The famed Ghanaian artist discusses his latest exhibition The First Day of the Yam Custom: 1817 at Gallery 1957

On a recent trip to Ghana during Chale Wote Street Art Festival, I was lucky enough to spend an evening with respected artist Godfried Donkor. Over beers, bitters and a looping soundtrack of Davido, our conversation around the legacies of colonisation, the enduring allure of gold (and why you don’t order red wine at roadside bars), allowed us to delve into the themes of his deeply personal exhibition currently on show at Accra’s Gallery 1957, The First Day of the Yam Custom: 1817.

Born in Ghana, educated Spain and the UK and having long lived in London, Godfried Donkor embodies the cross-cultural narratives that guide his work. Renowned for painting, drawing, photography and especially collage, his practice examines the shared histories of Africa and Europe. He has exhibited widely at institutions including Studio Museum and Smithonian Museum of African Art and has represented Ghana at the Venice Biennale (as well as designed the country’s football kit).


Photography Kyle Weeks

Donkor’s new exhibition reimagines an illustration by the 19th century British explorer Thomas Edward Bowdich, The First Day of the Yam Custom (1818), thought to be the earliest visual record of Ghana’s Ashanti culture. It resonated with Donkor since he happened upon it while studying for a Masters in the History of African Art at London’s SOAS. “Ever since, I’ve been slowly plotting and deconstructing it, wanting to make my version,” Donker confesses. And now he has.

While his new paintings and collages on newspaper tackle wider socio political issues straddling both cultural and temporal boundaries, the monumental work is also informed by the process of coming to terms with the loss of his mother and father. “The last few years have been personally traumatic,” he reflects. While caring for both parents he had to take a step back from his art. “I think that was the trigger for me to take on projects like this, especially after years of not working.” The final realisation of this body of work was serendipitous. “Everything was aligned. I met Marwan [Zakhem, the founder of Accra’s Gallery 1957] last October, and he was keen to work together.” Donkor mentioned his “obsession” with re-contextualising Bowdich’s seminal image, and Marwan agreed to host a residency. It so happened that by the time Donkor completed the works, they would mark 200 years since Bowdich travelled to Ghana.


For Donkor, being in Accra was integral to the works' realisation. “The project would have been completely different if I had tried making it in London,” he muses. “In Ghana, I was able to tap into the vistas and colour spectrum Bowdich experienced. I had to feel that I was going through his footsteps to make the work. In London the light is completely different, but here on the equator - where we are closest to the sun - it is incredibly difficult to paint, I wanted that challenge and experience.”

A powerful text from Cameroonian curator Koyo Kouoh accompanies the exhibition, ruminating on the parallels between Bowdich’s narrative with today's politicised environment including London’s recent Grenfell Tower fire, a tragedy which saw more than 80 people die in their homes. “Bowdich’s project was in a way part of the established British policy on dealing with its subjects,” Donkor reflects. Whether current or past, Kouoh also discusses the enduring“pain of blackness” as an underlying theme of the work, even though in many ways they are joyful to look at. Asked whether this was a conscious decision, Donkor agrees that for him they feel liberating. “I wanted to make the series of images as popular as possible to audiences so that they could investigate history, not only about the ‘other’ but a history which is about all of us.” By expertly weaving together the horrors of colonialism with the seductiveness magnificence witnessed by Bowdich, the works celebrate “the beauty, nobility and survival instincts of the people that had to endure those times.”


“I wanted to make the series of images as popular as possible to audiences so that they could investigate history, not only about the ‘other’ but a history which is about all of us”

It’s this commemoration of triumph over hardship than runs through much of Donker’s output, particularly in the overt beauty of his ongoing Madonna series. For the artist, these works celebrate “the ability of the African women to negotiate their way through a lifetime of enslavement by owning and dictating the terms of their bondage and commodification”.

Adding to the alluring appeal of the exhibition is the artist’s use of gold leaf. Apart from the obvious connection with this region, which became known as the Gold Coast, gold “has mystical qualities and also is quite spiritual,” explains Donkor. Further to this, the element also becomes a physical representation of the changing trade relations between the UK and Ghana. Explorers such as Bowdich came to Ghana to plunder its riches, then adapted gold’s use when they appropriated it – turning it into legal tender rather than purely decorative adornments. Beyond this, Donkor’s use of gold belies his magpie-like eye for artistic influences, from Byzantine paintings to Pop Art. “For me, using gold is a way to iconise my love for pop art and a way I can make certain images look contemporary and historical at the same time.”


The results are Donker’s own triumph against hardship, finding splendour in a period of immense pain. It may feel wrong to delight in them, but when faced with the intricacies and nuances of each piece, we are reminded of an even more precious element of Ghana’s riches - it’s compelling and enduring artistic legacy.

Godfried Donkor The First Day of the Yam Custom: 1817 is on view at Gallery 1957, Accra until 30 October 2017. He is also showing with Gallery 1957 at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London from 5-8 October

Words Emma Gilhooly

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Published on 04/10/2017