Postcolonial Ghanaian art has grown through various aesthetic ideals from which the current postmodernist practices have evolved. Art in Ghana was and is often still synonymous with the daily lifestyles of the people and utilitarianism is chiefly associated with art making. “European art educators, anthropologist, collectors and writers spoke approvingly about the lack of separation between ‘art’ and ‘life’ in Ghana.” (Kwami, 2013: p.38) Ranging from the pottery, Asante Akua’ba dolls, Sirigu wall paintings of the Northern Ghana, canoe paintings of coastal areas, goldsmithing and kente weaving among others have been closely joined to society’s wellbeing and development. Modern artistic practices in Ghana developed through various transformations particularly after the contact with Europe and the acculturation of various aesthetics practices. Notable among borrowed aesthetic ideals is naturalism which consequently has become the foundation for artistic ingenuity among the majority of the Ghanaian artists and audience. In this brief essay, I discuss the adoption of mimesis and the desire to attain realistic accuracy inspired European contact whilst considering issues like commercialism and authenticity.
Ghanaian art historian Atta Kwami’s in Kumasi Realism (2013) categorises the varying artists in Ghana under the workshop-trained, college-trained and the hybrid (both college and workshop trained). Artists belonging to the workshop-trained system are often identified with mimesis and naturalistic paintings. I do not address chronologically the historical trajectory of realistic practices in Ghanaian art though but simply discuss some of the influences that have led to favourability towards mimesis and photo realism. The dynamics of acculturation and cultural diffusion bears influences on creativity in the Ghanaian contemporary art space. Acculturation, as explained in Advanced English Dictionary, relates to the process of assimilating new ideas into an existing cognitive structure (AED, 2014). And structure, in this case, would be referring to the pre-existing artistic culture that facilitated artistic expressions in the various cultures of the Gold-Coast. The assimilation of European artistic agendas into Ghanaian culture could be traced to the establishment of European curricular training institutions – one of such being Achimota College (founded on 5 April 1924). The nineteenth century saw the establishment of many educational institutions which eventually benefited from the British education code of 1887.
The introduction of hand-eye coordination technique in artistic training arguably ignited the urge for mimesis in artistic representation in the early twentieth century. Atta Kwami recounts that hand-eye coordination was highly criticised by George Stevens (an expatriate and the first art tutor appointed at Achimota College). Stevens regarded hand-eye coordination as an imposed model and sought rather for conceptual as opposed to the imitative (Kwami, 2013: p. 68). However, the assimilation of mimesis through the training curricular led to the development of a favourable appreciation of realistic works. The emergence of photography introduced by missionaries in the nineteenth century for documentation purposes also added to this. Photography brought the exploration of portraiture for state and personal commissions from the wealthy in society.
“The integration of a modern tool such as the camera into the life of West Africans was bewildering for some, even after almost a century of photography on the West Coast. Some observers were worried about a local West African shift to photographic realism.” (Kwami, 2013: p.38).
Over the years till contemporary times, the aspiration towards attaining photographic accuracy in painting consequently underpinned both the curricular of the art colleges and the workshops alike. Although no restrictions are placed on developing personal styles in both training avenues, attaining accuracy in copying images resonate as a great influence in achieving favourable recognition from a majority of art audience, tutors and patrons. In his essay, “Reprendre: Enunciations and Strategies in Contemporary African Arts” (1999), V.Y. Mudimbe presents a categorization of the genres of African art that could also well describe the artistic scene of Ghana. Like Kwami, Mudimbe also discusses three trends. These are the tradition-inspired trend, the modernist trend and the popular African art trend. In relation to Ghana, the tradition-inspired trend could encompass works like stool carving, kente weaving and wall paintings of Northern Ghana. The modernist trend which he explains is usually made by formally educated artists will encompass the college trained artist of Ghana who explores most European originated styles. The third trend, popular art, Mudimbe deems it as the antithesis of the culmination of aesthetic acculturation (Mudimbe, 1999: p.37). Popular art in this sense would be regarded as “low culture”, with the tradition-inspired and modernist trend being the “high culture.” In Mudimbe’s words; “Popular art may simply be the art regarded with favour, sympathy, and approval by a given community… It may also refer to art that represents the common people… There is also a popular art suited to and intended for an ordinary intelligence and a common taste” (Mudimbe, 1999: p.39).
The urge to paint to suit the people’s preference and gain their admiration is undeniably high. This is where photographic realism in figurative painting comes in keenly. Allied to the popular art spree are the issues of economics and commercialisation. Making a living by the arts is another critical issue of the workshop artists and often the college-trained as well. The commercialization of art is a space where these two different schools of practice clash and compete. Making art that can be sold is a basic principle that the majority of art students of both training avenues are taught. Though in some lectures and discourses in the art college, the practice is not encouraged, it is still prevalent. Maruska Svašek in her essay “Identity and Style In Ghanaian Artistic Discourse” (1997) recounted an occasion where an art tutor of the College of Art, University of Science and Technology (the only art degree-awarding institution in Ghana) have warned their students about the harsh reality of the art market. “Most foreign buyers were not interested in purely abstract art because they did not perceive it as ‘typically Ghanaian’” (Svašek: 1997) – a tutor confided in Svašek. This therefore often pushes many artists in pursuit of “popular taste” in order not to incur the risk of not selling.
Particularly in the workshop system, commercialism is not a taboo, rather a positive sign of success. Yet again, commercialism and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Hence, photographic realism in commissions of all genres, which Mudimbe sees as “Popular art”, comes with no prejudice for most workshop artists. Bob Acheampong, an artist who is schooled in both the workshop and the College (what Atta Kwami categorises as the ‘hybrid’), affirms the quintessence of market demand to Atta Kwami in an interview. “What the market needs is what we provide”, he states. (cited in Kwami, 2013: p.288)
Maruska Svašek mentions in his research that the college-trained artists at some point regard the informally trained artists as “commercial copy-artists” whilst defining themselves as free individuals, creators of non-commercial but genuine art (Svašek: 1997). This is questionable because the college trained artists do likewise sell their works yet the difference could be the patterns and mode of transactions. Controversially, some western curators rather regard the workshop-trained artists as “genuine artist”. This is argued on the basis that the college trained have been influenced extensively by westernised ideals. Likewise, this is also debatable since the workshop artists may perhaps not be influenced by western theory yet are influenced by styles and mediums of European expression as encountered to educational catalogues and other publications. 1989 France exhibition Magiciens de la Terre serve as an ever strong case study within this historical context. The exhibition received huge critique for not selecting college-trained artists in Ghana to participate. Rather, workshop-trained sculptor Kani Kwei who produces functional funerary arts represented the contemporary art of Ghana. Decades of debates on issues of curatorial autonomy, misrepresentation and misinterpretations would follow after this incident. Similarly, the same criteria of disregarding the formally trained artists were used for other African states. Hence drawing huge criticism from the body of African elite who felt the chosen participants in the exhibition were not a fair representation that captured the then contemporary art of the African continent. In Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe’s (1999: p.9) words:
“…a closer examination [of the participants from outside Europe and North America] would reveal that the enterprise [of Jean-Hubert Martin, curator of Magiciens de la Terre] failed in its method, because it not only retained those impulses proper to modernism, it misinterpreted the most productive arguments of postmodernism via postcolonial discourse by playing into the hands of a form of postmodernism that Fredric Jameson would call sheer heterogeneity.”
The antagonism initiated by exhibitions like Magiciens de la Terre among the diverse artistic practice in different parts of Africa, and in this case Ghana, would continuously receive reviews. Research works like Atta Kwami’s Kumasi Realism (2013) dealing with the dichotomy and relationship between these two artistic training avenues (the college and workshop system) consciously builds upon a soothing process of the hidden yet prevalent rift between the two art worlds, the university campus and the city/street workshops in Ghana. The element of Acculturation finds itself deeply rooted in the developing art history of Ghana.
To a degree, acculturation of photographic realism fosters the characteristic of possessing on one side, exhibition focused approach to art practice and on another, a solely commercial approach. Arguably, this forms part of the canonical framework of practitioners of both the workshop and the college system. Art, as encountered by the majority Ghanaian populace is through the storefront outdoor exhibitions of the workshop artists due to limited exhibition spaces. With the exception of people who have experienced exhibitions from the art college or other cultural outfits, the workshop exhibitions serve as a didactic educative avenue on art for many. The incorporation of mimesis and naturalism into the artistic development of Ghana has had both merits and demerits – on one side it generates a market/income for the street and even college painters through commissions on advertising, portraiture and landscape paintings aiding their survival and further practice. On the other side, a disadvantage would be the static appreciation majority of the populace have developed towards naturalistic art as the superior canon and automatically forming an instinctive prejudice in many towards other forms of creativity; like abstract or conceptually-led artworks. The consistent production of the “popular art‟ to some degree enforces an obvious development of bad taste among the general public.
NB: [Solely for educational purposes. This piece is an extract and re-edited version of the writers’ unpublished postgraduate dissertation completed in 2015. No portion of this material should be used without consent]
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Mudimbe, V.Y., “ Repredre: Enunciations and Strategies in Contemporary African Arts” in Oguibe. O. and Enwezor, O. (eds) (1999) Reading the Contemporary: African art from Theory to the Marketplace, Institute of International Visual Arts [inIVA], London, pp. 31-47.
Oguibe, O. & O. Enwezor, (1999) Reading the Contemporary: African art from theory to the marketplace, Institute of International Visual Arts [inIVA].
Svašek, M. “Identity and Style in Ghanaian Artistic Discourse”, Contesting Art. Art, Politics, and Identity in the Modern World, ed. Jeremy MacClancy. Berg Publishers, Oxford, 1997, pp. 27-62.