Anthropologist Rhoda Woets not only wrote an essay for SMBA Newsletter #129 on the work of kari-kacha seid’ou, she also lectured modern and contemporary Ghanaian art on September 30. During this afternoon Woets discussed the work of several artists in relation to the complex definition(s) of contemporary Ghanaian art. The notion of contemporary art in Ghana is for instance related to institutions such as art schools and art galleries. Popular art, craftwork and weaving such as kente are usually not included in this category.
The Ghanaian government has a tradition in stimulating the arts. In 1952, five years before the nation’s independence from the United Kingdom, the College of Art in Kumasi was established. Resonating its colonial relations, the school was affiliated with art institutions in London, such as Slade and the Royal College. Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah continued many of these international connections, as he took Western culture as exemplary in his mission to create an independent nation-state. In his vision modern art was a tool to construct identity; he argued that artists should express Ghanaian cultural history in their work. Many Ghanaians indeed relied on African traditions and symbols in order to express their identity. One example of this concept of ‘Sankofa’ is the ‘Accra Optimist Club’, a group of Ghanaian men who wore traditional cloths during colonial times.
The relation between the notion of modernism and African art is complex, Woets emphasised. Yet as certain developments in Ghanaian art history prove, they don’t have to be opposites. Stimulated by the British education, a naturalist tradition emerged amongst Ghanaian artists, in which with landscapes, idyllic villages and portraits were painted. Others tried to include or represent specific aspects of African culture in their work, like Kobina Bucknor who painted African masks, and Vincent Kofi who referred to the tradition of African sculpture. Amongst these artists the artistic tradition of naturalism was seen as a form of inferiority while the adaptation of African traditions was seen as an act of emancipation and a tool to create national pride.
While these subject matters remain important, the artistic styles changed during the 1990s. African traditions were no longer ‘superficially’ represented, but rather included as an extra layer. Beside a political tool, art was seen as a personal expression in the tradition of Kant’s aesthetic. Woets mentioned the work of Fatric Bewong and Adwoa Amoah. Other artists cross boundaries between artistic mediums and experiment with materials or performances. Artist Kofi Setordji is not only known for his installations, he is involved in teaching as well. Here he stimulates young artists to break from traditions. While Setordji focuses in his work on formal qualities, Woets mentioned Bernard Akoi-Jackson as an example of contemporary conceptual artists.
Woets finished her lecture with a question: ‘How can we recognize the work of a Ghanian artist?’ She stated that contemporary Ghanaian art is too versatile to be defined as a strict category especially because of international interactions. Yet because of Ghana’s historical entanglement with Europe and the United States, it is still important to define and study Ghanaian art Woets concluded.