Since July, visitors to Folkestone Harbor have encountered a brightly painted double archway with a geometric pattern in a range of colors. Listed as part of the triennial art festival of the city of Kent, it is the work of the artist of Ghanaian origin Atta Kwami, who died at the age of 65.
Kwami, who has lived both in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, and, from 2009, in Loughborough, Leicestershire, said the sculpture, titled Atsiaƒu ƒe agbo nu (The Gates of the Sea in Tongue ewe), represented “a movement… of people leaving because of Brexit, immigrants from elsewhere”. Yet of greater interest to the artist was the use of color in sculpture, a rainbow collection meant to highlight the unexpected tones and hues of the city’s architecture and urban fabric. coastal.
The artist’s four decades of painting, printmaking, artist’s books and sculpture are superficially reminiscent of the early 20th-century Suprematist style of Piet Mondrian – based on geometric shapes – or the hard-edge abstraction popularized by American painter Ellsworth Kelly in the late 1950s, but Kwami drew more inspiration for his geometric compositions from vernacular architecture, murals, pottery and kente textiles from West Africa. Its grids are less smooth than its Western precursors, the artist’s lines more free, the grid less mathematically composed.
Kele’s acrylic painting on canvas (2014) is typical: square and rectangular parallel blocks of brown, ocher, turquoise and royal blue are divided by thinner lines of green, purple and brown paint. Squinting, the effect is a bit like seeing a chaotic urban sprawl from above.
His work brought Kwami’s respect to his homeland, where he was credited with shattering expectations of what Ghanaian art should be – traditional, figurative, and palatable to Western tourists – and a growing reputation as a Europe. This year, he received the Maria Lassnig Prize of € 50,000 (£ 42,000), organized by Serpentine Galleries in London, and David Adjaye asked him to design the stained glass window for the Ghana National Cathedral planned by the Ghanaian architect. -British in Accra.
“My work is conventionally described as ‘abstract’,” the artist wrote in 2011. “Given that there is a very precise and knowable set of resources at the back, I would describe it as schematic: as a map, or rather a reaction or an interpretation of a map. It’s a question of ownership, a way of finding myself, where I am.
The title of Kumasi’s book Realism 1951-2007: An African Modernism (2011), resulting from his doctorate from the Open University, highlights the term that the artist used for his mixed geography of references: Western and African, academic and street. “Kumasi realism”, Kwami believed, was an artistic vocabulary shared both by the artists trained at the university and by the hundreds of painters who met the “demands of advertising, storefront decoration and portraiture. shopping ‘in the city.
In 2002, Kwami organized Kumasi Junction at the Oriel Mostyn Gallery in Llandudno, in which he hung his own paintings alongside 11 sign painters with whom he traveled from Ghana to Wales.
In a series of kiosk-shaped sculptures, Kwami made his interest in vernacular design even more explicit. At the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, he showed a green and yellow hut, a nod to Ghana’s hastily-built informal general stores. Four years later, for his solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, the artist completed dozens of tiny paintings with a similar kiosk work, titled The Tiger, painted in shades of blue and gray, tones chosen from among wall works. For a second project for the Folkestone Triennial, he installed unevenly placed huts, constructed of found wood, on a grassy edge at the bottom of one of the town’s main thoroughfares.
While walking the streets of Kumasi, he frequently carried a small camera or sketchbook to document the ad hoc creativity he encountered. “Poverty is the one thing money can’t buy,” Kwami said in 2012. “The voice of the poor can always be felt in how they can transform their environment with dignity through personal aesthetics. I note how environments can be transformed with very little by taking photos or drawing: ironically, this commitment enriches my artistic life.
He was born George Atta Kwami in Accra to Grace Kwami (née Anku), an artist of considerable notoriety, and Robert Kwami, a music teacher. Both groups of grandparents had been Christian preachers.
When he was six months old, his father, a teacher at the Achimota school, died; it was the school that George attended. Grace used to pretend he started drawing before he could walk, and at the age of 10 he won a competition to design a poster for Golden Tree Chocolate. As a teenager, then at Mawuli School, a boarding school in Ghana’s Volta region, where his widowed mother taught, George learned to weave under the guidance of an Ewe master. In 1974, he enrolled at Kumasi University of Science and Technology to study painting.
After graduating, Kwami taught at Government Training College in Tamale and, at age 20, presented his first solo exhibitions at the North City Cultural Center and the British Council in Accra. There he raised his eyebrows with a piece called Economic Report, in which the artist stuck several used toothpaste tubes on a board.
“I tried to explore our current concern for the most basic material possessions,” Kwami told a local newspaper at the time, pointing to the political subtext of his work that has remained over the years. “We hoard them like gold. When we trade them, we do so at exorbitant and cruel prices.
In 1981, the artist moved to Nigeria, responsible for creating an art department in a private school in Uyo. Five years later, he returned to the Kumasi School of Fine Arts, this time to teach, for nearly two decades.
In 1992 it was included in Out of Africa, an ill-conceived investigative exhibition on the continent at the Saatchi Gallery in London, exhibiting a selection of “Tana paintings”, handmade paper dyed with pigments in the permutations. now familiar grid-shaped. That year he married Pamela Clarkson, a British artist who had traveled to Kumasi to set up a print studio in college. The following year, the couple shared an exhibition at the Beardsmore Gallery, the first of four with the London merchant.
In 1999, he produced The African Archways, installed in the Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi, where the artist was performing a residency. A precursor to Folkestone’s harbor works, it featured three sets of double arches covered with panels painted with horizontal and vertical stripes.
Exhibiting regularly over the following decades, working both in his home studio in Kumasi and in the studio collective Modern Painters, New Decorators in Loughborough, Kwami produced works that are in the collections of the National Museums of Ghana and the Kenya; the V&A and the British Museum in London; and the Met and Brooklyn Museum in New York, as well as the National Museum of African Art in Washington. He was working on an architectural installation that will be shown in the Serpentine Galleries at the time of his death.
He is survived by Pamela.