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biography

The above title references a conversation I had with fellow co-curator of the 2019 Bamako Encounters Biennial of Photography, Astrid Sokona Lepoultier, for Eye of Photography (ODLP) on Felicia Abban’s photography as shown at the Biennial. Read the full interview here:

 

 

About Felicia Abban:
Mrs. Felicia Ewurasi Abban (maiden name Ms. Felicia Ewurasi Ansah, b. 1936) is the only daughter among five children born to eminent Gold Coast photographer J. E. Ansah and Theresa Yankey, a textile trader. Abban is a veteran Ghanaian photographer whose work in studio photography and photo-journalism begins in the 1950s and spans over six decades of practice. Throughout her illustrious and industrious career Abban chalked many firsts: she is generally regarded as Ghana’s first known professional woman photographer; she is the first woman president of the Ghana Union of Photographers (GUP) and is also the first woman to have joined Ghana’s presidential team of photographers. She was trained from the age of 14 years onwards by her father in his studio and was his only female apprentice. After her marriage to Richard Bonso Abban (a textile designer whose most notable work is the design of the commemorative cloth that featured Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s portrait for the Independence celebrations) in 1956, she moved from Sekondi to Accra where she set up her own photo studio in the central business district. This is only a year before the Gold Coast colony would transition into becoming the Ghana nation state. The state became a Republic in 1960. During this period she documented many significant political events as a member of the official team of presidential photographers all the while maintaining her studio practice. In 1966 she was due to have travelled with President Nkrumah to Hanoi during the Cold War but could not because she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. While Nkrumah was out on this official duty, a military coup d’état was staged in Ghana which ousted his Pan-Africanist government and he was subsequently exiled until his death in 1972 in Sekou Toure’s Guinea. After this event Abban moved on to work with Guinea Press (now Ghanaian Times). During her time with GUP Abban engaged in countless training and workshop programs around the country inspiring generations of photographers. She played a vital early role in mentoring seminal filmmaker Kwaw Ansah (one of her younger siblings) in lens-based practice. She completely retired from her practice in 2017. Her photographic work made its first public appearance in an exhibition in the group show Accra: Portraits of a City (2017) at the ANO gallery in Accra. Abban is also one of six artists– alongside El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Ibrahim Mahama, Selasi Awusi Sosu, and John Akomfrah– selected to feature at the first-ever Ghana pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale 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.