6TH MARCH OPENING & INAUGURAL EXHIBITION
This year’s March Independence Day celebrations for Ghana were markedly distinct, with the opening of Gallery 1957, a contemporary art gallery within the lush Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City in Accra, Ghana. The gallery’s name is synonymous with the year Ghana gained independence, making its 6th March opening befitting. Marwan Zakhem, the owner and founder of Gallery 1957, a collector and construction business owner began his West African art collection over a decade ago when he moved from London to Senegal. The contemporary art scene in West Africa is highly charged with innovation and new modes of expression that transcend Art – artworks that set up dialogues on Africa’s culture and complex history. There’s a renaissance happening. In Ghana, contemporary art has become synonymous with names like the Chale Wote Festival, ANO, Nima Muhinmanchi Art, El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama and Serge Attukwei Clottey, names which have crossed the geographical borders of the country and becoming international.
Marwan Zakehm, an engineer by trade and a board member of Tate’s Africa Acquistion Committee, with a high level of interest in aesthetics, recognizes the uniqueness of African art, particularly West African Art. Gallery 1957 is the evolution of his vision to create a larger international market for artists in Ghana locally and the rest of the African continent. Under the creative directorship of Ghanaian powerhouse and curator, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Gallery 1957 will be gearing up to go beyond the typical “walls” of art institutions to create a reach to a broader audience.
It’s inaugural exhibition, dubbed “My Mother’s Wardrobe”, featured Serge Attukwei-Clottey and his GoLokal group in a live showcase inspired by Attukwei-Clottey’s experience with loss and the Ghanaian culture of parting with the dead. The opening began with talk by Ibrahim Mahama, a contemporary artist whose jute sack wall installation was featured on the National Theater in Accra. We caught up with Marwan, Nana and Serge prior to the the opening to chat about Gallery 1957, its vision and how it intends to engage a wider local and international audience.
What is clear is that most of the art being produced these days in Ghana, if not the rest of the continent, is not only a result of its rich diverse culture and its colonial past, as many before, but deeply rooted in the present and looking into the future. The soul searching or self-discovery as you call it is already inherent in these artists’ work. Socio-political issues such as transparency, depletion of natural resources and gender equality to name a few are front and centre in these works. Our only responsibility is to continue to provide the resources, mentorship and working environment for the artist to continue to create these works and then to ensure that they are visible to as much of the public as possible.
Marwan Zakhem (March, 2016)
Design233: Congratulations to you and your team on the launch of Gallery 1957. At what point in your career did you move to Africa and what sparked your interest in Ghanaian and African art to set up Gallery 1957?
Marwan Zakhem: Thank you. I started collecting West African art when I moved to Dakar, Senegal, 15 years ago for my work. As a collector you can’t help but become more interested in visual arts and the process of making art. After a few years, I started commissioning work and through these collaborations, started to understand the creative process involved in making art. I began building relationships with artists and it was at that point I started thinking about taking the next step. I decided to found the gallery to support, complement and highlight the art scene that already exists in Ghana. Many of the artists the gallery is working with have become increasingly visible in the institutional circuits of museums and biennales; I’ve been meaning to do this for quite some time but wanted to house the Gallery in the newly opened Kempinski Hotel which, which in my opinion provides the best commercial platform to allow the artists we are working with to have visibility both at home and abroad. It is the perceived norm at the moment that artists must find success in Europe or the States before they can be appreciated in their own country. This “perception” is something Gallery 1957 hopes to reverse.
D233: You’ve lived in Senegal and Ghana. Are there significant differences between these two countries and how have they impacted your taste in art?
MZ: Not really. I am sure that there might be subtle differences that have influenced my taste, but not in a significant way. If anything, I am very conscious about the similarities between the two countries and the art that it has produced. Both countries were known far more for their music rather than art, yet in the last decade art appreciation has increased with galleries and several foundations supporting young artists flourishing. Both countries are producing a crop of very talented young artists that freely express themselves in their work. I have not been back to Dakar since 2010, but am planning on visiting for this year’s biennale and am very much looking forward to it.
D233: What significance does the year 1957 hold to the gallery and your vision for it?
MZ: In choosing a name I wanted something powerful and easily identifiable with Ghanaian culture. I also find that most of the young Ghanaian artists are finally getting out of the shadows of the older generation, allowing them to express themselves more freely and touch on political topics and social issues. In effect, they are gaining their independence.
It was also no coincidence that we decided to inaugurate our Gallery on Independence Day with a performance by the talented Serge Attukwei Clottey addressing social issues. While I am in no way attempting to compare the events, I am hoping that the impact of Gallery 1957 on the Ghanaian art scene will be a seminal moment. In hindsight I do not think we could have come up with a better name.
D233: What are your thoughts on contemporary Ghanaian art?
MZ: I think that contemporary African art is at a critical stage, without doubt there is something very special happening. Everybody feels it and there are some very talented artists in Ghana whose work embraces a freedom of self-expression and reflects the society of our time. The work being created here is very exciting, emotive and often experimental. These artists need the resources and infrastructure in place to continue to grow in their environment and at the same time have the platform to be visible internationally. I am extremely excited about being a part of this historic time and seeing where we go from now.
D233: What does the location in Kempinski hotel bring to the gallery?
MZ: Although each organisation is a separate entity, each acts as catalysts for bringing Ghanaian art to international attention. My private collection is also displayed throughout the hotel and the gallery will continue to commission new site-specific installations for the space.
D233: Art and construction are two entirely different fields. How did your interest in art develop and has it impacted your work in construction?
MZ: I do not consider myself a creative person, I am an engineer by trade, and do not paint, write or play a musical instrument; having said that I have always been guided by my pursuit of aesthetic perfection over the practical elements of engineering. Designing and building the Kempinski Hotel in Accra was a real challenge as every structural design was guided by an aesthetic decision. Each of the decisions obviously effect the look, feel and texture of the building. Every single surface be it on the outside or the inside of the building has some sort of special finish as opposed to just paint, giving it, what I hope is an unique, elegant and beautiful feel . Needless to say, the property measuring over 60,000 m2, made for many hard decisions (and sleepless nights) in finding the balance between the efficient structural design and the aesthetics. Being involved with the process of making art has made me look at everyday materials and resources in a different light which had a very strong impact on my work and beyond.
D233: Your collection spans a period of 15 years. Which artists works feature in your collection?
MZ: My collection includes works by Ablade Glover, Kofi Agorsor, Hakajaka, Krotteh Teteh and Jimoh Buraimoh as well as the younger artists like Serge Attukwei Clottey, Zohra Opoku, Ibrahim Mahama, Yaw Owusu and Jeremiah Quarshie.
D233: How did you get involved in Tate’s Africa Acquisition Committee? What is involved in that role and what experiences are you drawing from that into Gallery 1957?
MZ: I was invited to attend a meeting by people I knew were already on the committee. Tate launched its African Acquisition Committee in 2012 alongside a new programme of acquisitions of modern and contemporary African art as part of its wider moves to further broaden its collecting beyond Europe and North America. The committee brings together individuals with a knowledge and energy for African art to help Tate to realise its ambition to grow its collection and become more international and diverse. It’s fantastic be part of a network of like-minded individuals and to support one of the most important art institutions in the world today.
D233: What do you look for in selecting artists to exhibit at the gallery?
MZ: The gallery supports established and emerging artists working across diverse media who often explore socio-political themes. The gallery is initially focusing on artists from Ghana and other West African countries, but we may expand our reach to include artists from further afield as the gallery grows.
D233: What is involved in commissioning artists to make artworks for a gallery?
MZ: First and foremost, by commissioning, we are able to support artists to realise their vision. Secondly having our Creative Director Nana Oforiatta Ayim working alongside these artists in a curatorial capacity, namely by building their narratives, will allow artists to make ambitious work and explore new ways of working. Thirdly we will support artists through our local and international networks to ensure that their works are seen by diverse audiences.
D233: How are the gallery’s programs going to be structured to grow a local audience and market for art in West Africa?
MZ: We aim to work closely with existing independent organisations in Accra to expand our activities outside the gallery walls into public places. It is important to understand that while the aim is for the gallery is to be self-sustainable, its main aim is to support and highlight the amazing art scene in the region.
D233: Contemporary Ghanaian Art is as much rooted in the past as it is in the future. There is a sort of “soul searching” and self discovery in the artistic realm and most facets of the country and continent following independence. How is the gallery going to plug into this ongoing introspection?
MZ: What is clear is that most of the art being produced these days in Ghana, if not the rest of the continent, is not only a result of its rich diverse culture and its colonial past, as many before, but deeply rooted in the present and looking into the future. The soul searching or self-discovery as you call it is already inherent in these artists’ work. Socio-political issues such as transparency, depletion of natural resources and gender equality to name a few are front and centre in these works. Our only responsibility is to continue to provide the resources, mentorship and working environment for the artist to continue to create these works and then to ensure that they are visible to as much of the public as possible.
D233: What led to your choosing Nana Oforiatta Ayim as the gallery’s creative director?
MZ: I don’t think I chose Nana, if anything she chose to work with us. Nana is one of the most respected people in the art-world now, be it as author, filmmaker or curator; the fact that she is Ghanaian and chose to return to live and work in Ghana over the last five years is testament to her strong desire to promote Ghanaian culture and arts to the rest of the world. She has already worked with many of the young artists that are now household names and mentored them at a very early stages of their careers.
While I knew that she was the right person from the first 5 minutes I met her, it took several weeks and many hours of conversations between us to get to the point that we understood and began to trust each other. It is fantastic for Gallery 1957 to have someone of her calibre directing the creative and curatorial element of the gallery and I am looking forward to working with her further.
D233: What local organizations are you looking to work with to create a platform for new artists?
MZ: Part of the creative direction of the gallery is to open up the notion of what art is, how it is experienced, and what can be animated by it. We worked closely with ANO and our opening exhibition by Serge Attukwei Clottey My Mother’s Wardrobe is a result of Clottey’s residency with the organisation. We also collaborated recently with Asa Baako music festival which opens up the gallery beyond the limited confines of the white cube space. We will continue to develop and collaborate with others such as the Nubuke Foundation and Chale Wote festival.
D233: Nana, you have such a vast experience in the art world, being a curator, writer and filmmaker and cultural historian. Are there overlays of the work you’re doing through ANO and your role as a creative director of Gallery 1957?
Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Much of the work I’m doing at Gallery 1957 is informed by what I do at ANO, many of the artists I’ve collaborated with for years are the artists we’ll be showing at the gallery, and I’ll also be continuing the work of creating new cultural narratives, through how the artists are exhibited in conjunction with each other, and within the overall programme of Gallery 1957.
D233: In thinking about the tone the work of early modern Ghanaian artists like Ablade Glover set, what insight would Ibrahim’s opening talk be offering on where contemporary Ghanaian art is at now?
NAO: His talk offers insight into his contemporaries, especially those in Kumasi, and how creating in a mutual space impacts on their concurrent practises. I think there is absolutely a trajectory between the earlier Kumasi artists and this current group and it will be interesting to trace these trajectories, linkages and discontinuations as they develop.
D233: You’ve worked with Serge for a while now through his residency with ANO. How has he evolved as an artist and how does his work foster ANO’s mission to exhibit Art beyond “closed, limited spaces”?
NAO: His work has evolved tremendously from grappling with a huge amount of themes to focussing on a few more deeply, his practise has also become more refined both in terms of his performance and his sculptural work. His work is in complete synthesis with ANO’s mission to reach beyond limited audiences and spaces as a lot of his performance work happens in the streets, on the seafront, in public buildings. We will continue to collaborate in this way, particularly in an installation we are collaborating on at the Korle Lagoon in May.
D233: As the curator for “My Mother’s Wardrobe”, what inspired the theme and how did you and Serge work towards the final product?
NAO: The concept for the exhibition ‘My Mother’s Wardrobe’ stemmed from a conversation Serge and I had sitting in the middle of the empty gallery a few months before the exhibition. We toyed with various themes, then came across this one, which was synergetic, because he had already started making work on this series, and I was writing a piece for a book on my mother’s wardrobe and the impact and legacy it had left for me. I’ve always preferred the notion of collaboration to that of curating, how do I as a writer and art historian meet the artist I’m collaborating with, how do we each contribute, what comes out of that shared space or interest or enquiry? In this case, it was to create a narrative for the beautiful work that Serge had created that tried to bring in some of the layered and often chaotic forms of outside/market/cloth filled spaces into the white cube space. I’ve also for a while been developing an aesthetic theory based on drum poetics, and one of its aspects is a colour philosophy that draws on the stages from birth/beginnings to death/ends, which is prevalent in so many cultures in Ghana, and which in this case was epitomised by the language and pervasiveness of cloth, and the quieter, more subtle, less trumpeted narratives of history and becoming.
D233: What programs would you be structuring through Gallery 1957 to create a reach beyond it’s walls?
NAO: I would like to show every artist I collaborate with at Gallery 1957 in a public space, as well as as part of a research exhibition at ANO in order to delve deeper into the themes and contexts of each artists work. Whereas Gallery 1957 is perhaps more concerned with art in its formal aspects, ANO is more interested in the idea of exhibition as research, and the public space allows for engagement, spontaneity and interaction that closed off walls can sometimes prohibit.
D233: Which artists outside Ghana is the gallery looking to exhibit?
NAO: Diaspora artists, such as Larry Achiampong, as well as those that have some kind of history with Ghana, such as Tracey Rose. Beyond that it’s still open. We’re concentrating for the first couple of years of showcasing the wealth of talent that is present within the country.
D233: How has the journey been working in “My Mother’s Wardrobe”? What personal and cultural discoveries have you made and would like the visitors to the exhibition to know about?
Serge Attukwei-Clottey: The theme is based on my personal relationship with my late mother. And also an interrogation of certain traditional norms. In accordance with Ga tradition, my late mother’s wardrobe was locked up for a year, and after the year, the family members shared her personal belongings among themselves. I didn’t get any of her things because according to tradition i am a boy and don’t need any of them. For me, I felt like there was a big disconnection between mother and I because her fabrics were very personal and important to her. When I was growing up my mother used to buy fabric for me. Anytime she picked up a fabric for herself, she picked one for me because I was her only child. But because of tradition, I couldn’t own any of her fabrics after she passed.
As an artist who works with plastic gallons, I designed and installed these gallons in way the interpreted a visual representation of my imagination of how my mother’s wardrobe looked like. In the performance, I made the guys to cross-dress as a way of also showing what is in their mother’s wardrobe. In as much as it was a performance based on my personal experience, it also explores gender imbalance inherent in our traditional believes and practices, and the politics of Fabrics in our history. The performance also showcased the reminiscent, and dynamic coherence of designs in our fabrics regardless of their place of origin. So in the performance, we wore fabrics from different continents.
The contemporary art space is highly charged. I think it’s because artists here are using their works to join national discourses that border on issues such as labour, trade, bureaucracy, identity, history, migration and spirituality. Personally, my work is very political because of the issues I tackle through my performances and art works. This helps me to get my works out of the studio to the public. If the public understand the issues I’m talking about through my works, then I think I’m making a headway in making people understand that there is problem that need our attention.
Serge Attukwei Clottey (March, 2016)
D233: Are you exploring new materials and methods in this exhibition?
SAC: I’m not necessarily exploring new materials in this exhibition. The materials are mainly the ones visible in all my works. However for the sake of the performance, I’ll be exploring costuming. Also, I”m adopting a new method with regards to the installation of works for this particular exhibition. This is because my performances and installations are usually in public spaces but this exhibition is in the confines of a gallery and so i have to adopt new methods to fit the gallery space.
D233: Serge, your work is very contextual, site specific and with live exhibits. With your GoLokal team, how would you bring that into the formal setup of a gallery?
SAC: The first thing we are using our performance to correct is the wrong perception that galleries are for rich people. Our performance will begin from the streets of Labadi in order to get the people aware of what we are doing and through that we take them to the gallery. So the performance will start from our usual public space and end at the gallery space where people will get to see how my works are installed and shown in the gallery.
D233: Afrogallonism is a term you coined to capture consumption within modern Africa. What message does the term and the art mean to you?
SAC: This project came into mind after realizing how I could maintain these gallons for years. When I was a child, my family had a big water fountain where people came to fetch water. I was responsible for collecting money. I also helped people identify their water gallons by painting and writing on them. So a relationship developed between the plastic gallons and me. They became a part of me because I was always seeing and working with them.
Sometimes people dumped their broken gallons at our house. Growing up as an artist, I thought these gallons were materials I could work with. So I decided to get out of the paint and brush comfort zone and experiment with these materials. I started using the broken gallons to create sculptures and many other things. That is how Afrogallonism started. Also working with these materials allows me to explore more because I relate them to human lives.
When I started this, people did not understand it. Some people even doubted if what I was doing was art. They said I couldn’t survive as an artist if I continue with this, but I don’t care about the surviving aspect. I’m interested in creating something that people can relate to and that’s my responsibility as an artist. As an artist, I want to create works to keep me going. So I went ahead to experiment with plastic gallons, using them as canvases where people get the chance to write on them. But people don’t even realize they are a part of the art. So somewhere in 2013 I decided to make this a brand, a futuristic project. Afrogallonism is basically highlighting some of the problems in Africa, and finding solutions to these problems.
D233: Marwan has mentioned in a previous interview that the contemporary art scene here is politically charged and that is a good thing because it carries a message and challenges the status quo. How do you see your art?
SAC: I think Marwan is right. The contemporary art space is highly charged. I think it’s because artists here are using their works to join national discourses that border on issues such as labour, trade, bureaucracy, identity, history, migration and spirituality. Personally, my work is very political because of the issues I tackle through my performances and art works. This helps me to get my works out of the studio to the public. If the public understand the issues I’m talking about through my works, then I think I’m making a headway in making people understand that there is problem that need our attention.
Thank you to Marwan Zakhem, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Serge Attukwei and Francesca Meale for the interview.
Serge Attukwei Clottey: My Mother’s Wardrobe will be showing in Gallery 1957 until May 20, 2016.
Portrait of Marwan Zakhem Courtesy of www.enme.blouinartinfo.com. All other images are copyright of Gallery 1957 and Serge Attukwei Clottey. Photography by Nii Odzenma.