Artist & Sculptor
Part I | Part II
Constance is an award-winning contemporary Ghanaian artist and sculptor. She studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Sculpture at the KNUST College of Art in Kumasi. Constance Swaniker is renowned for her functional art pieces which have been credited for their exquisite finishing quality. In 2011, she had her debut solo art exhibition at the Artists Alliance Gallery in Accra, a successful show which relaunched her career in fine art.
Design233: What is your educational background?
Constance Swaniker: Basically, I left Ghana when I was 5. We lived in the Gambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. And then when I was 18 I came back to Ghana to do my A levels, and then I proceeded to UST (now KNUST) to study art, with an option in sculpture. So, 1 year doing basic general art, and then 3 years of purely sculpture and I was awarded a BA Art at the end of a 4 year programme. Whiles I was in the university I used to work in a carpentry workshop for the 5 years. There was a one year strike period, so my course actually took 5 years to complete. So I used every vacation period to go back into this workshop that my Auntie owned, which gave me practical experience. It’s funny how people think that art is not related to industry because design really is architecture, is interior design. All these subjects are all interlinked. Interestingly, that experience gave me the leverage to set up my own business, and I find myself working with the same pool of professionals. There are still a lot of artisans, a lot of interior designers, a lot of builders, and people who generally appreciate art because what I do is functional art which I’m sure you can tell from walking around the showroom, and I still do my purely art pieces. I have done a couple of exhibitions, the first at the Artist’s Alliance, then a sellout exhibition in Lagos, and I have one next month in Abidjan. Next week I’m off to Germany for an art residency. I was handpicked as the only African to do an art residency in a museum in Germany, with 4 other artists from 4 other continents. So that’s where my art has taken me.
D233: Who are your mentors?
CS: My greatest mentor was my mother. She was the one who realized that I was artistically inclined, because my siblings were all very Math & Science oriented, but I was different. I didn’t grasp Math as quick as they did, and she realized that I was rather always using my hands, drawing and sketching so she encouraged me to take art up at the O level, A level, and Art at the university level. This was in sharp contrast with other African parents who try to impose the careers they believe would ultimately bring you money, especially because art then was almost a no-go area 20 years ago. A lot of parents were discouraging their kids from even taking art up as a degree. It was a course that you fall back on if you couldn’t make it into the preferred courses.
Secondly, my aunt who gave me the opportunity to understudy and work alongside the artisans in the workshop. I was the only female there with about 70 carpenters and sprayers and all sorts. I don’t think she imagined that I would take it up to this level, but just the fact that she allowed me to come and play around, and later to realize that I wasn’t just playing around, and that I’d taken it very seriously.
These 2 people gave me the foundation to eventually set up a place like this.
The company I worked in was called Art Deco. It’s a little quiet now, but back in the day it was the woodworking place to go to find beautiful wood furniture. Of course a lot of our wood industry has almost collapsed now, because of the influx of cheap Chinese furniture and you’ll find showrooms all over Accra now. They were not able to compete with the cheap furnishing companies. Also, wood is now very difficult to source, so a lot of those companies like Peewood, Akuaba, Art Deco have pretty much all folded up. That’s when I came in, in that, I realized that I needed to move away and find alternative media, and I began to blend metal, and raffia and glass and all sorts of other materials, as you’ll see in the showroom.
I have been able to grow from that point, and luckily there was a construction boom all of a sudden. A lot of buildings going up, and people wanted nice things. An emerging middle class with acquired tastes who could afford to buy beautiful, well-designed, well-finished things, so I happened to be in the industry at the right time as well. So there’s an element of luck, as well as the ability to identify opportunities and going in. Which I think makes you an entrepreneur, really.
D233: Which artists have you collaborated with?
CS: I work a lot with interior designers, in that we also custom-make, so we have interior designers who have brought us their designs, and we’ve translated those designers. We’ve worked on numerous projects. From African regent to villa Monticello to basically everywhere you go and see good metalwork, it’s probably us. Almost all the big projects around, we’ve worked on
We’ve worked with a lot of well-known architects as well, especially for the more architectural elements we do, like burglar proofing, balustrading, gates. 70% of the work that comes in is these architectural elements, as well as furniture, art work, interior design accessories and other pieces.
My favourite would have to be the African regent project, because it was my first high-profile job. The team that worked on the project was flown in from South Africa and Zimbabwe, at the point where our own Ghanaians didn’t believe in our artisans because they didn’t think we had what it took in terms of creativity and finish. I told them I’m a graduate from tech, I studied art, I have had the opportunity to also work in a factory, so give me a chance to prove to you that we’re 20 steps ahead of the average artisans you’re used to working with, and that gave me the platform, a finished product that I could use as a source of reference, and that led to many other projects. I believe references are important. There’s no point telling someone what you can do, if you don’t have anything to show. So that’s my favourite project to work on.
D233: Which artist would you like to collaborate with?
CS: For me, the most famous Ghanaian artist that is internationally recognized is El Anatsui. He for me has made an impact on world art, that he is one of the most sought after artists that collectors can’t even afford to buy his pieces now. I would like to reach that level, so you can imagine the sort of exposure as well as the amount of knowledge you can pick up working with him.
The rest of the artists, I think are not very exposed. they don’t travel enough, and you can only grow as an artist when you travel and see what other artists are doing and when you experience other things, things that can impact into your art. I wish artists were not afraid of exhibiting outside, collaborating with other artists from other continents, and other African countries that are in the forefront of world art now, because this is our time. There’s a lot of focus on African art. When I did my exhibition in Nigeria, it opened up a world of possibilities. I just recently sent two of my pieces down from international art exhibitions. it was just me and Abladey Glover with Annan Otoo. and these are artists that are much older than me. But I was brave enough to hold an exhibition in Nigeria last year, which also put focus on me. So if you’re going to sit in Ghana, and hold one or two exhibitions, and not be brave enough to put yourself out there, no one’s going to know you as an artist. Like I said this is our time, for African artists, fashion designers but you have to hold exhibitions which bring you international focus, and that’s the only way you’re going to get known. And that naturally forces you to raise your bar and standards, which also leads to personal growth.
D233: How are you reaching out to female sculpture students? Are you involved in any mentorship programs?
CS: It’s a cause that when I was in university didn’t have many females because it’s very physically challenging. You’re lifting things you’re bending, and it’s tough. And females typically shy away from sculpture and focus on painting and textiles and the other aspects of art that aren’t so physically demanding. But it’s a shame because I believe sculpture covers all the other aspects of the arts. You’ll find that you’ll still use graphics, you’ll still use painting. So if you can get over the notion that it’s tough, and they can’t do it. I don’t do a lot of the heavy stuff, I have artisans who assist me. All great artists, no matter how famous they are, all have a team of people they work with, so you’ll find that you have somebody who’ll do the initial blocking for you and then you put in the fine details. So when I work on some of my big pieces, of course I’m not working alone, I’m working with a team. but I have the eye, so they do the initial welding, and I put in the pieces that will make it all come alive, so you shouldn’t go in thinking “how can I carve this big thing all alone”, we all work with a team of artisans. I’d like to see a lot more females go into sculpture, and the other aspects of art. I don’t hear about any famous textile designer in Ghana, or anything like that in ceramics etc. it’s almost as if they’re all dead, which is a shame.
D233: What has been done as far as stretching out to students in Tech (KNUST)?
CS: The kids of today are not ambitious. They come in and do internships and they’re so playful and we had a discussion with the Dean, it seems as if most of these kids are not qualified for other courses and so they use the College of Art as a last option just to get a degree. So you find that in a class of 300, only 10 are truly artists because it’s in them. They’re naturally talented. The rest aren’t. So we have a problem in that these others are diluting the college, and it’s something they are desperately trying to overhaul, because you can’t simply do medicine or architecture, but they have diluted what the college of art truly should be training. There’s a need for the change in the mindset that art is a safety net, instead of something to aspire to. Or even just knowing that this is something that you can survive on, when I finish university, so I’m here to do it and giving a 100%. I still don’t see growth in the art scene. We are 20-30 years behind Nigeria, as far as art is concerned. South Africa, Nigeria, if you look at what morocco and what some of these other northern countries are doing, even their crafts, they’re way ahead. But in terms of art, Nigeria, South Africa and Senegal, as well as Zimbabwe for their stone structures, Botswana for their baskets, but the rest of the continent has a lot of stepping up to do. We have a few great artists in Ghana, but if we’re talking about growth, we have a big problem at the foundation level so that’s my fear. I’m hoping that when they see a few of us young ones, come up on the international scene and locally, that would inspire and encourage them to see a future in arts.
D233: You are currently the only female sculptor in the industry. What kind of pressure does that pose on you?
CS: Well good pressure in that there are a lot of people looking up to you. recently I was nominated by vlisco with four other women in other professions, young people doing exceptionally well in their chosen careers, so if you have international brands like vlisco from the Netherlands, handpicking you and saying that out of all the women in Ghana you’re one of the 5 most inspiring, so I’m hoping that such platforms would also encourage a lot of the younger kids. So it puts a lot of good pressure on me. I have to keep doing and growing to a level that when they chart my growth, they should be able to see the progression. So I still have a lot of work to do.
D233: Do you work hand-in-hand with designers?
CS: We work hand-in-hand. Most architects have a concept for their designs. So our designs must blend into their concepts, so we work hand-in-hand. Of course this is not their field of expertise, so they also rely on me to tell them what can be translated into metal, what won’t work etc, so it’s fun. Who would think that I’ll sit in site meetings with engineers and architects and quantity surveyors, who used to look down on the college of arts, around the same boardroom tables, and they respect my views, and I respect theirs. There have been instances when they ask advice on colour and schemes, and before you know it you’re doing a bit of interior designing as well. I’ve had to develop a knack for placing pieces and accessories, as well as upholstery, which is textiles. So everything I’ve learnt since my first year in college has been of use. That’s why I say if you’re not a true artist, and it’s not inside you… do something else, and leave it for the true artists. Don’t dilute the art scene.
D233: I noticed your showroom is divided into different functional spaces, that is bedroom, living room, study, office, etc.
CS: There’s an even bigger space upstairs which is even more exciting than this one. You can take a look in there to have a glimpse of everything we do. Both functional and pure art. And if you go in the garden, you’ll see the garden sculptures and garden furniture. So we do anything metal. Basically, anything. Door and window burglarproofing, lights, there’s no limit to what we can achieve here. So we have a lot of fun.
D233: Do the artisans that work with you have the artistic inclinations, or do they simply follow instructions?
CS: They’re artisans, first and foremost. I respect what they do. They are damn good welders, carpenters, etc. For them, it’s a trade, a vocation, but I am the artist, so we work together as a team. Now they appreciate product design, and they are also doing product design. Sometimes I tell them to design, and I give them a pattern to go and do themselves. When they get any angles wrong, they bring it to me and I correct them, so slowly they’re learning how to draw and design themselves, so they appreciate that as well. So we’re also adding value to our work here, and to the artisans themselves.
D233: I imagine they get very excited when they see the end-products. Then they appreciate the artistic intent that went into it.
CS: They do, especially when they go to some of the sites. We work with very high profile clients, and then they see the final products come to life when they are fixed in the houses and stuff like that.
END OF PART 1