Scratching The Art World – The Art Of Gideon Appah

Ghanaian artist Gideon Appah entered the spotlight when he became the first foreign artist to win the First Merit Award by Barclays L’Atelier, 2015. Since then, galleries and collectors in South Africa, Ghana and Europe have been chasing Gideon for his stunning creativity. Certainly, his practice is developing greatly and is undoubtedly among the exceptional artists to watch. In a brief interview with the artist, he tells me “Things took off after winning the award, yet, I have a lot to learn and a lot to explore; I haven’t really started”. Travelling between Ghana and his now newly adopted city Johannesburg, Gideon’s keenness with his practice is thrilling. He falls among the new breed of contemporary artists trained in the College of Art, KNUST, Kumasi – Ghana. This is where prominent artists like El Anatsui, Atta Kwame and more have come from.

In his most current project, Gideon is harnessing the ingenuity of lettering/numbering associated with lottery kiosks in urban Ghana to assemble striking paintings. He calls these works ‘Scrawl Paintings’. Gideon tells me that he is inspired by the non-preset mark making on lottery display boards which are the display or communication medium of lottery results in various suburbs of Accra, Gideon’s home city in Ghana. Scrawl Painting reverberates the palimpsest nature of the boards upon which these lottery numbers are superimposed. Gideon seems fascinated by these boards which routinely promise and reveal patterns that could turn out to be wealth/fortunes for some persons and disappointments for others who do not win the lottery. “I am inspired to investigate and reflect in my work these superstitious or perhaps calculative structures of the lottery system and its complexities that reveal lettering or numerical patterns that bear either fortune or misfortune.” However negative or positive the lottery structure may be, Gideon is intrigued and inspired by the anxiety and hope these palimpsest boards hold for some individuals from Accra and other West African cities which similar lottery displays. “I am drawn to the craftiness of these writings onto the lotto kiosks/boards; I appropriate the character and essence of these images, icons and skills for my projects.”

Inset: Gideon Appah, Worn Out Family
[Winner – Merit Award by Barclays L’Atelier, 2015].


Gideon’s works bear varying evolutions and superimposition of ideas, yet arriving at a unified complex piece that draws strong reflections when gazed upon. Reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s working process, Gideon’s works go through intentional and accidental markings while scratching away and adding to the canvas to reveal his almost tapestry-like palimpsests. He tells me that the most integral part of his work is the process which begins with visiting different spaces; recording ideas leading up to the finished work. “I write or sketch almost everything interesting, even if they don’t make sense at the initial point. I have reference books for gathering lots of ideas for new works.” Gideon further explains his process to me, that before he moves onto canvas, he gathers all the materials he needs, like printouts of lottery numbers, carton box labels, billboard papers, printed words, photographs, coloured papers and others. “Depending on what am looking for, I work out and experiment with my materials, sometimes using local Ghanaian dyes and coloured wax to transform my ideas into my materials. In essence, I give the character and aura inspired by my urban space to my materials.” Gideon tells me that as he explores and experiments, he engages his mediums and materials without inhibition, fear nor conformity.


    Sample Lotto Kiosks in suburbs of Ghana.


“These and other emotions are things I find within the palimpsest lottery boards as they hold varying emotions for varying people. These boards communicate the stories of many people unknown and unidentifiable as they keep evolving.  There is a strong conversation the images, letters, words and marks on these lottery spaces are communicating. I reflect these conversations in my work with free flowing marks, splashes and drips of paint, distortions, torn images, discarded and salvaged objects, collages and texts.” I am curious to know from the artist when he decides to stop his making processes and call it a finished work. “The integrity of the process is essential and there are a hundred ways of manipulating the works, it can be continuous. But in the end, you have to be satisfied with one point and that becomes the final work.”                       

Discussing Gideon’s development, he tells me of key artists who have influenced his practice. He mentions Andy Warhol; “I like his transformative iconic paintings; Anselm Kiefer is another, whose detail to process and vision inspires me likewise; Gerhard Richter, for his accidental squeegee paintings; Kerry James Marshall and Kehinde Wiley for their different perspectives on post-blackness; finally and very vital is El Anatsui for his sense of scale, technique and consistency.”


           From left to right: Gideon Appah. Untitled 7, (2016): Nsono Asaase, (2016); Untitled (2016)Untitled, (Scrawl paintings) No. 3. (2016); Untitled, (Scrawl paintings) No. 7. (2016); Untitled (2016).


Gideon is often described as an urban artist and upon asking him about this label, he replied; “My work has an urban feel to it because it borrows visual-cultural elements mostly from slum settlements in some places in Ghana. I would however not necessarily label myself as an urban artist. When I started out as an artist, I made works which had very little to do with the ‘urban’ space. I am simply a Ghanaian contemporary artist. However, my current projects are conceptually born out of the influence of imagery and marks of temporary structures, informal signage and a general deterioration of parts of Accra’s urban landscape.”

Gideon looks ahead excitedly about his future. He is currently investing in a new personal studio in Johannesburg, South Africa aside his studio in Accra, Ghana. His demand for exhibitions and fairs in South Africa and Ghana is high and he is working towards new exhibition projects for Europe whilst connecting with new collectors as well. Gideon’s versatility is identifiable even in conversation as he tells me; “I have learnt to adjust to any given space in order to send my message across – I envision my work to transform new spaces instead of being restricted to any form.” 


– Mike Sarkodie
[Photos Courtesy Gideon Appah].