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”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.

Sourced from 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. 483-484.

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). 

KCT Arts and Crafts Specialist Course (ACSC) was based on the Art Class Teachers' Certificate (ACTC) in the British Government Schools of Design.

Kumasi College of Technology (pre-KNUST) Arts and Crafts Specialist Course (ACSC) was based on the Art Class Teachers’ Certificate (ACTC) in the British Government Schools of Design. Sourced from 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. 131.

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/

 

IUB (2020)

 

Notes:

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. 

7 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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.
But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West
has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful
storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation,
who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted
them, to which they were brought in chains.”                        — James Baldwin, 19621

 

“[B]ut the truth is that no white American is sure he’s white.” — James Baldwin, 19692

 

Still a target
But the badge is the new noose.
Yeah,
We all see it,
But cellphones ain’t enough proof
So we still loose.”                                                       — Pusha T, Sunshine, feat. Jill Scott, 2015

 

 

The phenomenon of general isolation imposed on world populations as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has come with mixed feelings of despair, anxiety, and hope as we witness the myth of the centrality of human beings to this planet exposed by an undead organism indifferent to its host’s age, sexual orientation, class, and/or race. As we entertain ourselves with one virtual challenge after another, we have also, in the same vein, been compelled by grueling footages of unarmed black people being killed by police officers or fellow (white) countrymen in the United States. The most recent one which has ignited global outrage is the murder of George Floyd which occurred in broad daylight by an indignant group of police officers in Minneapolis, while bystanders who could do nothing but capture the incident on video looked on helplessly. And this comes at a time when the state of Minnesota is hitting its peak in COVID-19 cases as healthcare workers, lacking sufficient personal protective equipment, are getting infected with the virus.

Systemic inequality is in the spotlight once again as minority groups in the U.S endure the double-edge of trauma (from COVID-19-related deaths) and unmitigated terror from police brutality. As infuriating and demoralizing as this is, these moving images of modern-day lynchings have become all too familiar in the age of social media. And laughable as it may seem to any creature of mild intelligence from any other planet, we human beings (the ones some swear are the protectors of this planet) discriminate against, disempower, and often genocidally annihilate each other based on such arbitrary categories as the colour of one’s skin.

 

Trumpeting Baldwin

James Baldwin’s prophetic voice rings timelessly true for our epoch even as he poignantly diagnosed the despotism of racial inequality some decades ago. The latter offers the circular or self-referential logic that there is nothing beyond the stultifying horizons by which our imaginations have been crippled, thereby diminishing the revolutionary potential of love. For Baldwin, love is not merely the convenient reciprocation of what one receives from someone they already agree with or bond with; it is a secular ethic which is joyful, courageous, sensual, tragic, traumatic, and ultimately functions as the cure against seductions of inequality (this is precisely the temperature of freedom, as Baldwin sees it, experienced in some gospel songs, jazz and blues music, for example). Baldwin left the church because he could not find this secular thrust of the Christian ethic in full espousal. “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. […] But what was the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” Toni Morrison puts it in another way: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”

This fountain of renewal is what constitutes Baldwinian fidelity and the hope of transformation; that is to say where true freedom exists and runs contrary to uniformity and solidarizes for a common cause. Understanding the stupidity and depravity of racial segregation— which essentially posits the self-contradictory ideology of an impure purist system of privilege and disempowerment supremely hinged on the arbitrary category of the pigmentation of one’s skin— Baldwin’s infinite wisdom and timeless lessons abide. Baldwin deployed the secular thrust of love against indignations of racism. Racism is essentially a form of cultural difference based on which human beings hierarchically distribute power— a cowardly and “criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever”. But since existing in this kind of world necessitates differences— ethnic, personal, and so on— one can say that difference in itself is not the problem but the structure of power which any society uses to regulate it. In this sense there can be egalitarian difference, as there can be its opposite. The proliferation of different differences— sexuality, age, race, gender, religion, etc.— renders love all the more meaningful. It means that progress, if there is such a thing, must be achieved through tensions and not necessarily through homogeneity.

Whiteness, like any other inegalitarian worldview, is the practice of taking refuge in a delusion. It joylessly fantasizes about itself as the fixed, provincial, ubiquitous center; it dreams about consensus and practicalizes conformity. Whiteness cannot address itself to the everybody Baldwin speaks of in any meaningful way since it necessarily targets and concentrates within the minority for whom its power exclusively proliferates. The pathology that sustains the constitution of white subjectivity perversely augments the paradoxical situation of a desire for a total annihilation of all other races outside of its spectrum (blackness in this case) with the secret knowledge that if it achieved this it would also cease to exist, and so it falls on the cruel imperative of subjugation. In other words, it cannot kill them all because in their absence whiteness cannot justify its existence. The relationship is only one of vertical distance, of mutual exclusivity. And this is what corrupts its host(s), for no person nor group of people on this planet can survive on this bigoted principle without going mad. (And is this not the hysteria that drove an unprovoked Amy Cooper, a white American woman, to make a distress call for the police after threatening Christian Cooper, a black American man— her fellow “brother” or countryman— that she is “going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening [her] life”?)

If we undermine the mutual exclusivity in the above scenario with “communion”, which establishes relations based on what Baldwin calls “brotherhood” or what a contemporary thinker has referred to as “filial kinship” to create egalitarian distance— the “vanishing mediator” that restores equality in times of crisis— it gives us a different picture. Because “[w]hat the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil is not a racial war but a civil war.3 And “[w]hat is really happening [in the US] is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother. White men have lynched Negroes knowing them to be their sons. White women have had Negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers. It is not a racial problem. It’s a problem [of] whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it”.

Baldwin’s indifference to the stultifying fictions of race is telling. He gives us this entanglement between personal responsibility and the universal call. That in order to fight this cancer of inequality “we have to discover how to reunite ourselves [on] the terms on which we can speak to each other”. But, these “terms” cannot be based on existing identitarian fables, and so he cautions that “lest anyone misunderstand me, I’m not really talking about colour, I’m not talking about race, I don’t really believe in race. I don’t really believe in colour”. What he believes in is the disposition which respects the differences we all bring to the proverbial table but which is willing to transcend them in the practice of emancipatory politics; as in the rallying universal call to action, establishing solidarity, and transcending differences as the way forward. The forcefulness of Baldwin’s secular call to love (addressing the everybody) in the face of brutal oppression which weaponizes fear is amplified in his statement that “[w]hite people in this country [the US] will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed”.

Therefore one has got to decide for oneself, and if we are to listen to Baldwin’s call to subjectivation, that the actual and moral basis on which our world now rests is obsolete and must be changed. “As far as they are obsolete they are wicked, [and] as far as they are obsolete they are oppressive”. And “if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk—eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion— and the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.”

What is at stake in this “dreadful storm” is Equality. Equality must be democratic, hence its secularity; it exists for all, and not merely for some. And the subject presently at its center, in this case black people, exists as a ‘vanishing mediator’ acting on behalf of themselves on the one hand, and for all of humanity on the other hand (the everybody). And since all oppressive regimes thrive on center-periphery politics (where one achieves inclusion only on condition of conformance to what the minority in power determine), all egalitarian counterpositions must expand to preserve the ‘generic multiplicity’ (where one is already part of the social system and proceeds to assert independence based on the axiom that ‘we are all equal’). Equality, then, is not a crutch, it is already there and has always existed prior to human experience. We do not need to look hard to find it, it is universally available for all who seek, for what we have known for millennia untold is its opposite— liberties contrived by imperialism.

COVID-19 has come with the tormented lesson that the sustenance of humankind is not an isolated question from the health of other life forms, living and non-living, on the planet. The worst thing is to return to normalcy (and here we thought consuming and being numbed to lynchings on social media is a thing of the old world). If we are to overcome this ideological virus, we all need the “spine” or courage to stand up against injustice. It is not only a matter of black people in the U.S protesting these senseless and avoidable killings in the streets but also that given the contingency of history and power, it could be any of us in that condition and so rising up for a fellow human in the name of justice is rising up for oneself, plain and simple. It demands the responsibility of arousing our conscience to be sensitive to one another’s plights and never allowing ourselves to be numbed by the inaction of others.

We have already witnessed glimpses of this form of solidarity across economic and cultural lines in our century (the so-called Global Protest Wave of 2019 is a clear example). It has to be insisted on and amplified irrespective of separations in time (histories) and geography. This might seem like an impossibility given the warped and totalistic realities framed for us by empire and capital, but Baldwin reminds us that “in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.” To speak of impossibility in this sense is only to say that something else is possible outside of what pertains in the status quo; to exult in the redemptive force of justice and true democracy while wresting ourselves from the vindictive passion of unforgiveness.

We all carry the artistic duty of creating new possibilities as much for ourselves as for past and future generations to come. Secular love alloys all these potentialities. This is the impossibility, already present, which must be restored.

 

— IUB (2020)

 

Author’s note: All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are attributed to James Baldwin and have been montaged from three sources: 1. Baldwin’s 1962 book-length essay first published by the New Yorker as “Letter from a Region in my Mind” and later published as “The Fire Next Time” (1963), 2. Horace Ové’s 1969 black-and-white cinéma vérité documentary film of Baldwin’s lecture at the West Indian Student Centre in London titled “Baldwin’s Nigger”, and 3. Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis written in 1970. See endnotes for citations.

 

Endnotes:

1 James Baldwin. Letter from a Region in my Mind. 1962. New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind [accessed on May 28th, 2020].

2 See Baldwin’s Nigger. 1969. A documentary film of James Baldwin and Dick Gregory at the West Indian Student Centre in London. Directed and produced by Horace Ové. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zkWshZRm-M [accessed on 28th May, 2020].

3. See James Baldwin. An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis. 1970. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/01/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/ [accessed on 29th May, 2020].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of ‘Ghana Freedom’: On the Nation’s Debut Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale

 

Abstract: 

This paper analyses the historical significance and local relevance of Ghana’s debut Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. By using the historical materialist thesis that an event in the past is not necessarily historical, the paper highlights how, beyond pomp, the Pavilion could have done more to confront the latency of conformism in its desire for representation and inclusion. The paper also offers how the Pavilion could have taken advantage of its happening on the 20th anniversary of the South Meets West (1999) exhibition to critically reflect on and update Ghana’s contemporary art history in addition to recounting postcolonial and transnational genealogies. 

 

 

Read full article here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paradox of Plenty (2019) examines the complementary relationship, and resultant politics, that exists between media technology and nature. Not only is the exhibition wittingly reflecting on the geological substance of our media cultures determined by the plethora of technological devices available today, but also “on the implications between the history of technology and the inner histories of colonial and neocolonial societies.”1 Hence, the artistic research orbits stultifying narratives of mineral extraction and geology particularly stemming from European expeditions to Africa and South America; the politics of representation in natural history museums necessarily linked to colonialist conquests of the 19th century; and the ecological, social and economic axes of our accelerating tech culture. The exhibition also comes to terms with the politics of “accumulation by dispossession” operating at the heart of this phenomenon whose endgame is profit without compunction for the health of the planet and its inhabitants2.  

Hugo de Almeida Pinho, Paradox of Plenty, 2019, installation view, photo courtesy artist.

 

Paradox of Plenty seems to, on the one hand, visualise nature or geological phenomena while replicating it on the other hand through immersive, optical and aural strategies with the relationship existing between these situations being both indexical and open-ended. This calculated conflation is done through imaging technologies such as lightboxes, carousel slide projectors, light therapy glasses, light filters, LED display panel, among others. The mise en scène of still, moving, gestural and embodied spectacles is designed via installation, sculpture, photography, video, film, performance and happenings.

The fact that we can trace the components of our various technological devices to natural raw materials is one thing (for eg. Tin, Tantalum and Tungsten are significant metals in this regard); but the autonomy that these components consequently acquire, coupled with their functions, to shape the given reality within which they come to participate can be considered to be the subversive potential of this transformation from natural substances into mechanical, digital or artificial things— to paraphrase the artist, this is self-evident in the nature and potential of images to alter and manipulate reality as well as our apparatuses of perception3. In this way, not only is the artist directing our attention to the naturalness of such technologies, but also to its entanglement with the fictions inherent in nature4 itself— making it possible to stage such a recursive ensemble of organic, synthetic, and/or artificial images that enter into dynamic relationships— first with themselves, and then with human as well as other bodies.   

Hugo de Almeida Pinho, Paradox of Plenty, 2019, installation view, photo courtesy artist.

To the extent that fiction connotes “using the means of art to construct a “system” of represented actions, assembled forms, and internally coherent signs”5, we can discuss Pinho’s exhibition as a “system” indulging audiences in fictional documentaries6— fictional because the artist utilises the above-mentioned operations and documentary because of the factographic depiction of subject matter. The tensions generated by this paradox invokes the figure of a politically-motivated quasi-ethnographer artist who appears indifferent to mining the void of primitive and contemporary image forms. For example, the geological matter, image objects/mechanisms or evidentiary documents— the stones, their warped print representations on paper, the zoomed-in photographs animated in the form of lightboxes, the motorized carousel projections equipped with self-timers, the artificial rubber plant automatically revolving on a display stand, the seemingly unending stream of texts on LED panel in an immersive “green” environment which is, in turn, periodically animated with the performance of a “body non-body”7, and so on and so forth— consign themselves to a documentary fiction at once drawing attention to their ontic referents as much as to other-worldly experiences. The metonymical value acquired in this constellation frees the ensemble up to exist as signifiers participating in the dialogic discourses of imperialism, techno-science and the evolution of images as such. 

Hugo de Almeida Pinho, Paradox of Plenty, 2019, installation view, photo courtesy artist.

In short, these artificial and organic things acquire the polysemic quality of speaking for themselves in Pinho’s controlled world of image presences (whether invented or existing, in physical form or otherwise). The artist’s “system” attests to a condition of the image fervently affirming its conformist tendencies (merely acting as a “faithful copy” of an originary something, illustrating/documenting the subject matter) and then proceeding to utilize the power of fiction to create a constellation which calls its operation of contingency and indeterminacy to play8. Such might the enigma be of creating an intricate web binding the virtual enchantments of the subject matter to the ugliness of its real-world effects.

— IUB (2020)

** Paradox of Plenty (23/05 – 16/06/2019) is a solo exhibition by Hugo Almeida Pinho which happened at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. For more information on the exhibition visit https://www.bethanien.de/en/exhibitions/hugo-de-almeida-pinho/ 

For more on Pinho’s work see http://www.hugodealmeidapinho.com 

 

Endnotes:

1 See exhibition press release. Additionally, the crux of the exhibition could be summarised thus: “Paradox of Plenty addresses two subjects that have become relevant in understanding our natural and technological condition: the processes of nature artificialization and the intensive integration of mineral resources into technological devices – whose economic, ecological and social traces implicate the history of technology in the histories of colonial and neo-colonial societies”. See exhibition statement by Sara Castelo Branco. 

2 That is to say the law of commodification of the kind stretching from imperialism well into neoliberal globalisation.

3 See Paradox of Plenty (2019) press release. 

4 There is a durational performance in the exhibition titled similarly as “Nature Fictions”. 

5 Jacques Rancière suggests that “[…] “fiction” is not a pretty story or evil lie, the flipside of reality that people try to pass off for it. Originally, fingere  doesn’t mean “to feign” but “to forge.” Fiction means using the means of art to construct a “system” of represented actions, assembled forms, and internally coherent signs.” See ibid. 158. 

6 I owe this thought to Rancière who applies this theory to moving images in particular. For him, “[d]ocumentary fiction invents new intrigues with historical documents.” See Jacques Rancière. Film Fables (Talking Images). 2006. Trans. Emilliano Battista. Berg Publishers, Oxford, New York. 18.

7 The artist defines this as “a human at negative and as a shadow, who in a slow movement assumes various static and sculptural positions in space, wearing only glasses that constitute a set of light artificialization devices used in the therapy of various conditions triggered by the routines of contemporary life”. This is the performance titled “Nature Fictions” in note 4. 

8 Rancière contends that the term ‘image’ refers to “two different things. There is the simple relationship that produces the likeness of an original: not necessarily its faithful copy, but simply what suffices to stand in for it. And there is the interplay of operations that produces what we call art: or precisely an alteration of resemblance. This alteration can take a myriad of forms”. See Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image, 2019,  trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, London/New York, 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kelvin Haizel, Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom II (BASIC II). Series. No. 2, 2018, Inkjet print on Dibond, 92.6 x 139.7cm. © Kelvin Haizel.

 

Our present theme « to dream, to imagine » brings the concept of ‘virtual time’ to my mind. And the image that goes with it is artist Kelvin Haizel’s « Babysitting a Shark in a Coldroom » (2018) photography series.

For me the image,  with all its paradoxes, impossibilities and contradictions, speaks to the radically new laws of visuality, of perception, and of cognition by which our digital paradigm sets for us. Truth is vital and necessary. But the experience of the world today, especially in terms of images, renders the classical truth-false binary inadequate.

The digital image (whether pictorial, sound, gestural, or in any other codified form) connects us to infinite dimensions in terms of time and space. Therefore to dream or to imagine in a world such as this could be a very powerful and emancipatory gesture.

♣♣♣

*This note in response to a virtual project I am collaboratively developing with LABO148 titled New Cartographies: Letters from the “Whole World” (2020-2021) on the theme ‘to dream, to imagine’. See more here.