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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

To dream and to imagine function as necessary correlates acting either in service of leisure/entertainment or in the urgent tasks of personal and political emancipation. Both terms imply the necessity to create: to create realities or existences which may be thought of as impossible within the coordinates of a given reality. To dream or to imagine at all is to exercise the vital artistic duty of inventing alternative worlds especially when one is under imperial authority. When one finds themselves in a world in which inequality is taken for granted, the initial task, if one wishes for its opposite, is to dream or imagine another in its place, if only as a momentary escape. And this is sufficient for political action for it constitutes the thought behind one’s will-to-do. Both terms, to dream and to imagine, invoke a third term: freedom. And the freedom to dream and to imagine is the political will to desire and to think. This form of liberty cannot merely mean that one can impetuously do anything they please. It especially means coming to terms with one’s own sense of responsibility and self-discipline. Since it is, in the first place, the commitment to a struggle even if the conditions are not convenient to endure. This means that one could, through the activity of dreaming and imagining, limit one’s own self in terms of what one will do and what one will not do. For instance, one ought not to engage in any activity that would be contradictory to the cause one has, through dreaming and imagination, committed themselves to. Which is to say that any devotion to a cause transcends personal convenience and taps into a generality that one might call truth. To engage one’s dreams or imagination is to venture into the domain of images— virtual images, so to say. In this sense one could begin to talk about truth images. The principle of equality is one such truth image. And since it defines itself as truth as such, it can only be verified as much in thought as in deed— embodied in actions or real images, so to say. Therefore to dream and to imagine correspond to a universal image if one is politically motivated about the world in which they presently inhabit. Both terms address universality insofar as their ethics, once announced or professed by an individual, generate a concatenation of voices in its affirmation. Hence such images may be held subjectively but shared collectively. The infinite power in the ability to dream and to imagine cannot be understated. We must!

Photo by I.U.B. 2020

Photo by I.U.B. 2020

 

*** I wrote 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.

 

 

 

 

Modernist architecture in the early twentieth century aimed to reflect the shift in industrial society from manual to mass production. One of the ways it achieved this was to render the surface of its buildings in a way that depicted no representational motifs illustrative of the building’s purpose. This consequence of modernity had jettisoned all decorative and stylistic conventions in the classical attitude to the architectural skin in favour of a kind of utilitarian essence according to which its elements were composed— for instance, modular grids organized into simplified rectilinear forms emphasizing liberal ideas of democracy and individualism as well as expressing the capitalist logic of standardisation became its characteristic idiom. The buildings were designed to emphasize structural relations as much as functional value primarily through the use of glass, steel, and reinforced concrete1. The aesthetic imperative was one committed to achieving enormous levels of transparency on the facade of the building envelope by opening “its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine”2 (figs. 1 & 2).

These principles animated so-called International Style architecture whose less neutral and more expressive variant, namely Tropical Modernism— responding particularly to the tropical climate by treating the building facade as a porous membrane that responds to natural ventilation3— also transformed the skylines and landscapes in countries from Ghana to Israel, Brazil, Colombia and others during the late colonial period into the Independence era and beyond.

In tandem, high Modernism was also making strides to surpass naturalistic or representational traditions in modernist painting and sculpture so as to emphasize opticality as such. “Self-definition” had become the mantra of this paradigm which, in this context, meant a kind of purity where the essence of the painting medium was considered strictly in terms of the properties of pigment, flatness of surface and shape of the support while upholding the two-fold pictorial conventions of “flatness, and the delimitation of flatness”4. For sculpture, which is already in the domain of three-dimensions (a forbidden zone for high and late modernist painting), the combo of shape and colour had become crucial factors to cleanse or cure its surface from literalness or “objecthood”5, which simply means intentionally securing the sculpture from any arbitrariness, towards muteness and authenticity, with the supreme purpose of uniformly absorbing6 the disembodied eye(s) of its spectator(s). In pictorial terms, the structural hierarchy between literal shape (boundaries of the canvas) and depicted shape (content of the canvas) privileged the latter over the former in terms of value. Later mid-century movements in art— Minimalism, Conceptualism, Institutional Critique, Pop Art, Feminist art and others— will problematize these purist and totalistic notions and pervert them altogether. Postmodern architecture from the late 1960s also reinstated representational mechanisms in its treatment of the building envelope as a gesture of critique towards its predecessor.

If Elolo Bosoka’s preoccupation with “flatness, objecthood and theatricality”7 in his solo exhibition Lines, Planes and Ridges in Between (2018) seems to be responding to such dated formalist discourses in art and architecture, then his speculative approach extends them with the extra elements of materiality and contingency. In his ensemble of objects, situations and encounters created with fashioned and found objects— including industrially woven Polypropylene raffia sacks for bagging various commodities, used tomato paste cans (a standard of measurement for commodities in open markets and other sites of exchange), wooden shelves, video on screen and light fixtures— the artist ventures into the realms of contemporaneity8. Pictorial, sculptural, installation and architectural forms are subsumed into the generalized category of objects, capturing the artist’s indifference and sensitivity to the materials and mediums employed.

The used plastic raffia bags are theatrically treated in the following ways: 1. Montaged and stretched onto wooden frames to achieve flatness in a painterly sense (fig. 5) and 2. Scorched with electric burners to transform them into eerily wrinkled concatenations of indistinctly seared tapestries (fig. 6) which are stretched out on the floor, stacked on top of each other or hung on vertical elements. His montaged panels appear flat and pristine but a closer inspection punctures this guile with evidence of an arbitrary “hand” through sewn patches, frayed ends or the bare materiality of slits in the fragile ribbons of the woven bag consequent of the pressure applied in stretching them on wooden frames. Variations in colour, text and other symbolic traces emerge as accidentals natural to the synthetic material.

Architecture is necessarily bound to the question of use or function in a way that art is not. The elevated volume or upper level of the low-rise modernist structure of the Senior Staff Club House9 (fig. 8) is supported by a series of rectangular columns, slab and a lower volume. Apart from the building’s fenestration and modular grid-screened facade, this form of elevation adds to the several passive cooling techniques achieved in the building. It goes without saying that the building also demands visitors to submit to the rhythm of its interior and exterior design.

In terms of spectatorship, Bosoka’s angular frames, triptych wooden shelves, video on screen, and indistinct plastic raffia tapestries all correspond to a frontal orientation for the viewer who becomes transfixed before them. For this to happen the work demands the viewer’s attention. And this retinal attentiveness (which is synonymous to absorption) is what, at the same time, causes disinterest in the interior and exterior peripheries of the architectural context in a traditional exhibition setup. But since the artist nominally includes the building as a component in the exhibition itself he actively complicates the effect of total absorption as the works toggle between asserting their self-importance and acting as backdrop or lure to other equally interesting experiences (figs. 7-9). One’s awareness of the architectural dimension sharply attunes their senses to the plurality of existential elements at play within that given moment. They are not only called upon to gaze at things but to also, for example, participate in a game of snooker, watch a TV show, have a drink, embody the coolness of the building’s loggia and the temperance of natural and artificial lighting, and so on and so forth.

 

In short, the architectural presence, in its scale, content and form, undermines the effect of pure opticality thereby dialecticising the tensions between absorption, distraction and participation within the exhibition space when it becomes an active component in the ensemble of things. These parameters beckon us to wander within the domain of the exhibition site as we would habitually do with any other habitable environment.

— IUB (2020)

 

1 Walter Gropius, leading figure of this formalist movement (what was then referred to as The New Architecture), in celebrating the age of machine production states that the “fresh technical resources have furthered the disintegration of solid masses of masonry into slender piers, with consequent far-reaching economies in bulk, space, weight, and haulage. New synthetic substances— steel, concrete, glass— are actively superseding the traditional raw materials of construction. Their rigidity and molecular density have made it possible to erect wide-spanned and all but transparent structures for which the skill of previous ages was manifestly adequate. This enormous saving in structural volume was an architectural revolution in itself.” See Walter Gropius. The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. 1965. Trans. P. Morton Shand. The M.I.T Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp. 25.  

2 Ibid. pp. 43-44.

3 Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew outline what they consider to be the “three main considerations influencing architectural design in the tropics” as 1) The people and their needs, 2) climate and its attendant ills, and 3) materials and the means of building. See Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zones. 1974. Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, Huntington, New York. 

4 see Clement Greenberg’s essay Modernist Painting (1960).

5 See Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood (1967) where he outlines what for him constitutes art and non-art in the high Modernist canon. 

6 For a detailed treatment of this concept of absorption see Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality and Art and Objecthood. 

7 Refer to exhibition press release.

8 For artist, poet and pedagogue kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, “”art” in the contemporary conception encompasses also all creative expression valued for their contemplative, aesthetic or theoretic value”. 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. pp. 74.

9 The Senior Staff Club House was constructed in Ghana’s Republican era in the 1960s and was designed by Professor John Owusu Addo (b. 1928). Owusu Addo’s iconic projects include the Unity Hall in KNUST, Bomso Clinic in Kumasi and Cedi House in Accra.

 

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.

 

**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.