Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, curator and writer based in Kumasi, Ghana, but you would recognise him more as the unapologetically handsome star of some of YEVU’s past campaigns. Much more than just a pretty face, Kwasi is currently completing his PhD at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana. He is the current grant holder of KfW Stiftung’s programme ‘Curators in Residence: Curating Connections’ (2019) in collaboration with the DAAD artists-in-Berlin programme. He was guest curator for the inaugural Lagos Biennial (2017) and recently curated ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ (2018), featuring 16 artists from Ghana, Holland and Colombia, in Kumasi. Kwasi recently crossed paths with our Berlin based Content Producer, Tessa, and they caught up to chat about what the burgeoning contemporary art scene is like in Ghana today and his role within it (and also a little about his foray into modelling with YEVU).
Tessa: So you are currently completing your Phd from the University of Science and Technology in Ghana. How do you feel about it and what are you planning to do now?
Kwasi: Yes I am, it feels like a natural direction because I still have some questions unanswered about art, so I’m using the PhD as a way of reasoning them out through my own practice. My PhD is leaning more towards curating but of course it’s also an opportunity to bring in all the different elements of how I work. So the projects I realise will be curatorial in form but will still be my usual playful way of working.
What are some of the core values or stories behind your work?
For now I would say that the central principle that I work with is the universality of art and I think that is where much subversive and transformative potential rests today.
What was it like growing up in Ghana as a creative?
Every aspect of my experiences growing up shaped my current direction. The open-endedness, you know, the diversity, the richness of how we experiment as kids and the sense of wonder one has of the world. As a child I was fascinated by drawings of comic characters that I knew and this became my initiation into artistic practice. As I sustained this, it eventually grew from drawing into other interests.
I understand you like to explore mediums other than painting, although you majored in painting while studying at KNUST. How did you gravitate to exploring new mediums and why?
After my undergraduate training at the Kumasi School in 2009, I came to participate in a community of poets, writers, artists, dancers, actors and musicians in Accra known as Ehalakasa. Then I begun organising their series of monthly spoken word, musical and theatre-related events. I was also a volunteer at the Foundation for Contemporary Art – Ghana (FCA). Through these networks I came into contact with a diversity of practitioners. Organising discursive, performative and other such events gave me real-time understanding into the multiplicity of forms, materials, etc. through/by which ideas could be expressed in art. So the inspiration came from my colleagues, my peers and from my experiences working within the cultural scene in Ghana.
I went back to Kumasi in 2015 to do my MFA — so the period between 2009 and 2015, after art school, was spent wandering and exploring— finding art, so to speak. When I went back, I knew I wanted to deal with the things I was already doing more critically: the philosophical assumptions implicit in the claims I was making about my work, its theoretical dimensions and the political implications of it all – so that’s what led me to do my MFA and this is how I was able to consciously use curating and writing as extra-artistic mediums as opposed to thinking about them in mutually exclusive terms. And so, while I could make videos and installations of many kinds, I could also curate a show to articulate an idea, and/or write a text (usually essays). I write to think. With these freedoms I find there’s always the prospect of testing the limits of what is possible. This is what the universality of art means to me.
How do you want to change the perception of art within Ghana and where do you think this could lead to on a social level?
I would say that change is already happening, and it began at The College of Art in Kumasi instigated by a community to which I belong called blaxTARLINES. For us, it is important to properly historicise and contextualise the myopic framework of art education that came through mercantilism, [Protestant] Missionisation, colonisation and its cognates, which have determined the cultural disposition and hegemony of artistic thought and practice in Ghana. Contrary to a pervasive “epi-colonial” system (which has survived into the 21st century) that orients its object (the colonised, the ‘other’ on the periphery of power) to focus exclusively on the subject (the coloniser, the power ‘centre’) our emancipatory framework aligns with the supreme ethics of equality by substituting, in principle, the centre-periphery dynamics of inequality (upon which our education, for example, is based) for an egalitarian paradigm where one is free to pursue an independent will or future.Our work encompasses organising public talks, exhibitions, screenings, studio visits, making publications and so on.
Things like these take time, so for us it’s not so much about taking up the daunting task of changing things overnight but more about labouring out of love with the hope to contribute a counter-argument to the mainstream discourse while actively creating conditions which offer plausible alternatives to it.
Who are some artists and spaces in Ghana that you consider to be significant within the contemporary art scene today?
The Foundation for Contemporary Art in Ghana (run by Adwoa Amoah and Ato Annan) and Nubuke Foundation (run by Odile Tevie and Kofi Setordji) are major institutions in this regard. There are also individual artists who are playing their part to develop the contemporary art scene such as Ibrahim Mahama, Serge Attukwei Clottey, and Francis Kokoroko (@thestudioaccra), amongst others. On the continental front, I was personally impacted by Àsìkò Art School organized by CCA Lagos. There is also RAW Material Company. These initiatives, and many more, have collectively contributed to expanding the scope of what is possible in cultural production. I anticipate a lot more of such cross-regional initiatives in the near future.
Will YEVU be your only foray into modelling?
To be honest, I had never considered modelling as a thing prior to YEVU. I think for Anna, when we first did it, it was more about ‘let’s just do something!’ Her experimental approach to working eased me into it. So we tried it and it worked. I suppose I have a portfolio now with YEVU so I could do it more [laughs]. And I suppose it’s also characteristic of our time that anybody can potentially become a model as we self-consciously appropriate image-making technologies.