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: Do you have instance where the shell of the building has lready been put up and you have to interpret for yourself the design intent and come up with designs to fit into the design concept?
Constance Swaniker: Yes. Before we start a lot of projects, there is already a bare shell. So sometimes when I see the style of the house, whether it’s a cottage or it’s a contemporary design or whatever the architect has designed, that also gives me the inspiration to also come up with what I think the final look of the pieces should be, to complement their design. Because you can’t just sit in the workshop and send just random pictures. They may not fit. So we do go in, and take initial measurements and scout the building, and based on that, recommend what I think would look good. So in all, the approach for designing in a project depends on the project itself, and how far it’s gone before I was involved in it.
D233: You decided to go into making functional art because the Ghanaian market, a decade ago, when you began, was not into pure art. Has the market changed since then, and is there a demand for art in its pure aesthetic form?
CS: Yes. That’s a good point because when I finished university, fifteen years ago, can you imagine doing a painting or a sculpture and selling, when people weren’t even done building their homes? Nobody was interested in that, so I decided to blend the two. And that started doing really well, to the point that now these people understand fine things. They realize that their bare walls need paintings and beautiful mirrors and art pieces to complete the whole setup. So now people started buying a few of those pieces, just the pure art pieces, to the point that we even have a few collectors, which is exciting.
D233: Do they just come in occassionally to look at pieces and decide “I want this one?”
CS: Yes, exactly. There is a sense of pride in owning an art piece. Because art is expensive. So it’s almost a status thing, isn’t it? When a client comes in, thinking “You actually have an Abladey Glover? $10,000- $20,000?” You get what I mean?
D233: Do you intend on moving fully into sculptures and pure art pieces in the future?
CS: I can’t wait to go back to just working purely in the studio. Because three years ago, I felt that I was losing my touch as far as pure art was concerned. that’s when I went back into pure art, and begun doing exhibitions, because I had been in the industry for 12 years, and people started forgetting that I did art. So when I did my exhibition at the Artist’s Alliance, it was such a pleasant surprise for a lot of my clients. They were shocked, and people now understand I’m an artist, but I do this. But I’ve re-earned that recognition as an artist, and that was very important to me. Subsequently I did Lagos, and soon Abidjan, so I’m back into doing pure art, for exhibitions. And I do those pieces after working hours, when I have the peace of mind, to think.
Eventually, I’d love to completely move away from this, and let them work on their own. Because I’m the creative director here, so I do need that peace of mind to be able to churn out designs for them to translate into products. And that’ll also give me time to work purely on my art pieces
D233: For over a decade, your gallery has been next to the Accra Academy in Bubiashie. How did that transform you as an artist? How did your gallery impact this neighborhood?
CS: It’s really exciting to be in my office and see school kids, after they close, sneak into the garden and touch things and admire things. They can be in there for hours, and they think I don’t see them. These are little kids in the community who are growing up exposed to beautiful things, so you can imagine you’ll have little painters and all sort of kids growing up and knowing that they saw these things when they were growing, so hopefully we would be inspiring them and encouraging them to go into the arts. For the neighbourhood as well, we’re creating a lot of employment, a sense of pride, especially because we have a lot of high-profile clients who come here personally, to see their pieces. We’ve had ex-president Kuffour visit, and you can imagine the neighbourhood, Bubuashie. He came here, as have a lot of ministers and all sorts, so they’re very protective of us, they’re very proud, because we’ve also put a lot of light, into the area. I do a lot of work with the assembly men and local chiefs, and we do a lot of community work, and a number of my workers also come from the neighbourhood. Satellite businesses also benefit from us as well.
D233: You have been involved in revitalizing that area, bringing a different set of clientele and middle class to an area that previously was not aware of that kind of artistic work. In the d]picture of the development of Ghana, where does your work fit in?
CS: We have talked about our community and the impact it has had on the kids and the neighbourhood, so you can imagine just spreading the radius, which is greater awareness for the arts, crafts, for the average Ghanaian to understand that it is important to engage, and pay for an architect to design your buildings, pay for an interior design to design your interior spaces. It’s generally adding and exposing the need to hire such people because they realize their worth, and this is how we also contribute to the development of our country as well.
D233: Where are you relocation the gallery to? What does that mean for your work?
CS: We’ve just been accredited to set up a vocational school. the reason being, a lot of students come to do internships over the summer holidays, from KNUST, from Takoradi polytechnic, because they do a bit of art there. But I realized when they come, they have a bit of fun, and they go. You have a few who work hard and enjoy the experience. At the same time I realized that you can’t blame some of these kids because you’re doing a course that has been made so theoretical now, that they come out of university with a degree, but with no practical experience so they are not ready for the industry. So you have a degree, but are not marketable. So we set up a school to bridge the gap between what they’re studying in school and industry, to give them enough industry practice, and at the end of your degree you have a certificate that makes you ready for the market. So if an architect employs you, and they know you clocked so many hours, or a year over vacation periods here, they can hire you because you understand what it takes to be in industry. So eventually we’re looking at locating that school in Dodowa, where we’ll build a modern art institute, a school that may even be accredited up to the degree level but is just purely practical, so it’s actually a vocational institute. At the same time, it won’t be like your typical vocational school that we look down upon, but an art institute teaching the practical aspect of generally all the arts.
All my artisans have little welding machines at home. Over the weekends, they all have little businesses. These guys collect a salary every month, and can look after themselves. But you’ve come out with a degree, and you don’t even know how to use a measuring tape, have never even held hand tools before. How do you call yourself an artist? And remember, the courses we do are very practical, but they don’t understand what it takes, and what happens on the ground. So they come here and my artisans laugh at them. It’s bad.
D233: How different is it from the old location and how dies it tie in with your vision for Accents and Arts?
CS: The initial inaugural class, we’ve set up a classroom within the workshop. We only have space for 25 people at a time. it all boils down to how quickly we can get funding to build the school, so I’m looking at the next 3-4 years, to have been able to move a section of the school and slowly phase out. In the next 10 years we won’t be here at all, you’ll see the modern, beautifully, artistically designed art school. Everything will inspire design, so that’s our long term plan.
D233: How have you evolved as an artist?
CS: I look at the pieces I’ve done before and I laugh. “God, did I do that? And who bought that?” It’s funny, but I’m still growing. Art is so personal, and it’s how you interpret your personal growth. I’m sure in 5,10, 15 years, I will look at the pieces that everyone is so dazzled by now, and I should be able to then monitor my growth. But I can look back at the past 15 years, and I see the growth. But it’s still an ongoing learning process.
D233: What do you think has been your greatest influence as far as art is concerned?
CS: Life experiences and I take a lot of inspiration from nature. I think everything you see in your surroundings, from the hues of a leaf to the wings of a butterfly. Everything. If you are an artist and you sit in a garden and look around, you’ll get everything you need as far as inspiration, and you can translate that into your work. You may have noticed that a lot of the pieces have elements of nature. And that also branded us and made us what we are, at the point where African art was just adinkra symbols, which also contributed to our brand. Our pieces were not adinkra symbols, but were birds, and plants, and that impressed a lot of people. So that was a fun period.
In a few years time, when you ask me my growth, I should’ve taken that to another level, probably from other experiences I may have gone through.
D233:Which project have you done that has greatly impacted you?
CS: The African Regent project, as far as exposure and opening up to new clientele. I’m so grateful to the client for giving me the opportunity, for him to see what we could do. So I always refer to that project, yes.
D233: How did he find out about you?
CS: I went to him.
D233: And you dropped a proposal?
CS: Yes, and he asked me to show him what I could do, so I did a sample and I showed it to him, but for him to even just give me the opportunity, I’m grateful to him.
D233: I think that detail adds a bit to the story, because it shows you need to take a bold step to put yourself out there and be ready to take rejection.
CS: It’s not an easy industry; you need to work very hard. It’s an industry where you can’t afford to be lazy, it’s so hands-on that you need to be on the floor, supervising. Remember they’re not artists, they are artisans. They don’t see what you see. They may get proportions wrong, or even with all the tools to help, they don’t appreciate that 90 degrees should be exactly 90 degrees. So you need to always be on the floor to point out standards, and if you’re lazy, you will not survive.
D233: What is your dream project?
CS: To be given a whole resort to do up. First of all, I think in Ghana, because we still have too many professionals being flown in to do projects that Ghanaians should be doing. We can use that to showcase that this is a complete project that did not require that we fly in Italians and all sorts. Because our own people can do these things. We can do projects from beginning to end, and after that we can think across the shores. But it all starts from here.
D233: What are your current projects?
CS: We’re doing up the residence of president Kuffour right now, we’re doing something for Labadi Beach. We also just finished doing something for Christ the King, a very big project. They’re doing a new church complex, so we were awarded the contract to do all the ironmongery, which we’ve just finished installing, all in the spate of 3 months. So we do very big projects, so we’re very busy.
D233: Your first solo exhibition was in 2011. How did that exhibition define you as an artist, going back to making pure artistic pieces?
CS: I mentioned that a lot of my clients did not know that I studied art in university. So it was shocking to them. They were fascinated, and I could see that the level of respect just went out of the roof. There was a sellout exhibition; the gallery had never seen a crowd that big. Prof. Glover was very happy because he could almost see kind of a revival in an art scene that was virtually dead. So he’s very proud, and has given me a lot of exposure which I’m grateful for, which also has given me, just by being attached to his brand. He is world famous, so you can imagine what that has done for me. When I went to Lagos, and they recognised that I had an exhibition at Prof. Glover’s, (Artist’s Alliance) the gallery that hosted me in Nigeria was the biggest gallery in Nigeria, which also brought in a lot of international exposure, which also led to the La Cote D’Ivoire exhibition, and to Germany.
D233: So it’s been like a domino effect, each one has led to the next.
CS: Exactly. But like I said, it puts a lot of pressure on you, because your standards have to be very high to be able to enter into such scenes.
D233: Are there plans for subsequent solo or joint exhibitions?
CS: As an artist, I don’t believe in being too prolific. For you to come up with your greatest designs, I think, it comes with time. Exhibitions maybe end of next year (2014) or 2015. So that it gives a chance to see growth. the last exhibition was in 2011, and you would have done smaller commissions, but when you do the next big exhibition, they should be able to mark and clearly see growth, so you do need some time, to make sure that the pieces are executed perfectly, the designs, concepts, everything.
D233: What ideas or themes are you looking to develop?
CS: I haven’t got the inspiration yet (laughs)
D233: You mentioned the desire to go back to making pure art pieces in the period preceding your solo exhibition. Is that taking form and how is the transition from functional art to the pure like? How do you handle that?
CS: It’s an ongoing process because I’m still juggling, running my business, Accents and Art, and my Constance Swaniker brand as the artist. I’m in the process of slowly transitioning from management level, to being relegated to the background as a creative director. Being in the background will make it easier for me to be able to blend my artistic life, because that’s all in the creative sector. So I need a bit of time, because it’s been challenging to find management who understand that we’re not artisans, but we understand the creative business and what production entails. Because production is almost dead in Ghana, remember almost everything is imported. So it’s been quite challenging, but we’re hopeful.
D233: Has that been the greatest challenge?
CS: That has been my greatest challenge, yes. As we speak, we won a World Bank grant which gave us grant money which we used to hire consultants, who put frameworks and systems in place. that has helped a lot, so we’re about to embark on phase two of that project, which will bring us higher level consultants, which will also engage in recruiting the qualified staff and personnel to assist me and help me stay more in the background, because we’ve realized that the business is growing but I’ve gotten a very delicate stage right now.
D233: You have been named not just an artist, but an entrepreneur because you have and still are breaking grounds in this profession within the Ghanaian context, creating jobs, generating a different style of art appreciation-functional art. In recent times you have expressed the desire to start an art academy. Does that tie in with the family legacy of educators – your mother and your brother? Where does that desire come from? At what stage of education would the art academy fall within whether secondary or tertiary?
CS: Yes, my grand uncle founded Accra Academy. My grandmother’s two brothers, K. G. Konuah and Ato Konuah actually founded Accra Academy. So I believe education is in our blood. my mother also owns a school in Botswana, and then I have a brother, Fred Swaniker who owns African Leadership Academy in South Africa, so I guess somewhere along the line it only made sense that the calling came for me to also direct my energy into my school. (laughs)
The academy would fall under tertiary. Post-secondary and tertiary.
D233: Are there countries you are hoping to explore with your work?
CS: Yes, I think Europe isn’t an exciting place to be right now. The United States too, Nah. in terms of exposure, yes it’s good to be exposed, to have exposure in such countries, but there are exciting projects in Africa right now, because there’s so much growth so in terms of exposure anad opportunities, our continent. This is our time. South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, where oil has been discovered and there’s a lot of money, especially for the pure art, and projects that require functional pieces.
D233: What is your vision for yourself and your work in the next 5 years?
CS: In the next 5 years we would have broken more ground on the international scene, I think on the local scene we’re well known. so more on the international scene I think it’s time for me to explore what’s out there, and bring those experiences back into our country, and let them see what is happening out there, so that we’re at par with our competitors and our colleagues. When they’re talking about projects, what we see here should be a first-class project that basically can stand anywhere, and for such projects to be featured in international magazines and architectural digest and have all the designers’ names as Africans. That’s my wish.
Passage of Discovery – Artists Alliance Gallery – July 2011, Accra, Ghana Juxtaposed – Light & Dark – November 2011, Lagos Nigeria