policy of artistic development in the Educational Code of 1887 created by the British colonial government by means of the educational system in the Gold Coast. Stevens viewed the colonial educational system 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].”He was decrying the vocationalist dogma of Victorian era art education in colonial Gold Coast which oriented its learner to privilege European academic formats, traditions and histories in art. 

And so what is art, today? I prefer to enter this domain by invoking the secular axiom of the universality of art. In this light artist-pedagogue kąrî’kạchä seid’ou’s anti-formula that “art is anything that is radically new”offers a compelling para-consistent framework by which to complicate the question. In this logic art is considered to be a site of multiplicity, emerging “from a void: with neither content nor prejudice for any particular medium, skill, material, or process”. Art is here radically emptied of presumptive associations in order to permit the egalitarian regeneration of its content. The “radically new” is that which is historical and does not advantageously position any particular heritage or geographical location over another by default. This is the emancipatory thrust of contemporary art as we have it in Ghana today, consequent of the blaxTARLINES paradigm, which actively concerns itself with de-colonial politics. blaxTARLINES is the experimental contemporary art institution based at the Department of Painting & Sculpture at KNUST, Kumasi. 

Furthermore, the question “what is art, today?” can be extrapolated in another way: in the sense that the political indifference it announces doubly structures the question, beyond rhetoric, as its own paradoxical answer. Anyone may begin their journey into art by asking this elementary question— whether they are artists or not. By posing the question out of conviction, the questioner proceeds to act: to search, discover and learn about what they do not yet know about art on the basis that they can know. And every questioner can, in principle, begin their own journey into uncovering answers. If we take the questioner as the teller and art as the story, we potentially have an egalitarian community of storytellers whose dispositional indifference and articulated mutualities gives substance to the truth claim of equality, and independence, at play in their solidarity for the cause. The question “what is art, today?” effectively functions as the void which permits the questioner or questioners to regenerate and populate new content. The task then is to find new ways of nourishing the vitality, resilience and fortitude needed to sustain the question-as-answer throughout one’s practice or lifetime. This is especially so for subjects from areas of the world with the experience of colonialism whose worldview has been indelibly (but not irredeemably) stained by the presuppositions of imperial passion. 

Storytelling, in short, inheres the possibility of generating infinite actions or gestures towards the conscious practice of equality by fostering a dynamic community of speakers and listeners, artists and spectators, producers and makers, and so on and so forth. This proposition is essential in a world which takes inequality opposite for granted. 

 

Notes:

 1. I owe this thought to Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. 2007. trans. Kristin Ross. Stanford University Press. California.

2. See 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. pp. 149-150.

3. This is kąrî’kạchä seid’ou’s phrasing. He made the statement in one of his lectures to postgraduate students at the Department of Painting & Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

The above title references a conversation I had with fellow co-curator of the 2019 Bamako Encounters Biennial of Photography, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier, for Eye of Photography (ODLP) on Felicia Abban’s photography as shown at the Biennial.

 

 

About Felicia Abban:
Mrs. Felicia Ewurasi Abban (maiden name Ms. Felicia Ewurasi Ansah, b. 1936) is the only daughter among five children born to eminent Gold Coast photographer J. E. Ansah and Theresa Yankey, a textile trader. Abban is a veteran Ghanaian photographer whose work in studio photography and photo-journalism begins in the 1950s and spans over six decades of practice. Throughout her illustrious and industrious career Abban chalked many firsts: she is generally regarded as Ghana’s first known professional woman photographer; she is the first woman president of the Ghana Union of Photographers (GUP) and is also the first woman to have joined Ghana’s presidential team of photographers. She was trained from the age of 14 years onwards by her father in his studio and was his only female apprentice. After her marriage to Richard Bonso Abban (a textile designer whose most notable work is the design of the commemorative cloth that featured Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s portrait for the Independence celebrations) in 1956, she moved from Sekondi to Accra where she set up her own photo studio in the central business district. This is only a year before the Gold Coast colony would transition into becoming the Ghana nation state. The state became a Republic in 1960. During this period she documented many significant political events as a member of the official team of presidential photographers all the while maintaining her studio practice. In 1966 she was due to have travelled with President Nkrumah to Hanoi during the Cold War but could not because she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. While Nkrumah was out on this official duty, a military coup d’état was staged in Ghana which ousted his Pan-Africanist government and he was subsequently exiled until his death in 1972 in Sekou Toure’s Guinea. After this event Abban moved on to work with Guinea Press (now Ghanaian Times). During her time with GUP Abban engaged in countless training and workshop programs around the country inspiring generations of photographers. She played a vital early role in mentoring seminal filmmaker Kwaw Ansah (one of her younger siblings) in lens-based practice. She completely retired from her practice in 2017. Her photographic work made its first public appearance in an exhibition in the group show Accra: Portraits of a City (2017) at the ANO gallery in Accra. Abban is also one of six artists– alongside El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Ibrahim Mahama, Selasi Awusi Sosu, and John Akomfrah– selected to feature at the first-ever Ghana pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019.

 

Abstract

This paper examines the notion of emancipation and the various meanings it could produce. By analyzing questions such as ‘what is emancipation?’, ‘Can true emancipation be achieved in a late capitalist world?’, and other such questions, the paper will argue for true emancipation that is opposed to paternalism. Contemporary art offers the privilege of speaking from a global perspective and so by highlighting the histories of colonial, postcolonial and anti-colonial formats of international exhibition making, the paper will deal with the relevance of the large scale exhibition format on the African continent and its place in an accelerated phenomenon of ‘biennalization’ increasingly driven by dependency on private capital and Cultural Ministries of respective governments towards international tourism. The paper will also analyse some contradictions immanent to contemporary art. Although most of these transnational or ‘mega exhibitions’ proclaim a desire for progressive politics, the paper will argue that some of these claims are not far-reaching especially in the context of Africa’s anti-colonial struggle. In line with this, the paper makes the case for a decolonial ethic upon which a useful emancipatory politics could be modelled. 

Key words: emancipation, freedom, art, biennial, equality, capitalism

***Note: A version of this text is to be published in the forthcoming publication ‘What Do We Tell Freedom, Now? Emancipation and Art’ from Obsidian, vol. 45, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2019 which thinks through “the history and legacy of biennales, triennales, and quadriannales in Africa as emancipatory practices”.

Read full text here: https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/texts/on-emancipation-freedom-and-art-2019/

 

My encounter with kąrî’kạchä seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching projectwhen I entered the KNUST undergraduate Fine Art (Painting) programme in 2005 subtly affirmed a yearning I always had but could neither articulate nor assert before that time.  seid’ou’s inclusive approach to teaching dissented from the official KNUST art curriculum which relied imperiously on established styles and formats of the Euro-American modernist canon that ended with Abstract Expressionism. Over the years, as we struggled with the rigour of his critiques in the drawing and painting classes, I was affected by the depth and range of historical, philosophical, and practical (everyday) references being used and suggested by seid’ou to each student regarding their work. This was a class of over 60 students. It aroused my interest in meta-theoretical questions and propelled a search for more than what the canvas alone could offer. This is where I retrieved my interest in writing as artistic medium. 

seid’ou was the only lecturer in the College of Art then who utilized such an egalitarian approach to teaching. He commits himself to engaging each student from the point of their own interest and not, as is the norm in most art schools, to enforce a priori standards of what a student ought to produce for a lecturer. In the final year, when seid’ou taught us more courses, the emphasis on independent work became more ingrained. He opened us up to coming to terms with the responsibilities associated with the choice of practicing art. This is when I can say I had begun to enjoy the Painting programme I had majored in. My attraction to painting was more with it as a concept— as a vanishing interlocutor to ideas about form, colour, representation, aesthetics, politics, etc— and less as idiom. My proclivities were nurtured, stimulated, challenged and extended all at the same time when seid’ou became my undergraduate thesis supervisor. By this time, although I was unprepared for it then, the transformation of my life in art had started and I had begun to feel more alive to the radical openness of the concept of art while in school. I had begun a process of coming to terms with seid’ou’s anti-formula that “art is anything that is radically new”.

My final year work was an interrogation of the notion of painting itself in the disguise of a collaborative and site-specific installation project. I worked with Nana Essah (who was an architecture student at the time) and Eric Chigbey (a colleague in the Sculpture Programme) for a project titled Untitled… I Can’t Draw (2009). The work doubled as a mute reaction to one of my teachers who nearly failed me in his course once because he interpreted my ambivalent attitude to painting in his class as a rejection of all that was sacred in art. (He was one of the first three students in 1964 whose class initiated the KNUST BA Art degree programme). I was probably as untalented a painting student as he thought I was. The project was my opportunity to create an ambiguous structure that could inter-relate painting, sculpture, installation and architecture and had been inspired by Charles Sauvat’s formalist metal sculptures. (Sauvat was a French artist-collaborator of mine at the time.) Sited in the courtyard of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on campus, the work took about 5 days to construct. During this time, passersby would offer to participate in the construction process. It was my first attempt at a site-oriented and relational art project.

After a six year hiatus— of leaving school and promiscuously involving myself in a myriad of corporate and cultural events in Accra i.e., working briefly at a bank and in customer service at a telecommunications service provider in Ghana; organizing spoken word poetry events and workshops at Nubuke Foundation and elsewhere around the country while being mentored by the poet Yibor Kojo Yibor (a.k.a Sir Black); volunteering with Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana (FCA) to coordinate their library, discursive and screening sessions (through this my friendships with Ato Annan, Adwoa Amoah, Kelvin Haizel, and Bernard Akoi-Jackson congealed into what became the EXIT FRAME Collective); collaborating with photographer and stylist Francis Kokoroko and Daniel Quist to initiate the monthly art talk series dubbed ‘@thestudioaccra’; setting up Resolve Pictures, a commercial film production company with my long-time friend and colleague, the cinematographer Nana G. Asante; participating in Bisi Silva’s Ásíkó Art School program in Dakar, Senegal; among others— I returned to the KNUST Department of Painting & Sculpture to do my M.F.A in 2015. By this time I had consecrated the desire to practice art and the experimental structure of the seid’ou-inspired course programme for both undergraduate and graduate levels appealed to my direction. I majored curating during this time and have internalized this ethos of political indifference in my own practice as I navigate making art through curatorial and extra roles.

 

***Author’s note: Portions of this text have been used in a co-authored essay in the forthcoming joint publication between blaxTARLINES KUMASI and the African Arts Journal in its Summer 2021 edition. 

Note:

 

  1. When seid’ou joined the faculty in the KNUST college of Art in 2003 he introduced many pedagogic strategies and initiatives including Interactive Series which was “a seminar programme in Kumasi to host contemporary artists and art professionals for talks, workshops, exhibitions, overviews and critique sessions. [Jelly Bouwhuis] and Kerstin [Winking] were among the contributors. There were also amiable guests like Godfried Donkor, Agyeman Ossei, Kofi Setordji, Odile Tevie (Nubuke Foundation), Adwoa Amoah (Foundation for Contemporary Art), Elvira Dyangani Ose (Tate Modern), Pauline Burmann (Thami Mnyele), Rochelle Feinstein (Yale) and Nana Ofori-Atta Ayim (Ano Consult) and recently, Bisi Silva (CCA Lagos). Initially, “Interactive Series” was intended to complement and give substance and sustenance to my teaching and to broaden the perspectives of students and interested staff on the scope of contemporary art. Besides, I converted my Drawing Class into a curatorial project of guerrilla exhibitions on campus and in the city. Campus and city came alive with site-specific exhibitions, their critiques and overviews each year“. See kąrî’kạchä seid’ou & Jelle Bouwhuis, in Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking (eds.), Silent parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis, 2014, Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, pp.116.

 

Dr. Sionne Neely’s recent statement confirming the “violence, terror, intimidation and coercion” she has endured for a decade from Mantse Aryeequaye, her former romantic and business partner, has, to say the very least, polarised the art scene in Ghana. But this scission is merely artificial since what it has successfully done is to expose the cracks in the liberal consensus upon which much of political activism in Ghana is based. Our human rights activists are dogmatic about the rhetoric of ‘choice as freedom’ without recognizing that true freedom is much more of a ‘commitment to struggle’, and as such fail to be relevant when a decisive moment of political action presents itself. Naturally there are those in support of Aryeequaye on the one hand and those who are critical of him, on the other. There are also those who generally claim to be friends of both Dr. Neely and Aryeequaye who are therefore unable to take a position on the matter. Some of these ‘friends’ have advocated a third-way with the possibility to dialogue things out between them.

The liberal caucus seem to be debating which way forward even in the face of such explicit accusations made against a man who is purported to have taken the woman he was with for granted and violated her in many ways. Others have stated that they cannot commit to opposing one or the other simply because nobody else was present to witness the abuse and that there is no way of verifying Dr. Neely’s allegations. Without wanting to admit it these same people, by uttering such empty words, do not see that they have already chosen a side on the matter. If the victim is my friend and I claim that I cannot intervene in a matter that she herself has publicly proclaimed then what I am silently saying is that she is possibly being dishonest. There is no way of taking a neutral position in a situation of this kind. And to take a position does not necessarily mean one blindly begins to lay blame on the accused but to diligently pursue the matter through appropriate channels. One can have every form of love in this world for Aryeequaye and/or Dr. Neely and still do this. 

Even though this is not an explicit case of sexual assault I would like to make analogy to some things that can be learned from the #MeToo movement. In essence #MeToo (and other related movements since 2017 which have addressed matters of the kind under discussion) stands to undermine such non-committal spirit with an ethical imperative of seeking justice. For me the true revolutionary potential of #MeToo lies in the deeper issues of reflexively implicating one’s self while addressing general human tendencies. There are three ways I can summarize the power of a claim to #MeToo: 1. #MeToo in the emancipatory sense we have come to know: invoked as an urgent announcement by a survivor declaring their victimhood themselves (meaning they are unspoken for) and by that rallying a universal call for justice on the basis of objective truth not only for its subject but for all potential others. 2. #MeToo in the sense of literally implicating ourselves (i.e. every single human being) as possessing tendencies towards such abusive and exploitative behaviour at any given moment if self-discipline is not exercised (here is a famous example) and 3. #MeToo in another literal sense meaning any of us can potentially be victimized at any given moment through this patriarchal engine of oppression already set in motion. In a word, #MeToo offers us a complex inclusive and self-critical framework through which to create egalitarian spaces in the direction of justice1. But a dynamic chain of events could also create slippages and cause these same principles— particularly point 3— to fail in themselves while being re-routed as new weapons of subjugation. The point would be to void them of any uniformity in expression. In this light we can then say that the condition of victimhood, however emancipatory, can also produce its opposite.

Evidently Mantse Aryeequaye’s own vainglorious response is an example of such excesses. After being silent for more than a year on the issue Aryeequaye has also appeared with a statement of his own claiming to be a victim of a “false accusation campaign”. He has drawn the lines of antagonism and has proceeded to contradict those people asking him to speak ‘his truth’ all this while. He has side-stepped their expectations to claim that his version cannot sit side-by-side Dr. Neely’s but effectively overrides hers. Is there not cause for concern when Dr. Neely claims in her article titled “Speaking My Truth” that “for more than 3 hours I was held hostage in our shared flat, physically and emotionally tortured and coerced into audio-recording false statements while my life was being threatened with two weapons” and Aryeequaye gives his counter-claim by also stating that “[t]he apartment units we shared had other occupants; it also has 24-hour security. About 100 meters west of where we lived is a Police Station. Sionne also worked for a women’s rights organisation for a significant part of our relationship and it is absolutely preposterous to think that she endured this kind of torture while organising against it with her ‘sisters in arms’”? The perverse nature of all this is that Aryeequaye and Dr. Neely are both appealing to our sense of justice by claiming to be victims of something the other has done. One could take either Dr. Neely’s side or Aryeequaye’s, but never both in the name of friendship (although one could also take neither side amounting to a critical position with healthy skepticism of both in order to deal with the contradiction). In short, they both cannot be telling the truth on the question of abuse if they give us opposite answers to the same question. Given such parameters the only other possible scenario is that they are both lying to us. 

The question I have already heard from many people and continue to encounter is “why are external parties so interested in this matter?” “Is it any of your concern?” The answer is simple. It is of course not directly my concern because it did not happen to me. But the consequences of this moment go beyond these two individuals for the following reasons: if they are both manipulating the public by scandalizing each other in this way then it is dirty and deeply unfortunate. If one of them is lying against the other it bears consequences on the institution they have both created as well as the interns and many others they have and are continuing to mentor. If one of them is speaking the truth, and was indeed “terrorized” or is being defamed maliciously, then that goes beyond just the private space of two people into the realms of legality. And the cultural ramifications would be that if everything Dr. Neely has told us in her statement of this megaloman is true then he is not fit to be at the helm of running an institution they created together which still acts as a source of ideological nourishment for advancing a politics proclaiming to be creating safe spaces for women especially. So we see that it is not a simple matter for just two people to deal with now that it has taken this dimension. One could argue that the general public is at this point being drawn into the matter even as both of them have resorted to using social networks to defend themselves. And so even though it is true that “it is not your [my] concern” (as my Ghanaian people say) it has become all of ours in an indirect way. Truth, as acknowledged by of them, is what is at stake here.

If there is any evidence against Aryeequaye it needs to be brought out now. If not, then we need to leave the man alone regardless of whatever feelings any of us may have towards him. Because if indeed Aryeequaye did do these things and his accusers have evidence against him, then the fact that he is able to boldly taunt them in this way is, at the very least, laughable. 

Now to briefly clarify some non-truths in Aryeequaye’s statement. It is a horrible travesty that Aryeequaye is able to downplay Dr. Neely’s role in establishing ACCRA[Dot]ALT and ‘Chale Wote’ altogether. To seek to reduce her to a mere “domestic partner” (this is how a statement released by ACCRA[Dot]Alt on 9th September, 2019— which has since been deleted from the Internet— referred to her) and eliding her from the story. The bullish tone in his statement will not alter the fact that ‘Chale Wote’ is not his personal property as he would like us to believe. And to undermine the many silent workforces who have laboured out of love for the festival to be able to construct a hopeful response to the desperate political-economic circumstances at the time makes Aryeequaye’s intentions and insecurities self-evident. Let us not forget that ‘Chale Wote’ was conceived and created not too long after the global economic crises of 2007/8. It could not have been done by a single person. Siting this arts festival outdoors in Jamestown was a political gesture in itself to, among other things, respond to the phenomenon of ‘poverty industries’ around the globe where poor people are the only ones who do not benefit materially from their condition. And it is sad that one can get so preoccupied with their self-importance that they cannot see when they are shooting themselves in the foot. Aryeequaye has gone on record to express what he thinks to be anti-capitalist views; the ironic twist is that he has failed to understand the radically subversive nature of capital. One only needs to pay attention to the things highlighted about the festival to know where both his and ACCRA[Dot]Alt’s priorities now rest. And it has shifted from its original focus: no longer aligned nor concerned with the primary actors, consumers, spectators and producers of the festival— i.e. the residents of Jamestown.

***

 

Note:

1. Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement has already made this point that “[t]his is a movement about the one in four girls and the one in six boys who are sexually assaulted every year and carry those wounds into adulthood. It’s about the 84 percent of trans women who will be sexually assaulted this year and the indigenous women who are three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group. Or people with disabilities, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused. It’s about the 60 percent of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18, and the thousands and thousands of low-wage workers who are being sexually harassed right now on jobs that they can’t afford to quit”. See Tarana Burke’s TedWomen presentation in 2018 titled “Me Too is a movement, not a moment” here https://www.ted.com/talks/tarana_burke_me_too_is_a_movement_not_a_moment.  

**The following is an abridged version of the text to be published in the Galle Winston Kofi Dawson: In Pursuit of Something ‘Beautiful’… perhaps (15th March – 16th August, 2019) exhibition catalog as part of Dawson’s ongoing solo exhibition at Savanna Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Tamale, Ghana. 

 

Galle Winston Kofi Dawson was born in the Gold Coast on 8th November 1940 in Takoradi. He is one of thirteen children born to Mrs. Evelyn Esi Dawson and Mr. Wilberforce David Kwami Dawson. In 1956, when Dawson was 16 years old, he enrolled in Mawuli High School in Ho. He was in the same class with Prosper Tawiah and a year behind S. K Amenuke at Mawuli1. Dawson had initially entered Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), then Kumasi College of Technology (KCT)2, in 1960 for a diploma in Civil Engineering. He abandoned this direction in 1962 and joined the teacher-training Diploma in Fine Art (DFA) class.

Portrait of G.W.K Dawson, photo courtesy SCCA Tamale

Portrait of G.W.K Dawson, photo courtesy SCCA Tamale

When the KNUST BA Art Degree begun in 1964 Dawson’s class was the first to transition from DFA into the new degree programme. He was one of three students, with old time classmate Prosper Tawiah and Stanislaus Abaka. E.K.J Tetteh joined them from the Slade School of Fine Art after completing his National Diploma in Design (NDD)— the UK equivalent of the DFA on which the latter was modelled3.

As a young student, Dawson had been mentored by the Ghanaian painter and graphic artist Amon Kotei who worked at the Government Printing Office after his studies at the London College of Printing and Graphic Art in 1952. Kotei combined early modernist influences (a post-Impressionist style and Fauvist palette) to depict subject matter from his cultural environment in his figurative and landscape paintings. Kotei is also famously known for his work as designer of the Ghanaian National Coat of Arms during the transition from Gold Coast Colony to Independent state Ghana.

The conversion from Diploma to Degree in Ghanaian art education was contemporaneous with the UK educational curriculum. A year after he had completed his BA Art Degree, in 1967, Dawson was interested to see for himself what was going on in the European art world at the time. And so he was recommended for an 8-month Technical Award granted by the British Council to visit the Slade School of Fine Art in London. The recommendation came from John Avis— British artist and teacher who succeeded notable South African poet, painter, sculptor and academic Selby Mvusi as principal lecturer of the painting programme at KNUST in 1964.

While at The Slade, Dawson learned the basics of painting on canvas— sizing, priming with Rabbit-skin glue, using toluene as solvent, etc—in addition to the hardboard painting he had practiced at KNUST. He actively participated in drawing, painting and screen printing sessions— techniques he will return to more often throughout his life. With regard to drawing and painting he especially focused on anatomy, perspective, and live painting. Here he encountered British artist Euan Uglow, a peer of Avis’s. Uglow was one of several prominent artists who would visit and have interactive sessions with students at The Slade. On Sir William Coldstream’s request Dawson stayed four more months in the U.K until he returned in 1968. As a consequence of Coldstream’s mentorship Dawson became learned in the former’s realist idiom of painting. But Coldstream’s influence was to extend beyond individuals such as Avis and Dawson.

Exhibition view of Dawson’s solo exhibition (retrospective) ‘Galle Winston Kofi Dawson: In Search of Something ‘Beautiful’… perhaps’ (16th March – 15th August, 2019) curated by Bernard Akoi-Jackson at the Savanna Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Tamale, Ghana. Photo courtesy SCCA Tamale.

Exhibition view of Dawson’s solo exhibition (retrospective) ‘Galle Winston Kofi Dawson: In Search of Something ‘Beautiful’… perhaps’ (16th March – 15th August, 2019) curated by Bernard Akoi-Jackson at the Savanna Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) in Tamale, Ghana. Photo by Abdul Haqq Mahama.

Sir William Coldstream attended the Slade School of Fine Art from 1926 to 1929 and was himself mentored by the influential British avant-garde art teacher Henry Tonks4. He was a founding member, in 1938, along with Victor Pasmore and Claude Rogers, of the Euston Road Group of British male artists who were, in the early twentieth century, resisting French avant-garde waves in Europe by adopting a post-impressionist style of painting traditional subjects in a realist manner based on observation; emphasizing social realism and rule of thumb measurement for drawing as well as painting of the human body and still life objects. They belonged to the community of socialist-inclined artists in London who were politically motivated about their work in response to Fascism, global economic depression, and optimism after the Mexican and Russian revolutions. This circle preferred naturalistic painting as a way of making art more accessible to non-specialists and members of the public. The aesthetic prescriptions of this school confined drawing and painting to pictorialist formats that juggled single narrative subject matter from portraiture, landscape, genre painting and still-life. The group dissolved in the war years between 1939 to 1945 with Pasmore, Coldstream and Rogers moving on to become art teachers at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts5. Avis and Uglow had been Coldstream’s protégés, first at Camberwell then at The Slade (where Coldstream moved to when he was appointed Professor of Fine Art in 1947).

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.50.33 PMBetween 1960 and 1970 the National Advisory Council on Art Education (NACAE) — the body set up “to advise the Secretary of State on all aspects of art education in establishments of further education in England and Wales”6— chaired by Coldstream, released four reports detailing educational and examination reforms. Following the release of the First Report in 1960 (coinciding with Dawson’s Freshman year at KCT), the Diploma in Art and Design (Dip. AD) programme was established as a degree equivalent qualification to the NDD; consequently, old Polytechnic Colleges in England and Wales were given University status and allowed to run degree and postgraduate courses. Euro-Western art history (to be taught by art historians) and the Bauhaus-inspired Foundation Programmes were also recommended in the Report.

And so it happened that four years after the release of the First NACAE/Coldstream Report, when the BA Art Degree programme had been instituted at KNUST— with John Avis as the new head lecturer responsible for designing the BA Art (Painting) syllabus under the supervision of Professor Ernest Victor Asihene, Dean of the KNUST College of Art, in collaboration with other Goldsmiths alumni and Ghanaian faculty — the Slade curriculum was adopted and implemented in KNUST7. This meant that a verficationist tradition of painting, embalmed in early Modernist ethos, was to be inaugurated and consequently privileged, for instance, over any form of abstraction, symbolism or fantasy at KNUST in those early years. The Coldstream-inspired curriculum would hence constitute the hegemony in art teaching at KNUST.

Even though Avis left Ghana in 1967 (three years after his posting and a year after the counter-revolutionary coup d’état that toppled Kwame Nkrumah’s regime initiating Ghana’s Second Republic), the legacy of the European tradition he had bequeathed to the College of Art endured unchallenged until the late twentieth century years when growing nationalist movements in the former colonies of Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America conditioned conscious efforts of decolonizing curricula across board. For KNUST it came with post-Independence restructuring including the introduction of Selby Mvusi as one of the first black faculty (after painter Professor E.V Asihene’s appointment as Dean in 1960) to teach in the Fine Art Department in 1962. Coincidentally, this is the same year the Department of Art became a College. Mvusi, during his undergraduate years at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, aligned with the radical nationalist African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and other student political groups. Fort Hare was the only university open to Black, Indian and Colored South Africans as well as students from other Anglophone African colonial-administered countries during Apartheid. Mvusi left KNUST two years later to teach at the Fine Arts Department of the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1965 until his death in 1967.

Amongst prominent African Modernists affiliated with the College of Art in KNUST are Nigerian modernists Uche Okeke, Ben Enwonwu, Solomon Irein Wangboje and Demas Nwokwo. Okeke is a founding member of the Zaria Art Society (later known as the Zaria Art Rebels), in the late 1950s, along with Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwokwo and other students during their undergraduate years at the Zaria College of Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) in northern Nigeria who were consciously contesting the “Eurocentrism” of an NDD-based curriculum”. Okeke implemented his ideology of “Natural Synthesis”8 in the course program at the Fine Arts Department of the University of Nigeria (Nsukka) and initiated postgraduate courses after he joined the faculty in the ‘70s. As Head of Department he introduced new courses and research into Igbo Uli art traditions and graphic systems. Enwonwu, Wangboje and Nwokwo became external assessors and moderators of the KNUST College of Art from the ‘70s into the ‘80s.

During this so-called “Africanization” period, the KNUST art curriculum was reformed in terms of subject matter but the authority of traditional European pictorial genres and formats9 endured as official art. By the neoliberal political economic turn in world affairs in the ‘80s into the ‘90s, early modernist pictorial styles and romanticised African subject matter10 had become the dominant academy aesthetic until 2003 . . .

 

REFERENCES

Danquah, J.B. 1957. The Historical Significance of the Bond of 1844. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana. 3(1). 3-29. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41405698.

Oguibe O. 2004.  The Culture Game. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, London.

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.

seid’ou k. 2014a. 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) pp. 008-016.

seid’ou k. 2014b. 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.

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.

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.

 

Notes:

  1. Both of whom later became prominent lecturers at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST.
  2. KCT was established in 1951 but the first students arrived there a year later. It became KNUST in 1961.
  3. The NDD curriculum in metropolitan Britain formulated courses based on “Talent”, “Métier” (craft) and “Imitation”. Zaria College of Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) and KCT were examples of Colonial Colleges of Arts, Science and Technology (COCAST) in the 1950s. Their curricular were based on the NDD with subjects defined according to “European academy craft” such as modeling, life painting, still life, and landscape. See seid’ou et al (2015), p. 133 and p. 136 [note i]. For a deeper analysis of art education since pre-independence Ghana see seid’ou, (2006).
  4. Henry Tonks was a British surgeon and artist who significantly influenced a generation of British artists at The Slade School of Fine Art. In 1892, when Frederick Brown was appointed Slade Professor in succession to Alphonse Legros, he invited Tonks to become his assistant. Tonks became Professor at The Slade from 1918 to 1930. There he taught David Bomberg, Wyndham Lewis, Spencer Gore, G. A Stevens and William Coldstream. He was one of the first British artists influenced by French Impressionists.
  5. Currently a constituent college of the University of Arts London (UAL), it is known as Camberwell College of Arts.
  6. Op. cit. seid’ou, 2006, p. 142.
  7. See ibid. for sei’dou’s analysis of “analogous practices and concepts” in the Kumasi College of Art with the NACAE reports of 1960, 1962, 1964 and the Report of the joint committee with the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design (NCDAD) in 1970, also known as the Second Coldstream Report.   
  8. Olu Oguibe, in reference to the Zaria Art Society manifesto authored by Uche Okeke, notes that “natural synthesis” permitted Nigerian artists “to research and incorporate into their work formal and symbolic elements from within their indigenous art traditions while retaining whatever is useful from the Western tradition. This was very much in line with the search for a new cultural identity in the immediate postcolony and would eventually form the ideological and formal bases of modern Nigerian art from the 1960s onward”. See Oguibe (2004), p. 184. Also go to note 25 to see how homologous Natural Synthesis is to the ideas of the nativist colonial art master G. A. Stevens.
  9. See Department of Painting & Sculpture, KNUST. About Us. Retrieved on 16th July 2017 from https://painting.knust.edu.gh/about.
  10. Op. cit., seid’ou et al, 2015, p.134.