As media partner for 1-54 London 2018, Nataal travels to Accra to visit one of its most innovative exhibiting galleries
Kempinski is perhaps the most luxurious hotel in Accra. Its grand foyer has the scale of a museum, its rooftop pool glistens invitingly and its tree-lined courtyard provides the ideal hideaway for an evening drink. What really catches your eye though is the gloriously bold contemporary African artworks that you come across around every corner. This art collection, and the walls they hang on, is the handiwork of Marwan Zakhem, managing director of Zakhem, his family-owned group of construction companies with concerns across Africa, and more recently founder of Gallery 1957.
“Maybe construction is the easier job!” Zakhem says, only half joking. We are in said secluded courtyard after a weekend of art encounters across the city with some of the impressive stable of artists he works with and the British Lebanese entrepreneur is in good spirits. “The gallery was born out of a passion, not because I want to make my living out of it, but at first what I thought I’d bring to the table was my commercial ability to help these artists,” he says.
“If I’m able to create a commercial gallery to international standards, then other galleries can follow, which is what artists here need”
Zakhem admits that his road into the art world started out a naive one. Having moved to Dakar in 2001, he began to buy local art and after moving to Accra in 2004, he became a more serious collector with an appreciation for Modernist painters such as Ablade Glover. “My motto was, if I could afford it and I liked it, I’d buy it. I wouldn’t worry about what museums the artist had sold to, it was more about the aesthetic pleasure. Then I started commissioning pieces and getting to know artists.” While the construction of the hotel was underway, he came across Ghana’s new generation of talent. “I met Zohra Opoku, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Yaa Osu and Ibrahim Mahama, who were doing something incredibly exciting and original. It was moving and it caught me by surprise. So then I was like, you know what, I’m going turn a space in the hotel into a gallery.”
And in 2016, Gallery 1957 - named after the year of Ghana’s independence - opened, followed a year later by a second location across the road in the equally splendid Galeria Mall. In a short space of time, the gallery has made its mark at home with its proactive programming of exhibitions, talk, workshops and cultural activities, as well as abroad thanks to its participation in art fairs such as 1-54 London (where it shows Modupeola Fadugba, Godfried Donkor and Cameron Platter this week), ART X Lagos, Untitled Miami and Dubai Art Fair. Its diverse roster now includes young performance artists crazinisT artist and Elizabeth Efua Sutherland, illustrator Bright Ackwerh, mixed media artist Gideon Appah and preeminent fantasy coffin maker Paa Joe as well as Nigeria’s Gerald Chukwuma.
Gallery 1957 joins a thriving art scene in Ghana that has seen steady growth in recent years. Thanks to the longstanding efforts of institutions such as Nubuke Foundation, Artist Alliance, Foundation for Contemporary Art, Goethe Institute and Alliance Francais, and other newer voices such as ANO, the country’s artists are now garnering increasing interest and influence in the African art market. Likewise, festivals such as Accra.Dot.Alt’s Chale Wote street art festival, now in its fifth year, and the newly established Nuku Photo Festival, which Gallery 1957 participated in with a retrospective of legendary Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, plug into the city’s wider creative scene, too.
However the Ghanaian government provides little funding for the arts and the local collector base remains relatively small compared to Nigeria or South Africa, which is partly why Zakhem opted for a commercial rather than philanthropic model for his endeavour. “I want to prove that you can make this talent visibly successful, and make the figures work, because that’s how you build a sustainable art community. If I’m able to create a commercial gallery to international standards, then other galleries can follow, which is what artists here need,” says Zakhem, who also sits in the board of the Tate Africa Acquisitions Committee. “It’s a risk to put your name out there, and it’s expensive, and it takes up a lot of my time – because I do still have the day job! But art brings joy and happiness to people. Fundamentally that’s the most important thing. If I can be a part of that by helping the artists go to the next level, then great.”
Godfried Donkor agrees with these sentiments. Already firmly established globally, the London-based Ghanaian artist chose to realise a major project with Gallery 1957 on his home soil last year. The First Day Of The Yam Custom: 1817 reimagines a watercolour by the 19th century British explorer Thomas Edward Bowdich, thought to be the earliest visual record of Ghana’s Ashanti cultural customs in Kumasi. “I first came across Bowdich’s book while doing my MA at SOAS in 1995 and his illustrations captured my imagination. I wanted to reimagine them here in Ghana. He did his work in London and never brought it back so let me return this information to here,” Donkor says. After a six-month residency at the gallery, this accomplished body of work became a prime example of how contemporary art can help to recontextualise and deliver cultural heritage to its people.
Donkor also supports the local art scene by teaching at KNUST in Kumasi. “Every year I go and lecture at the university and I’m always curious to see their approach to experimentation. They’re enjoying exploring the process and not following a prescribed way of making art,” he says. “Our young artists are now coming out into the international art scene and I’m glad to be part of it.”
Taking an equally contemplative approach is German Ghanaian artist Zohra Okopu. Her work negotiates the textile cultures and visual codes that both define and camouflage identity. Using multiple mediums including installation, sculpture, video and photography, her quietly potent practice examines regional traditions and spirituality while addressing her personal authorship. On a studio visit to her home in Accra, she enacted a ritual during which drums and candle light accompanied her process of undressing a doll and painting its plastic peach skin black with natural adinkra dye. “It’s about being connected to the grounds and spirits, and understanding who you are,” she explains afterward. “The dye applies to culture, memories and the history of fabric printing in West Africa. It’s also looking at how school children’s uniforms are now made from fabric imported from China, where this white doll comes from too. I’m confronting the cultural ramifications on self-perception, self worth and on collective meaning.”
Serge Attukwei Clottey invited all comers to his studio in the Labadi neighbourhood of Accra for the one-day spectacle, 360 La, during Chale Wote. Bringing his entire community together to take part in his practice, he covered every possible surface in his signature sculptures, made from deconstructed plastic gallons and tin cans, and then headed up a forceful procession of women, men and children wearing upcycled costumes and spraying rainbows of powder paint into the air. Community leaders blessed the ceremony and everyone from local aunties to visiting curators became immersed in the installation.
The acclaimed multi disciplinary artist’s choice of Kufour gallons - a ubiquitous sight in Ghana having originally been imported from Europe containing oil, and then reused to carry water by those struggling with the country’s water shortages - has developed into a concept he calls Afrogallonism. The vivid results range from masks to large-scale moments such as this, which create alternative dialogues around social injustice, trade, migration and post colonialism. While he has exhibited extensively abroad, his performance work finds its potency at home.
“Ghanaians are crazily resourceful so if you give them the spaces and time to work, everything else comes”
“360 La is an exploration of the community through my materials. I’m trying to create a space where they feel like collaborators rather than just working with me,” Attukwei Clottey explains, a few minutes before the procession. “Afrogallonism has evolved over time, and has attracted a lot of interest in the work and in Ghana. Most of the time, I show the work here before it goes abroad so that the people who help me create it feel attached to it before it migrates. I’m happy because we’re now at the point where the objects have become more beneficial and functional than just being something hanging on the wall of a gallery. It is inspires young artists to be more experimental, to delve into narrative and research and I collaborate with those who approach me.”
Conversely Elisabeth Efua Sutherland’s recent exhibition at Gallery 1957 in collaboration with Paa Joe and his son Jacob Tetteh Ashong, Akԑ Yaaa Heko / One Does Not Take It Anywhere, brought the performance back into the white cube environment. Together they explored Ga and Fante funeral practices to envision the imagined passing of a 12-year-old girl through dance, coffins, video and music. “Our cosmology incorporates different aspects of what constitutes a person and what happens to different parts of that person after death. Because we’re coastal people, all the coffins were related to the sea and we used the idea of the body as a shell for the soul that needs to be sent off well,” Sutherland explains. “Traditionally we don’t celebrate the death of children or what we call ‘bad deaths’ such as murder or suicide. I wanted to highlight that this is something we have to pay attention to as a nation. We have so much rot in our system, and its effecting young people.”
The artist is also founder of the Accra Theatre Workshop, which celebrates its fifth year with Nubuke this year, through which she coalesces many of her over arching preoccupations. “I believe people, depending on their experiences, select and perform identity. I’m interested in that performance, how we switch when we get into different spaces. Especially in Ghana, where we have so many rituals related to each life event,” she says. “At the moment I’m working on a projects around women’s bodies, social media activism and mental health.”
She agrees there has been a positive pivot in the local arts scene recently and a fast-growing critical hunger. However, much more remains to be done. “Gallery 1957 is filling an important space. Artists like myself wouldn’t have gotten some opportunities to present our work if it wasn’t for Marwan. But we shouldn’t have all the weight at the top. We need more institutions to support the sheer number of artists and interest in art. And we should have more opportunities to experiment at a lower scale, to have studios that are less pressured within which to produce and develop. Ghanaians are crazily resourceful so if you give them the spaces and time to work, everything else comes. Beyond that, we need policy level change that sustains the life of an artist, such as commissioning public art and tax breaks. If the government are serious about tourism, they must invest in arts and culture.”
Gallery 1957 are exhibiting Modupeola Fadugba, Godfried Donkor and Cameron Platter at 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair London at Somerset House, 4-7 October 2018
Nataal would like to thank the British Council’s West Africa Arts programme for supporting our editorial focus on Ghana