By Joe Pollitt
(In Tunbridge Wells – United Kingdom)
Today begins an ongoing debate about life in Ghana, the first country on the Continent to gain Independence, back in 1957. Spearheaded by the artist, Serge Clottey, along with an entourage of fellow artists from Labadi, Nima and elsewhere in Accra, Gallery 1957 is opening its doors to the public at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City.
The aim of the project is to pioneer new ways of seeing Art and the purpose of culture to any society. Unlike the previous generations of Post Colonial artists from Africa, those that were given scholarships and awards to educate themselves in various European art colleges like the Slade, the Royal Academy, the International Art College or Ecole Beaux Art Superiore in Paris, we are now beginning to see a change like never before.
The artists are choosing to turn their backs on the more formal training from the West and preferring to exercise something far more organic, original and home-grown, pulling from every aspect found in their proud indigenous cultures and remaking what is considered art in West Africa as a stamp for the International Art Community to look toward.
This is developing a certain shift in the global mindset towards the Continent. There is suddenly a need for a re-education and a greater understanding of the purpose and meaning of Art. Through a series of unique and authentic installations, works of art and performances, the gallery is setting an impressive standard for others to follow.
Serge Attukwei Clottey has gained international recognition via the Internet and through his travels overseas with his works focusing on the yellow jerry cans, an iconic visual symbol that have become central to his work; these yellow gallon drums used to bring water to homes of the underprivileged can be seen throughout the poorer neighbourhoods of Accra and becomes his optical metaphor for the underdevelopment of Ghana’s Capital.
Water is at a premium and although considered the most essential human right on earth, in the Accra, tap water in homes is strictly reserved for the wealthy and well-to-do. Good drainage and plumbing throughout the city has yet to be achieved for all. Serge is often regarded as one of the leading lights of his era has effectively emotionally taken from the rich to benefit the poor creating a new generation of artists from Africa – Generation X but what would his father say to his son, dressing up in his Mother’s clothes and calling it Art?
Those that have followed Serge’s earlier years saw how initially, he bravely took on the mantra from his father Mr Seth Clottey, whose formal, conventional more conservative artworks brought him fame in the years during Independence and beyond.
Although his father’s paintings are highly accomplished works of Art they do tend to favour a Colonial appetite. The idea of creating portraiture, figurative works or landscapes, stretched onto canvases and set in gilded frames seemed a little unadventurous for his fiercely competitive son.
Those old-fashioned and outdated works seemed to somehow play into the hands of an oppressed past. They were created on demand and on the basis to be sold. To find a specific market for an invisible dominance that seems to have remained in Ghana since Independence. The young artist felt that his father’s generation was nothing more than Ghanaians copying the West.
The culture in West Africa, just like elsewhere on the Continent, is to show your respect for your elders at all times and never to confrontation them. To do so is regarded as being utterly impertinent and rewarded with a handsome beating. His father, Mr Seth Clottey simply couldn’t understand what on earth he was up to. This tormented father/son relationship was certainly not an easy one and the very idea of creating works out of discarded rubbish was difficult for the older generation to come to terms with and virtually impossible to comprehend.
Mr. Seth Clottey was furious with his non-conforming off spring, thinking him rude and disrespectful. It was at this time when I first met Serge, at his poorest and his best. He was at war with himself and all those around him. The two artists young and old were at loggerheads. His father was completely baffled by his son’s antics, thinking he would never make anything of himself playing with the discarded scraps of the city.
What kind of livelihood could he make from such efforts? He never for one instance considered what he was doing could possibly be taken seriously and Ghana would end up making fun of his son and ruin the family name, so began the agonizing early years and the beginning of Serge’s artistic endeavours.
These were the tough days as the hardships Serge faced without financial or emotional support meant he was limited to the materials he could afford and the places he could sleep. Having such little money he found solace in his friends in the impoverished areas of Labadi and Nima, these are some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Accra, but it was here that the banished son found his support.
He would assist in the pulling in of the nets for the fishermen in Lambadi to earn a decent square meal. He lived in a simple room without running water or electricity so painting in oil or acrylics was too much to ask so these limitations became his greatest assets.
During the day he became a beachcomber looking for any washed up garbage he could use as artistic materials and bind together to create his artworks. The difficulty in the early days was to break that classic mindset of the past, that hangover from Colonialism that Art can only truly be art if it looks like the Art being produced in the West (Europe or America).
It took great will power and an artistic stubbornness from the young buck, determined to make his make in the world of Art but through the introduction of the Internet and access to a wider world all this thinking was echoed elsewhere. The artist’s true pathway was rising to meet him and the battle for true cultural independence was set.