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**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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*This text is an extract from Curatorial Models, an essay detailing the exhibition strategies employed in Spectacles. Speculations… (2018), curated by the author in Kumasi, Ghana.

 

The Age of blaxTARLINES KUMASI

blaxTARLINES KUMASI is a collectivist response to the hopeless conditions that characterize the state of institution-building in contemporary art in the “cultural slum”that is Ghana. It is the contemporary art institution based at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST directly responsible for successfully implementing a radical openness to the concept and practice of art. This loose community consists of kindred spirits of artistic and non-artistic dispositions who have mobilized together based on core principles of economico-intellectual emancipation and political sensitivity to one’s practice. This community shares amongst itself and with the broader world through writing, publishing (catalogs, monographs, etc), exhibitions, interviews, artist talks, studio visits, library, etc.

At the turn of the century, a “silent revolution” swept through the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST — instigated by artist, poet, mathematician and scholar Dr. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou with fervent support from younger faculty namely Mr. Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu (Castro), Dr. Edwin Bodjawah, Mr. George Buma Ampratwum and their networks — with consequences for the Ghanaian art scene as a whole. Premised on values such as universality and multiplicity of art, the retro-colonial curriculum of the Department was to be transformed and expanded from its historical [over]dependence on “the authority of [human-centered] European traditional and early Modernist media, genres and formats” to include “photography, time-based media, local artisanship, new materiality, curating, text, performance, post-humanist media, robotics, video gaming, site specific and community practices”.2

What the kinship hoped to advance at the time is “a field of “general intellect” which encourages student artists and other young artists to work in the spirit of finding alternatives to the bigger picture which excluded their voices but paradoxically by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself. This way, the stain instigates a new vision, which requires a necessary shift in the spectator’s perspective. And this shift in perspective leaves the older picture as a stain in the new picture.”3

The democratic principle encapsulated in this metaphor wrests absolute autonomy from the proverbial “bigger picture” and makes it contingent to the subversive potential of both anamorphic stain and spectator. The artist-as-anamorphic-stain possesses not only the right but also the ability to create a new image with the old picture as a stain in it. The spectator’s gaze can no longer remain disembodied, they must correlate to the change that has happened in the picture by adjusting their positionality in relation to it— if this results in the assertion of an indifferent posture, it would be borne out of intention.

The metaphor is close in spirit to Jacques Rancière’s emancipatory politics. For Rancière politics proper begins when the excluded masses (the supplementary part of a population who remain unnamed (dēmos) or the lower classes who are by design elided from positions of power (polis) by the ruling oligarchy), through political subjectivization, assert for themselves the entitlement of inclusion in the exercise of power based on the only universal epithet “we are all equal”. (i.e. this particular group demands universal rights and proceeds to rupture relations in the public sphere by radically affecting the dynamics of inclusions, exclusions and permissions that regulate what is communally common, in a word, the distribution of the sensible(Rancière: 2004, pp.12). Further, the Universal is the space that is common to all of humanity, the space we all must take for granted, the thing we can all appeal to at any moment that is not the predestined property of any race, gender, group, nor state.

seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching— a pedagogic model that advocates “the dissolving of genres in “activist” and participatory practice”6— has inspired the community that is blaxTARLINES KUMASI to prefer political indifference to any particular trend, style, medium, process, etc. His pedagogic model exemplifies that of the “ignorant schoolmaster” (Rancière: 1991, 2004) who acknowledges the equality of intelligences at work in every teaching opportunity and is concerned not with transferring the knowledge he knows onto the ignoramus but with creating democratic conditions that make it possible for the ignoramus to bridge the distance between what she knows and what she does not yet know— that is, so that she can empower herself to learn what she does not yet know but can know on condition that she wills to endeavor into the forest of signs.

Beginning with the axiom that “art is anything that is radically new”,blaxTARLINES KUMASI proceeds to posit art as a site of multiplicity. Art that emerges “from a void: with neither content nor prejudice for any particular medium, skill, material, or process”8. The void here does not presuppose anything, neither is it a negation of pre-existing content: it is a state of criticality born from a disposition which understands given historical and institutional definitions of art. Art is here radically emptied of such presumptive associations so as to permit an egalitarian regeneration of its content; hence art is anything that is radically new.

This can be formulated in another way with the question “what is art?”. In this specific context, the question must necessarily be its own answer. If we consider the inquiry as lacking content from the outset when posed, it spurs the questioner on to search, discover and learn about what they do not yet know on the basis that they can know. And each questioner can, in principle, begin their own journey into uncovering answers. The question is the void which permits the questioner to regenerate or populate new content. There is, of course, always the tendency to be dogmatically ensnared within a radical breakthrough at a particular moment in this evolution as is seen with modernist avant-garde movements of the past century. Insofar as proponents of these movements purported to have the destiny of art in sight, shrouded in a logic of purity, truth and linearity of time (or history) it was bound to become stale and eventually irrelevant to the times. What is at stake here, then, is to figure out how one can grow the vigor and vitality to sustain the question-as-answer throughout one’s practice.

Furthermore, the motive here is to create democratic as well as enabling conditions of self-determination for any person, regardless of their cultural or economic background, to be able to thrive based on their own intentionality and will. If this is the case, then a logical corollary must be confronted. Democracy inheres antagonisms, as it is not a perfect state of harmony. And this kind of emancipation, although based on a Universality, would not be available to all since it is conditioned on the will or action of its subject. So we find that this democratic ideal, if it is to be truly egalitarian, must dialectically permit its subject to freely reject the terms of emancipation it is itself offering. But what distinguishes this participatory regime from modernist presuppositions based on classical logic, with binaries of either-in-or-out, is that the subject may reject its thesis and still have a right to exist. It is neither premised on the illusion of perfection nor on the myth of total harmony (which would itself be a state of tyranny). It identifies the failures and cracks immanent to its ideals and negotiates those tensions.

Illustrated in the foregoing is the praxiological thesis animating contemporary art coming from KNUST that has established the Department of Painting and Sculpture as an important hub in contemporary art emerging from West Africa. These ideas have manifested curatorially in blaxTARLINES KUMASI’s critically acclaimed end of year exhibitions in Kumasi and Accra since 2014.The exhibition as testing ground for new symbolic relations between artworks and the production of knowledge, intergenerational conversations, collective curating and accessibility programming (translating exhibition material into braille and other local languages, creating areas within the exhibition space for physically challenged persons who could not access the lower and upper floors of its large-scale exhibitions to get a sense of the works on every floor) are some of the core strategies fervently implemented.

At a time when independent curating has become an itinerant practice, collective curating as a strategy is a laudable response to making the curator (or group of curators) present at any moment in time throughout the duration of the exhibition to ensure that the integrity of the works is protected and preserved through daily care. My trans-disciplinary practice (working as artist, writer and curator) as well as consideration of a multiplicity of spectators (children, older people, visually impaired, workers and people coming from various class backgrounds), translating exhibition material (curatorial statement and captions) into braille, and selecting works that offer multi-sensorial experiences for Spectacles. Speculations… comes as a direct influence of blaxTARLINES KUMASI’s inclusive and egalitarian ethos.

 

— (2018).

Extra Links:

 

Notes:

  1. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou explains this concept in an interview with Jelle Bouwhuis stating that “[o]ne expected Neo-Liberal privatization, economic and cultural deregulation, affirmation of freedom of choice and rule of law to stimulate private investment in cultural institutions dedicated to human self-determination. However, if we could say that Ghana’s private mass media thrived in this era, we cannot say so about art departments, galleries, museums and so on. So in terms of cultural institution building, Ghana is a good example of the contradictions of Neo-Liberalism and its globalising processes”. See ‘Silent Parodies. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis’, in Project 1975 – Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious (J. Bouwhuis and K. Winking eds.), SMBA/blackdog publishing, Amsterdam/London 2014, p.p 109-118
  2. Department of Painting & Sculpture, KNUST. About Us. Retrieved from https://painting.knust.edu.gh/about . It states on the website that “The Department of Painting and Sculpture has the oldest history in the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and among the pioneering art departments in Africa. […] In the Nkrumah Republican period (1960-1966), the School became an autonomous College of Art headed by the painter E. V. Asihene, an Achimota and Goldsmiths alumnus. In the new College, the Department’s curriculum was based on the recommendations of the First Coldstream Report (1960) which had kick-started the upgrade of art schools in the UK to degree status. Principally, external moderators of the new KNUST programme were either social realist artists or affiliates of the British avant-garde teaching at Goldsmiths, the Slade and the Royal College of Art. The succeeding curriculum of the mid 1970s, through the 1980s, had a group of African Modernists from Nigeria as external assessors and moderators. Among them were the eminent artists Ben Enwonwu, Uche Okeke, Solomon Irein Wangboje, and Demas Nwokwo. With an increasing focus on Africanist narrative realism in painting and official statuary in sculpture, the authority of European traditional and early Modernist media, genres and formats remained unchallenged. The curriculum’s range of painting genres still remained within the bounds of still life, landscape and pictorial composition with the stylistic dominance of geodesic (freshman) cubism, the so-called Tek Style which undergirds most murals on campus”. For a critical analysis of the legacy of the vocationalist curriculum in the colonial Gold Coast “Hand and Eye Work” and its legacy in post-independence art teaching in Ghana see also seid’ou k. (2014). Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work: A Genealogical History. Retrieved from http://garj.org/garjhpsir/index.htm
  3. seid’ou k. & Bouwhuis J. Silent parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis,” in Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, eds. Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, 2014, pp.109 – pp.18
  4. Rancière theorizes this as that which “reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed. Having a particular ‘occupation’ thereby determines the ability or inability to take charge of what is common to the community; it defines what is visible or not in a common space, endowed with a common language, etc.” See Rancière J. (2004, pp. 12), The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum International Publishing Group, London/New York.
  5. seid’ou’s pedagogic model is based on his communist political persuasion which desires to “transform art from the status of commodity to gift”. In his own words this meant “going on artistic strike, stop “making art” symbolically and to inaugurate a practice of “making artists.” See Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, ed. Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO?: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation (interview held in 2016). Around the time of his appointment as faculty in KNUST in 2003 seid’ou introduced “Interactive Series”, a seminar programme in Kumasi to host contemporary artists and art professionals for talks, workshops, exhibitions, overviews and critique sessions. He also converted his Drawing Class into a curatorial project of guerrilla exhibitions on campus and in the city of Kumasi. Campus and city alike came alive with site-specific exhibitions  with critiques and overviews each year. The blaxTARLINES team in an interview with Contemporary And (C&) recounted a “small revolution” in 1996 at the College of Art at KNUST, see Aicha D. & KNUST Team (2017), Department of Now: The teaching methods at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology Has Cultivated a New Generation of Innovative Artists (July 4th, 2017). Retrieved from http://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/past-present-and-future-about-art-in-kumasi/
  6. Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, ed. Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO?: kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation (interview held in 2016)
  7. kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou made this statement in one of his lectures
  8. See https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2017-2/od-curatorial/
  9. The end of year exhibitions have featured undergraduate students, alumni, faculty, teaching assistants and other guest artists living or dead (For example in 2017, “Orderly Disorderly” featured Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami (1940 – 2016) and Camerounian conceptual artist Goddy Leye (1965-2011). In 2014, a smaller scale exhibition featuring works by students from the graduating class of that year were shown in an exhibition at Nubuke Foundation in Accra. The following year, the trilogy of large-scale exhibitions at the Museum of Science and Technology in Accra — 1. “The Gown Must Go Town” (2015) featuring 57 selected artists and inspired by Kwame Nkrumah’s speech “The African Genius” made in 1963 when he officially opened the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. The exhibition also celebrated alumni Ibrahim Mahama and El Anutsui for their participation in the Venice Biennial of that year “All The World’s Futures”, and El Anatsui receiving the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Biennial. 2. “Cornfields in Accra” (2016) featuring 87 selected artists. The exhibition was inspired by Ama Ata Aidoo’s poem of same title written c. 1964-65. The exhibition honored the memory of Camerounian conceptual artist Goddy Leye, founder of ArtBakery in Cameroun. 3. “Orderly Disorderly” (2017) featuring 106 selected artists (fresh graduates, alumni and special guest artists including Professor Ablade Glover, Galle Winston Kofi Dawson, S. K Amenuke, Dr. Dorothy Amenuke, Agyeman Ossei). The exhibition honored the lifework of Professor Ablade Glover and Abbas Kiarostami and featured a body of archives of the Kumasi School among which are manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. See Ohene-Ayeh K. (June 2017). “Orderly Disorderly” Curatorial Statement. Retrieved from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/orderly-disorderly-curatorial-statement/

 

“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains, and ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of this sleep.” — Guy Debord, 1967

 

In a thirty-second Techno Mobile campaign on Instagram for the Phantom 8 model of the company’s smartphone brand, a fascinating mise-en-scène unfolds. A sedan is shown driving down a street. Then, in rapid succession, the editing reveals a bizarre sequence of medium, close-up and wide-angle shots narrating the story of a day in the life of a working man. He is first shown seated in the backseat of the car busy on his phone. The sedan he is riding in comes to meet other cars held up in traffic with irritated drivers and passengers wondering what it is that is holding them up in this kind of situation. Just then this man, with the aura of a superhero, gets down from the back of the car where he alone was seated, reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out the phone. He confidently wields the device in one hand while pinching the screen with thumb and index finger of the other to “super zoom” into the event eluding the vision of everyone in the picture, including himself. His implicit confidence in the device is affirmed as it reveals the comical event obscured before them: a truck carrying poultry had spilled its cargo with people frantically collecting them about the street.1 (see fig. 1) The message here is familiarly clear, the mobile phone manufacturer is promising potential customers that the phone camera, with its inbuilt functionalities, can enable us surpass limitations in natural vision— in short, augmented human ability is potentially available to anyone who can afford this commodity.

I use this public relations hyperbole to draw attention to what has become commonplace dictum that the technical function of zooming multiple times into one’s environment with a mobile device permits us to penetrate so deeply into the details of the natural world in a way that is unmatched by the naked eye. Lest we take this digital technological advancement for granted, Walter Benjamin — writing at a time of the impending Fascist regime ushered in by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany in the 1930s — apropos Paul Valéry, anticipates this radical transformation of our visual apparatus of perception in the early days of analog photography and film when he analyzed the implications of the invention of the camera on art and its relationship to politics.2For Benjamin our logistics of perception are shaped just as much by historical circumstances as they are by nature (Benjamin: 1936, p. 5). His position is a radical modernity unrooted and unbounded by Fascist identification of nationalism or ethnic property. He is of the conviction that the invention of photography (and consequently film) had the potential to transform the very nature of art itself wresting it from the “cult of beauty” into a practice based on politics.

The politics of the image factored significantly in the ideological wars of the past century therefore underlining its relevance as subject matter for our time. Since the early twentieth century there have been consistent efforts by artists, filmmakers, dramatists and intellectuals to undermine the traditional values of capitalism’s “illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations”3(Benjamin: 1936, p. 14) from the Soviet Union, through Europe, to Latin America, Asia and Africa. We owe the development of techniques and genres such as montage, collage, assemblage, jump cuts, documentary films, pamphlet films, essay films, et al to these anti-art movements since their political passion was to profanate the conventional and institutional limits of art thus changing its relations with the public.

Postwar geopolitical events of the twentieth century exposed a crisis of the image amidst liberation movements in the former colonies of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Ghana in 1957, Nigeria in 1960, the Cuban Revolution, etc), Civil Rights Movement in the USA, 1968 riots in France, Mexico and elsewhere around the world, the Vietnam War, Cold War geopolitics, amongst others… In 1967, a year before the student-led uprisings in Paris, Guy Debord, filmmaker, theorist and member of the Situationist International, published his philosophical treatise “The Society of the Spectacle”. His dialectical exposition critiques capitalist conditions of production by exposing its contradictions and alienatory effects on the masses. First Debord defines the spectacle as “the visual reflection of the ruling economic order”4— a unified and autonomized world of images. But at the same time that the spectacle is “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images”, it is also “not a collection of images” but “a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” His paraconsistent logic is taken a step further when he concedes that the spectacle is “not merely a matter of images, nor images plus sounds” but “an affirmation of appearances” which detaches it from pictorial dependencies and frees it up to phenomenology — that is, in terms of how things appear in the world of the sensible or realm of phenomena. In this way it simultaneously begins with a multiplicity of forms of appearances as well as modes of perception. This is the radical understanding Spectacles. Speculations… brings to the conception of images such that it becomes possible to discuss works from photography, video, film, text, sound, black box theatre, computer-aided design, installation, sculpture, and spoken word poetry in the context of images (see curatorial statement).

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Read full essay here. This essay is written for the exhibition Spectacles. Speculations… To learn more about the show click here.

 

Notes:

  1. https://instagram.com/p/Bb_py6DFtTY/
  2. See Benjamin W. (1936). The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
  3. Ibid.
  4. Debord G. (1967). The Society of the Spectacle. Retrieved from http://www.bopsecrets.org

Spectacles. Speculations… posits imaging as emerging from a multiplicity; as code or as a system of perceptible elements necessarily political. If we consider the spectacle as images proliferated through capitalist modes of production that come to mediate human experience while eschewing political agency, the exhibition takes a contemporary approach to analyzing the ways in which it has evolved in a globalized economic order through new technologies and traditional media. The spectacle appears as an autonomously separate power that reinforces distance and alienation. Since the past century, the spectacle has been understood as an alienatory system or a regime of images manufactured by the ruling class to subvert reality and indeed to replace it. Distance becomes a critical component in this dynamic: the chasm created between individuals’ interpersonal relations, the distance between the worker whose labor produces commodities they are estranged from by virtue of their wages, between the rich and the poor, between artist and spectator, between spectatorship and the art work, between agency and passivity, and so forth…

The role of images in the ideological wars of this period in history (chiefly between capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism) played out in art as well. Filmmakers, artists, dramatists and intellectuals alike from the Soviet Union, Europe, North America, Latin America and Africa contributed significantly to the class struggle of the twentieth century through their practices of which specific ones will be discussed in a forthcoming essay titled Spectacles. Speculation…: In Terms of Images.

The progressive solution was to abolish this distance, to massify, (in terms of deasthetization and de-skilling) and to de-commodify the art object such that ownership and spectatorship will not remain the exclusive preserve of trained experts and of property-owning classes. There are many lessons to be learnt from practitioners of this political position, but in order to come to terms with the spectacle in the twenty-first century this pre-digital thesis would need to be updated since the spectacle cannot be said to possess the same characteristics today. The spectacle has achieved greater sophistication in content, form and effect. For example, it has become more participatory than ever in the digital paradigm where photography and film have achieved such proliferation, massification and de-skilling through computers and smart technologies that one only needs a portable device like the mobile phone to become a photographer or filmmaker. Couple this with the possibilities of collaboration and dissemination offered by the Internet. Yet the spectacle endures. Smuggling authority, alienation and commodification back into this pseudo-egalitarian dynamic.

With the domination of the capitalist politico-economic ideology around the world after the Cold War in 1989, the spectacle has essentially remained the same reactionary apparatus used in service of capitalism but has revolutionized itself by way of content and form through its appropriation of modern techno-scientific triumphs.

The exhibition responds to these issues by dialectically restaging elements of the spectacle in order to diagnose it for what it is, to be confronted by its complexity from which point we can begin to critically speculate new realities for art. The exhibition features works by fourteen artists based in Africa, Latin America and Europe who are, in respective ways, intervening in their chosen image-making technologies and inventing new visual, gestural and auditory modalities of practice that incorporate post-human forms of interaction. With site-sequencing strategies consisting of an ensemble of objects and forms sited across conceptual (discursive), literal and virtual dimensions, the exhibition displays a spectrum of mediums including braille, text, photography, video, film, sound, black box theatre, computer-aided design, installation, sculpture, and spoken word poetry.

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Click here for curatorial statement.

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Spectacles. Speculations… (2018), exhibition view, photo by Elolo Bosokah

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Spectacles. Speculations… (2018), exhibition view, photo by Elolo Bosokah

 

 

Orderly Disorderly (2017) completes the trilogy of large scale end-of-year exhibitions held by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art incubator and project space of KNUST, in collaboration with Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB) and its subsidiary, the Museum of Science and Technology (MST) in Accra. The exhibition features works by fresh graduates, alumni, and guest artists (living and dead). The previous two exhibitions — The Gown Must Go to Town… (2015) and Cornfields in Accra (2016) — honored Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and Ama Ata Aidoo respectively. “Cornfields” also honored the memory of Cameroonian conceptual artist Goddy Leye (1965-2011). Orderly Disorderly shares and celebrates the political vision of artist and educator Professor Ablade Glover who mobilized artists toward economic emancipation within a hopeless artistic milieu in the early 1990s when Ghana’s cultural institutions had been famished of domestic and international support.

Intergenerational conversations, collective curating and accessibility programming are vital to the curatorial model adopted by blaxTARLINES KUMASI during this series of exhibitions. blaxTARLINES actively collaborates with GMMB and MST in programming and curating to incorporate artefacts in their permanent collection into its exhibitions. The terms of the exhibition trilogy were set by “Silence between the Lines” in 2015 based on a deliberate misreading of the Sankɔfa legend by karî’kạchä seid’ou. In this new reading, the Sankɔfa bird unfastens its customary anchor of nostalgia and “attempts to grasp what it might have forgotten from futures that are to come”. This summarizes the new spirit of the Kumasi Art School which would be interpreted as anagrams of emancipated futures.

Orderly Disorderly combines the political attitudes and principles underlying Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s practice — notably The Bread and the Alley (1970), Orderly or Disorderly (1981) and The Chorus (1982) — and seid’ou’s emancipatory art pedagogy. Kiarostami is reputed for his deliberate use of non-actors and unprofessional crew to produce very significant films. His vital efforts to intervene in the film form saw him subvert conventions of filmmaking in order to transform and reinvent the medium. This spirit aligns with that which animates contemporary art production in the Department of Painting and Sculpture (KNUST, Kumasi). seid’ou’s egalitarian and emancipatory teaching practice “encourages student artists and other young artists to work in the spirit of finding alternatives to the bigger picture which excluded their voices but paradoxically by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself.” This typifies his politics of ironic overidentification.

With this background the exhibition reflects on the status of art in the early decades of the 21st century. The exhibition posits art as a site of multiplicity. Art that is de-substantialized and emerges from a void: a state of indifference that is not pre-emptively prejudicial to any particular medium, content, skill, material, trend or process. If anything can be said to be art today it must necessarily be invented.

There are important analogies to be drawn from the artistic and political indifference espoused by the curatorial team of Orderly Disorderly, and the state of hopelessness and indifference experienced by sufferers and witnesses of the current global crises of public commons (refugee crisis, economic precarity, threats of ecological crisis in the epoch of anthropocene, new forms of apartheid emerging as invisible walls in the public sphere, gentrification of digital space and intellectual property, etc). As a response, the exhibition features a generic participant, ‘The Unknown Artist’. This character embodies the void, the disavowed, which haunts the consistency of exhibition projects operating within the finitude of contemporary capitalist processes but disavowing the precarity they leave behind.

Orderly Disorderly countenances diverse multi-site projects extending from MST into the city of Accra and further into virtual spaces — straddling human-centered and posthuman, art and non-art practices alike — by over 90 artists, including seminars, outreach programs, art talk events and a body of archives of the Kumasi School among which are manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. The exhibition invites its audience to deal with the contradictions that are constitutive of their everyday lives.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh and Curatorial Team.

‘ORDERLY DISORDERLY’: KNUST end of year exhibition
OPENING: Friday, 30TH June – Friday 1st September, 2017
Museum of Science & Technology, Accra
Organizers: blaxTARLINES KUMASI
Supported by: Ghana Museums & Monuments Board (GMMB)