G.W.K Dawson: A Particular History of Ghanaian Modernism

**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.
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