It is a good time for the arts in Ghana. Finally, and organically, Ghana is building its ecosystem for its creative communities (the term industries would be ambitious). It would be too early to call it sustainable and sound but no one can ignore its steady growth.
Rewinding five years back, I wanted to start by saluting the amazing Accradotalt team who’ve blazed the trail for a revival of “art for all” since 2010; and to then quickly acknowledge several initiatives which sprouted out just in the past year from intimate art talks and acoustic sessions at The Studio in Osu, to podcasts where social entrepreneurs and artists share their stories through Accra We Dey and Department of Sound as well as more crafts market fairs just to name a few. What particularly caught my attention presently was the slow resurgence of contemporary visual arts in Ghana: limiting this to Accra only would be highly unfair to the vibrancy of artists resident and studying out of the capital such as the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi. The latter, through their Department of Visual Arts and their lead arts organisation BlaxTARLINES Kumasi, have just inaugurated “If you love me…” an ambitious exhibition out of the university walls including railway workers, Kumasi residents, engineers and artists.
Support for the arts has been a perennial plea from artists and authorities in charge of the Tourism and Creative Arts portfolio. There had however been a “golden age” of the arts in Ghana where the respect and valuing of musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, fashion designers, playwrights, architects, and cultural ambassadors transpired in their remuneration and the legacy they left for them and the nation. Ghana’s first president HE Kwame Nkrumah had envisioned a nation with a strong cultural imprint to disseminate to its people and beyond. Nkrumah’s belief in cultural diplomacy is what Ghanaians still benefit from up to this date: having the kente cloth recognised, copied and desired by millions out of Ghana, highlife music take it to global scenes, Ghanaian cinema and actors crossing borders and Ghanaian writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo translated in countless languages, all of these consist, for me in successful cultural diplomacy.
But back to contemporary Ghana and with the event that triggered this short piece: The Kuenyehia Art Prize 2016. This award ceremony, initiated by Ghanaian entrepreneur and lawyer Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia in 2014, held its second prize on 14th April 2016. The ten shortlisted artists portrayed and offered a variety of styles. Elikem N. Kuenyehia could not have emphasised enough in the opening speech the need to support and provide spaces of expression and interaction for artists and audiences. The Prize 2016 edition received over 100 applications from artists in Ghana. Yes over a hundred, proving that the country is in no lack of creatives. But does lack platforms for them. This year’s Kuenyehia Prize Laureate, Bright Ackwerh, is a talented painter whose most popular bodies of works are a new form of painting: digital painting. Ackwerh’s talent lies in his extreme attention to and depiction of Ghana’s popular culture figures constantly swinging between admiration and satire. His witty spirit gifts viewers with huge-headed puppet like personalities whose stories gradually unfold from one scene to another. Innuendos and hints for the viewer to decipher the real intent of the artist fuel his portraits leading to many of them going viral online.
Ackwerh’s victory was both surprising and expected: amongst all shortlisted artists, he applied without much conviction that the Prize would have given him the desired exposure, but he is an artist who has mastered the largest platform conceivable: the internet. His digital works mostly reflect his cultural influences be it hip hop artists, popular actors and leaders and his audience of fellow young and pop-culture connected youth, are his first audience. For such an artist to win a Contemporary Art Prize is a (good) sign of the times (reference to one of the greatest to have lived) : his talent, mostly bred, living and appreciated in the digital sphere, has crossed into a physical world, the physical often exclusive and nebulous art world and potentially market. This is significant and an important message reminding us of the very nature of arts: to transcend all classifications and touch all). Through this award, Bright has shown what it means to be contemporary, shoving the “traditional”, elitist norms of the art world. Congratulations Bright, artists like you bridge semantical, social and ideological gaps hindering the growth of our ecosystem of creatives. May you pave the way for other “non-conformist” artists.
Special thanks to Elikem and the Kuenyehia Prize 2016 jury for their audacity and faith in all forms of art.
Bright Ackwerh’s winning artwork is titled “Tweaa Room: Confrontation”
Follow and view his works here : https://twitter.com/brightackwerh