Thursday, October 13, 2011

Embracing the Grit of the Ordinary

From kebab skewers of cedi coins on the grill, to a miniature cityscape formed from cast-off electronics, to an asymmetrical and abstract portrait of a football star, the current Foundation for Contemporary Art exhibit showing at the Alliance Francaise is an exciting look at emerging postmodern trends in the Ghanaian artistic psyche.

The group show features work from over 30 artists and is chock full of exactly the kind of art that I get excited about.  There's video, installations, found-object work, street-scene-based painting, and loads of three-dimensional and mixed media pieces.

The exhibit - "Wobole Kutu Wokpe: Cultures in Confluence" - is so big, in fact, that it needs two venues.  It's running concurrently at the Alliance and the Goethe Institut through October 29, 2011.

I attended the opening ceremony at the Alliance on Wednesday (Oct 12) and was very glad I went.  Otherwise, I would have missed the welcoming performance piece that, reminiscent of the Biblical last supper, linked me with other attendees in a communion of pita bread and pounded yam with palm oil - a perfect culture-blending moment to set off the culture-questioning exhibit.

Here are some of my favorite works from the show.

Circuit boards from discarded computers and other electronics designed into an architectural-model cityscape.  Fascinating and brilliant.

Nana Afari

A sort of post-impressionist style painting of a street-side phone card seller.  I talked with the artist for awhile, and he explained that the panel to the right represents the thought-space of the woman.  She is "reflecting" on how, not long ago, she would have been selling vegetables at her stand, not cell phone cards.  The repeated emblem in the panel was designed by the artist in the spirit of Ghana's rich symbol-tradition.

Andrews Yao Torsu
Acrylic on canvas

Cedi coins skewered up and 'grilling' on a makeshift grill made from a car wheel - a typical street scene in Ghana.  Only, of course, it's usually meat and not coins on the skewer.  A lovely, wry culture-comment of an installation.

B. K. Quaye [Sir Black]

Abstract portrait of Black Stars football standout Asamoah Gyan.  So much more engaging than the more lifelike but oh so run-of-the-mill portraits of Gyan usually seen roadside in Ghana.

S. Tete Katchan
"Asamoah Gyan"
Acrylic on canvas

And finally, video art!  By artist Ama Adinkra, who I had already met through the Woman on Bike workshop at the Goethe Institut.  Her piece juxtaposed fluid dancer sequences with close-up portraits, exposing the power of the video camera to capture both external motion and strong traces of internal expression.

Ama Adinkra
Video Performance
The exhibition, according to the FCA's event postcard, "Represents a step towards an investigation of the complexities of contemporary Ghanaian society…  Who is the Ghanaian?  What does national identity mean to him/her?  What are the issues that engage the Ghanaian's attention?"

For myself, I was simply glad to have found a group of local artists consciously working to embrace contemporary ideas that extend art beyond the two-dimensional canvas and beyond traditional ideas of portraiture or landscape into the sometimes-uneven but always exciting world of the found object, the culture-questioning installation or video piece, the streetscape-driven painting.

The works in this exhibit manage to escape both the predictability of Ghana's established art scene and the mundanity of the local craft industry.  Embracing the grit of the ordinary, these artists have produced extraordinary work.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Maxwell the (Mad?) Chalk Artist Man

"Take me to New York City," he said.

I was standing under Accra's only train bridge, talking to the city's number one chalk artist.  I had noticed his work - chalk text scrawled on sidewalk and bridge walls around Accra's main motorway interchange - pedaling past with my mountain bike on rides north toward the Aburi hills.

But this time I wasn't biking through.  I came to check out the art and artist, and I brought my camera.

"Take me to New York City," he said to me again.  I wasn't sure whether to make a joke or ignore the request.  I didn't realize I was about to become this artist's patron.

After that direct opening, and given the dense and conspiracy-driven nature of his text art, I wasn't sure what to expect.  But as I squatted down beside the man for a chat, I found him quite lucid and conversational.

His name, I learned, was Maxwell, and he seemed happy for some attention.  I spent some time, then, taking pictures of Maxwell and his art.

In our conversation, it came out that he was out of chalk.  A few nubs by his flip-flopped feet, he showed me, were all he had left.

So, after doing some other shooting around the area, I wandered over to the nearby mall, picked up a couple boxes of chalk, and brought them back to Maxwell.  He was glad to have some tools for his trade again.

My first patron-of-the-arts position.  And all it took was two packs of chalk.  What a deal.

In return, Maxwell shared his lucky lotto numbers with me.

As I was leaving, a passerby in a bright yellow t-shirt stopped to talk to me, curious why I was taking photos of the off-the-grid guy hanging out under the train bridge.

"He's just a mad man, you know," the man in the bright yellow t-shirt said.

"He's an artist," I said.

The man in the bright yellow t-shirt asked me how long I had been in Ghana.  He asked for my telephone number.  He said he liked me.  “I want to spend time with you,” he said.

Um, I just met you, dude.  Who's the mad one now?

A few days later, I stopped by to see Maxwell again as I pedaled through once more toward the Aburi hills.  He was sound asleep, but had left his own reply to the man-in-the-yellow-t-shirt's comment scrawled on the sidewalk by his head.

"Everybody crazy."
I'm inclined to agree.