Many young artists have taken to the language of photography to express their ideas. The contemporary Ghanaian visual art scene has seen a burgeon in photography; there are those that make art photography and those who toe the commercial line of event photography — ranging from weddings, dinners, church activities and so on. Photography has become a necessary mode of documentation even for those who have no intention of becoming professionals in the genre.
I read an interview of Ghanaian photographer Nana Kofi Acquah as he had been invited by EverydayAfrica to be part of Photoville — a photo show in New York City. The photographer on “Seeing New York For The First Time” (as the article was titled) talked about his impressions of the city. His photos, in the article, corroborated his first impressions of an initial encounter with New York. I am generally interested in interviews of Ghanaian artists. I am interested to learn what others in my region have to say about what they do, how they do it and the issues they’re dealing with in their work.
Acquah speaks about his participation in the photo show as an opportunity “to contribute to the ongoing discourse about where Africa is or should be headed in terms of visual representations,”. What does he mean by this? I think what he meant was where ‘he’ is or should be headed in his career. Acquah cannot speak for an entire continent. Indeed it would be arduous enough to try and articulate or define a homogenous aesthetic criteria of the contemporary Ghanaian photography scene. Acquah is here alluding to some sort of a singular ambition for visual representations from ‘Africa’ which cannot exhaust the plethora of forms, ideas and representations belonging to artists practicing on the continent.
The contemporary Ghanaian photography milieu is pluralistic, rich and dynamic: You have the self-taught practitioners working with little care for technicalities, the photography enthusiasts optimising the use of their mobile phones or digital cameras and people like Nana Kofi Acquah who have trained or invested in schooling and high-end equipment. Acquah, in the article, explains some of biggest challenges facing photographers in Ghana today.
In Ghana, he explained, some of the biggest challenges facing new photographers is education. “I looked at how much the best art schools in the world cost and there was no way on earth I could afford to enroll in any of them. The next best thing was apprenticeship but there were also no top class photographers to apprentice from. And then after overcoming those two hurdles, the next one was getting people to pay me my worth,” he said.
“Most people in Ghana are used to the local photographer who shows up at a church on Sunday and takes photos for a dollar or less a print. So when you show up after all the education and investment in high-end photography equipment and ask to be paid by the hour by day, they look at you like ‘you must be crazy.’”
Nana Kofi Acquah makes some legitimate claims in the above quote but i find that he lacks criticality; a criticality of his practice and the cultural context within which he is active. First of all the formal school system is not the only way a person is educated. Education happens when one is conscious of events or encounters and is willing to learn from them no matter the environment or source. I don’t think Acquah needed to apprentice a ‘top class photographer’. Perhaps all he needed was someone with a good understanding of what they do and experience to boot and i’m sure he would have found some good candidates. The nature of his search necessitated his conclusions in the results. It raises serious questions on the history of photography in Ghana and how it has metamorphosed today.
Nana Kofi Acquah has become one of the popular names in photography in Ghana. His works exhibit on billboards all across the country with his wide-ranging clientele from multinational telephone companies to NGOs, etc. It is fair to say the people in Ghana he speaks about expect the local church photographer who works for a dollar or less but these same people encounter his work one way or another and are affected by it. So to infer that they are not in tune with his kind of quality is absurd. I think he should be speaking of quality in terms of ideas and not of monetary investment in equipment and school. Acquah plays an active role in shaping a peoples consciousness of a distinct visual language and style which has found its way into mainstream expression. He needs to be open to dealing with the implications of his practice in his environment beyond the economic benefits. For an Executive-Creative-Director-turned-photographer who is interested in contributing to the ongoing discourse of identity politics and representation in Africa there is much to engage.
We, as artists, have a role to play in contributing to the development of the world around us. Let us keep critiquing and questioning it…