By MAURICE ARCHIBONG,
who was in Ghana (+233242829216),
As its former name, Gold Coast, depicts, Ghana is rich in minerals, especially in gold, and lately, petroleum. Unknown to most people, however, cultural wealth is one of the country’s claims to fame. Its art, music, literature, beliefs and customs, communications and social behaviour are some of the richest in the continent. Kente, one of the Ghana’s indigenous textiles, which are well known across the world and whose designs have been adopted for gift-wrappers, shopping bags et cetera; is among this nation’s cultural icons.
Indeed, another attribute, called Adinkra, must be an even more important symbol of Ghanaian culture. Believe it or not, historians hold the view that aside from hieroglyphs, Egyptians’ mode of “writing” of the Pharaohic-era, two sub-Saharan Africa communities, Akan and Efik/Ekoi, also had indigenous “letters”. These are Adinkra from Ghana and Nsibidi, both pictographic means of writing.
It is worth noting that, whereas learning of Adinkra was not restricted; with regard to Nsibidi, only initiates of the Ekpe/Mgbe Society, common among the Efik/Ejagham/Etung et cetera of Cross River State, Abiriba and other Cross River Igbos in Abia State, as well as Cameroonian clans, were knowledgeable in this art of communication.
Furthermore, Ghanaians boast a respected and vibrant music custom, which spawned Highlife and something called Bonsue. Ghanaian drama tradition and folklore are also very rich as could be gleaned from the countless tricks of Anansewa, the spider, which is the Akan peoples’ equivalent of the tortoise, that classic trickster in the folklore of some Nigerian communities.
Interestingly, however, even though universities in the old Gold Coast have over several decades produced, and are still producing, competent graduates of Fine Art, Ghana does not seem to invoke instant respect through its modern paintings and sculptures as it does through adinkra, textile, drama and music traditions.
The state of affairs regarding Ghana’s Fine Art sector could be gleaned from the fact that the number of Art Galleries in Accra has actually been dropping over the last 20 years. Yes, a number of galleries have closed shop in the Ghanaian capital. And, some of the extant ones are only holding on and struggling to keep their heads above water.
Cheeringly, however, reminiscent of a lone star in a cloudy sky, one art gallery in Accra recently threw a party. Welcome to Artists Alliance Gallery, which has survived for 20 years and is still waxing strong. Founded in 1993, Artists Alliance operated inside Omanye House, then located in Teshie-Nungua on the Old Accra-Tema Road, until it relocated to its current complex. Unlike the original Omanye House, which was a storey building, today’s Omanye House covers three floors, and it is situated at Labadi on the old road linking Accra, the capital, with the Port City of Tema. It also boasts an ocean view and a beachside bar.
To celebrate Artists Alliance’s 20th anniversary, an exhibition, with the theme, Opening our vaults, opened in Omanye House on March 19, 2013. Apart from Opening our vaults, which was basically the display of Artists Alliance’s Collections, dubbed Contemporary Art Today, An exhibition of (select) leading artists, a cocktail was also thrown in, to make the celebration complete. The indaba continued the following day with an exhibition of traditional objects, which included textiles like kente, beads and traditional drumming.
In a nutshell, Opening our vaults featured three generations of artists. Evocative of the brotherly ties that bind Ghanaians and Nigerians, the works of at least two Nigerian artists, Yomi Momoh and an Osogbo-style artist simply identified as Chief Oloruntoba, were among the exhibits at this exposition.
Although the majority of the over 300 artefacts were paintings, there were also sculptures as well as mixed-media works. Whereas the first-floor display comprised works collected by Prof. Ablade Glover , over the decades, as well as the The Sound of the Fontomfrom, one of the paintings on the topmost floor, was rendered in 2010 by Rikki Wemegah. A special drum used by Ghanaians, served as motive for this oil-on-canvas painting by Mr. Wemegah, now in his 50s, according to Mr. Ebenezer Taylor, a worker at Artists Alliance, who took me on a guided tour of the exhibition. The Sound of the Fontomfrom carried a 4,500cedis (over $220) price tag.
Also on the third floor was Legacy III, a 2012 oil-on-canvas rendition by Nii T. Mills. Currently in his late 40s or early 50s, Mills’ Legacy III carried a price tag of 8,000cedis (roughly $400). On display, on the same floor, were Drumbeat and Labour Force, by Hilton Korley and Alfred Mensah respectively. The acrylic-on-canvas Drumbeat, rendered in 2012, cost 2,000cedis (less than $100).
We first encountered Artists Alliance in 1997, during a visit in March 1997; to report on Ghana’s 40th independence anniversary. Aside Ghana’s political evolution since March 6, 1957; we had also delved into this nation’s rich culture during that visit. This aspect took us to Ghana’s National Museum, Barnes Road; where a commemorative exhibition was running.
That, in a nutshell, is how we got to meet Prof. Joe Nkrumah, then Director of Exhibitions at Ghana Museums and Monument Board (GMMB). Sadly, Prof. Nkrumah, who would become an invaluable mentor for me, passed on three years ago. Another tragedy for me was the passage of Pa Amon Kotei, a WW II veteran and self-taught artist, famed for his paintings of bulksome women.
In 2001, Wiz Edem Kudowor, another famous Ghanaian painter, had graciously led me all the way from his Kokomlemle home to Labadi, where we engaged Pa Kotei for roughly two hours. Already an octogenerian then, it was unthinkable that Pa Kotei would live eternally. Nonetheless, his exit left us hurting for long.
Similarly, it was another commemorative display at Artists Alliance that led us to know Prof. Ablade Glover. Cheeringly, we had visited Prof. Glover again in 1999, 2000, 2001 as well as during the exhibition marking the relocation of Omanye House from Teshie-Nungua to Labadi in 2008. Happily, Glover is still with us. He is not only alive and well, he is also still fecund.
Meet Artists Alliance arrowhead, Prof Ablade Glover
Accra-born Prof. Ablade Glover has come a long way, and so has his art as well as gallery in the heart of Accra. Once Dean, College of Art at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Glover also served as Head, Department of Art Education at the same institution. A Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Art in London, Glover is listed in the Dictionary of Contemporary International Artists, Who’s Who in Art and Antiques and Who’s Who in the World. Before his retirement from KNUST in 1994, Glover had already attained the position of Associate Professor.
After training dozens of students at KNUST for decades, Prof. Glover, who, in his younger days, had studied art in Ghana, United Kingdom and the United States, retired into setting up Artists Alliance; an art gallery-cum-artists’ association. Prof. Glover will clock 79 on August 1, and he still paints. “Yes, I still paint,” he concurs.
As to how it has been, running a gallery for 20 years, especially in a city like Accra, where some others had actually folded shop? This is what the retired art don had to say: “It’s been tough, somewhat. Owning a gallery in Africa is no joke. It requires serious commitment. Nonetheless, one can say that we’re moving forward; marching toward growth.”
It is widely believed that an exhibition must serve as a statement. What could be the statement behind Opening our vaults? Glover again: “This celebration is not so much about making a statement. We organised it to tell the world that we survived 20 years and are moving positively forward. I think clocking 20 years, in spite of all the challenges, is worth celebrating. It’s has helped to remind us of the past. We had to do some stocktaking. We’re now looking forward to the future. So far, so good”, he mused.
That stocktaking throws up some saddening parts. When Artists Alliance began, some of its now-deceased faithful were still alive. Although the majority of those that started the journey in 1993 are still alive, Prof. Glover rued the transition of the few that are no longer here. Hear him: “Jennifer Myer died in 2010 and in 2011, Amon Kotei followed. Both of them were great painters.”
Despite that, Artists Alliance marches forward, and the professor hints that there might be a grand celebration when the gallery clocks 21 next year. “Let’s hope so,” he said. “You agree that 21 years is a significant milestone in a human being’s life.”
Some lawyers, accountants and other professionals paint or draw as hobby. So, what could Glover, who creates for a living, possibly engage himself with, when he seeks recreation? “Coming to Omanye House is a big change,” he revealed. “It is for me, a break and a refreshing change from my studio environment. Breaking away from the studio and coming here (Omanye House) to handle administration and go through the book (Accounts) helps me unwind.”
Rarely does one find a report on Fine Arts in the Ghanaian media. Whereas some segments of the entertainment industry, such as popular music and drama, daily enjoy projection, Ghanaian media, electronic and print, seem to ignore Fine Arts, and by extrapolation, painters and sculptors. About five years ago, we had taken up this issue with Nick Kowalski, an art historian and proprietor of Step-in Gallery. While lamenting the situation, Kowalski recalled: “Once, there was a writer, called Otoo, who wrote some interesting pieces on Fine Arts from time to time. Unfortunately, he, too, seems to have stopped.”
Glover decried the situation too, declaring that, “the situation has become worse. Sadly, Ghanaian media seem to have no place for Fine Arts. You would be lucky if they mentioned you at all, throughout your career.”
Such is the situation that Glover was rather shocked, when a major Ghanaian newspaper ran a report on Artists Alliance for the first time in mid-March, this year. Surprise, surprise; not only did the paper run a story on one day, there was another report on Artists Alliance the following day or so in the same medium.
It is possible that survival of this gallery for 20 years, when other art houses had practically packed it in; did the trick. Glover could not be sure what prompted that rare favour. But, whatever it was, he probably wished it would continue.
The Artist as Collector
Collecting other people’s paintings or sculptures is not common practice among artists. Although some would love to collect, they often cannot afford that indulgence. Many never bother to collect because as artists, they feel they can produce even more-alluring works. Therefore, after going through some 200 artefacts collected by Glover over the decades; we could not, but engage him on the subject.
Indeed, an artist’s collection could help shed some light on his taste and level of appreciation. Interestingly, Glover’s collections feature the works of Amon Kotei, Ato Delaquis, Kwabena Poku, George Hughes, Krotei Tetteh, Oko Matey and J. C. Sarpong. Kudowor’s Meditative Pose, an acrylic-on-canvas piece rendered in 2005, measures 30in x 40in.
George Hughes’ Patrol, an oil-on-canvas was executed in 1998 and has a dimension of 32in x 48in; while Market Place, a charcoal work by the late Krotei Tetteh, is 60in x 48in. Drummer, a bronze sculpture by J. C. Sarpong, which measures 64in x 35in x 35in, was executed in 2005. It is worth noting that a Nigerian artist, Yomi Momoh, has his work in Prof. Ablade Glover’s Collection. Momoh’s piece is titled Seascape and measures 60in x 48in.
Ato Delaquis’ has two paintings among Glover’s haul. The works, both of them acrylic-on-canvas, are Okra: Soul of the chief and Prof Joe Nkrumah. The latter, as its title implies, is a portrait of the late Prof. Nkrumah, a former director of exhibitions at GMMB. Rendered in 2009, Prof Joe Nkrumah measures 40in x 48in.
But, why does Glover collect? “We collect because of the circumstances, here,” he explained. “Ghana boasts very few collectors. And, I’m aware that if we go on like this, in another 20 years, what we have would be gone. That is what happened to our traditional art. Most of our people are so preoccupied with looking for what to eat and where to live, that art hardly crosses their minds. Also, perhaps because they see it everyday, they take things for granted. Our people pay no attention to art. So, today, the best of our traditional art can only be viewed inside American and European museums.”
But where was Ghanaian museum looking when the artefacts left town? “Museums must be properly resourced to prosecute their mandate,” he explained. “In most African countries, museums are not properly funded. This is why we feel obliged to intervene.”
Glover’s recent works
Prof. Glover’s paintings are among the works on display in the First Floor Gallery. Still working at almost 79, Glover submitted eight paintings to this show. Though famed for his rooftops paintings, which throw up brilliant colours such as red, yellow and rust-brown; the octet on view during Opening our vaults included Cock Fight, 2011 oil-on-canvas, measuring 18in x 54in. Cock Fight is unique in terms of dimension. Compared to the average size of Prof. Glover’s paintings, Cock Fight could be likened to a miniature. Also, by way of colour, this marine-blue work contrasts with the usual red, yellow and sepia paintings. And now, typical Glover as regards colour and dimension: Red Forest (2007) 48in x 60in as well as Jubilation (2009) 48in x 60in. Interestingly, four, out of the eight Glovers on display, were tagged. The quartet were Confrontation, Cock Fight, Red Forest and Jubilation.
The Ground Floor gallery, which also consisted of paintings, sculptures and mixed-media; featured, among over 100 other artefacts, Life is a masquerade; 72in x 36in painting by Kofi Setondji in 1993 as well as Hey: Children on rock (2009) by Kofi Agossor with dimension 59.5in x 71in. Apart from Yomi Momoh, another Nigerian artist that turned up in Opening our vaults is Chief Oloruntoba. We could not get this chief’s full name, whose massive artefact (48in x 94in) was also labelled Untitled.