**I gave this lecture 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].”2 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”3 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.
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.