The Displaced: Serge Attukwei Clottey

Serge Attukwei Clottey is a contemporary Ghanaian artist based in Accra. Labadi, his hometown as well as where he currently lives and works, is an old Ga settlement located in Ghana’s capital, Accra in close proximity to the Atlantic Coast. Clottey’s oeuvre has grown over the years to inter-relate painting, photography, performance, sculpture and installation. His  exhibition “The Displaced” focuses on his wood installations and plastic montages.

Plastic canisters are a ubiquitous sighting in Clottey’s neighborhood. Apart from serving as vessels for storing water they also tend to constitute a major problem of waste and sanitation in this and other areas in the capital which is challenged with effective waste disposal systems. He collects them from dump sites in his neighborhood after which he splits open the canisters (of various shapes, sizes and colours) with an angle grinder into small rectangular pieces. Cutting up the canisters begun as a practical solution for dealing with the problem of volume and consequently storage after he had accumulated them. He effectively turns the material inside out to be able to go against its natural form and, by so doing, achieves a solution for storage as the works are kept in rolls. Clottey has, however, developed this solution beyond mere practicality into a sustained inquiry; probing into questions of form and materiality (of the plastic canisters in particular) through his experimentation.

After cutting the canisters up into uneven rectangular elements a montage is assembled — he constructs monochromatic compositions as well as more diversified color ranges. The color patterns created from the plastic compositions are not arbitrary. The colour distribution is dependent on specific patterns that embody the artist’s process which incorporates  ideas, mythologies and philosophies which have informed and shaped his family’s worldview over centuries. A ready visual analogy can be found in the stone or brick inlays in the family compound floor where he currently lives with other family members. These inlays serve to identify spaces within that compound that are deemed sacred or mundane. The spatial designations determine activities that can or cannot be performed within the microcosm of this shared familial enclave, a reference that brings a visceral, embodied dimension to the work.

Abstractions of this symbolism permeate his work. Another illustration of this is evident in the wires he uses to join the singular plastic elements. When he uses copper wires to this effect he intends to deal with subjects related to value — of commodities and exchange. He says “I stitch them [the individual plastic components] with copper wires because copper is one of the highest commodities on the market but plastic is lesser than copper. So merging those two commodities together [creates] a valuable finishing. And it also changes the whole concept of equality because once you merge the copper and plastic it [becomes] one routine. […] and this is what I am interested in, blending materials together to form equal value.”1

This technique of joining or combining multiple elements conceptually creates a composition of inter-connected fragments — each contributing its own fragmentary piece of material history to his constellation. When the works are displayed or mounted a seeming paradox emerges; the grid-like arrangement of the plastic members seem to suggest a rigidity and strictness of form and intent whereas the method of joining itself brings or allows some freedom of movement for the work as a whole.

The sculptures showing in the exhibition are an ensemble of planks and slabs of wood salvaged from derelict canoes from the shores of Accra. On the wood, he makes assemblages with severed handles of the plastic canisters. He screws the handles onto the planks to create figures which bear an uncanny resemblance to the human form and inscribes, with a grinding tool, linear markings on them. The linear incisions reference Clottey’s own memories of places and routes he has travelled to and through. These strange-looking figures made from parts of canoes epitomize this memory project in which he seeks to reconstruct the migratory pattern of his ancestral lineage.

In a recent performance also titled “The Displaced”2, along with members of his GoLokal performance collective, Clottey embarked on a symbolic journey: an embodied gesture of remembrance of his ancestral migration from Bukom to Labadi (both towns along the Atlantic Coast in Accra which belong to the Ga State) aboard a canoe on the ocean.

One might think the plastic canister a recent leitmotif in his experience. They actually go a bit further. His fore-fathers, he says, traded mainly in alcohol and beef and the plastic canister was always vital to the transportation of these commodities via the Atlantic Ocean.

Clottey belongs to an emergent wave of contemporary Ghanaian artists whose practice is steeped in experimentation and who are determined to push the boundaries of what is known of and about art in Ghana. His practice feeds into a broader discourse of what constitutes and defines art. His working mode preserves him in a space of cultural relevance as he mostly deals directly with his publics, interlocutors or collaborators (primarily through performances and installations) outside of closed or confined environments — such as galleries or museums — in a process which demands continuous negotiating: negotiating relations, interpretation, representation, meaning, and so on. Like many of his colleagues Clottey’s inquiry begins from an earnest and self-critical position.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2015)

Notes:

1. Clottey disclosed this in a video interview with Stone Image titled “Afrogalonism”, 2015

2.  The Displaced, performance installation, exhibition at Labadi, Accra, 6th June 2015. This exhibition is a prequel in the series of same-titled exhibitions.

Serge Attukwei Clottey, performance, 2015, image courtesy artist

Serge Attukwei Clottey, performance, 2015, image courtesy artist

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