The Art of Development

by Lian Walden:

On southern Ghana’s Atlantic coast, an orange sun rises over old fishing boats adorned with Ghanaian flags, the emblematic red, green, and gold stripes glistening in the sunlight. On the streets of Accra, women balance trays piled high with kenke dough and groundnuts on their heads as they dodge traffic, their voluptuous figures clad in colorful batik. Further inland, dancers in elaborate costumes stomp their bare feet against the earth, keeping rhythm with the djembe drum.

The vitality of these images contrasted greatly with the stark white walls on which they were displayed, confined to thick frames inside the luxurious home of the French ambassador to Ghana. Other images were on view in the ambassador’s lush green garden, where a canopy encompassed a well-stocked wine bar. The event is part of the Foundation for Contemporary Art’s (FCA) “Art in the Garden Series,” a program actually meant to encourage artists to display their work in unconventional venues to demonstrate that art can exist outside of museums.

The FCA was co-founded in 2003 by Joe Nkrumah and Virginia Ryan. Ryan, a wild middle-aged blonde with a taste for bright lipstick and equally bright clothing, is an Australian artist and writer and the wife of the Italian ambassador to Ghana. Nkrumah, a native of Ghana, is a professor at the University of Lagon and a lecturer at NYU’s study abroad program in Accra. When Ryan first moved to Ghana, she detected a lack of cohesion in the art community that made contemporary art largely inaccessible. “It took me two years to get a sense of who the artists are in Ghana, and I had to really push to find out,” Ryan recalled.

Ryan and Nkrumah started the FCA to create an active network of artists and to promote contemporary art in Ghana. Over the past four years, the FCA has organized multiple artist workshops, exhibitions, and social gatherings. “Our aim is to inspire not only the artists but the community at large; we wish to engage the public in a dialogue about art,” explained Ryan.

Ghana, however, is nation where art is largely underappreciated. Artists, in fact, sell most of their work to Westerners. Hilda Tetteh, a Ghanaian employee at the FCA, explained why: “Ghanaians don’t care about art. It’s simply not part of our culture.”

The FCA was founded upon Nkrumah and Ryan’s belief that contemporary art is an integral component of any society because art fosters cultural identity. They believe that FCA’s initiatives can have a tremendous impact on the Ghanaian community, but logistics have so far hindered the FCA from fully realizing its mission. Though Ghanaians are meant to benefit most from the FCA’s initiatives, the majority of the exhibitions organized by the FCA are held at elite venues that few Ghanaians have access to, such as the French ambassador’s private residence.

The FCA sometimes fails to reach the local community because art in Ghana is largely supported by expatriates and ignored by Ghanaians. “Art for art’s sake”—that is, art produced solely for the purpose of being hung on a museum wall—is considered a distinctly European concept. Kofi Dawson, one of Ghana’s most esteemed artists and an FCA member, recalled the first exhibition he ever held for an all-African audience. “A friend said to me, ‘These paintings are magnificent! If you were in Europe, you’d make a fortune!’” Gesturing with hands stiff from arthritis, Dawson explained to the Globalist, “Europeans patronize art, and their patronage perpetuates art’s existence. But Europeans love art too much. Any artistic development or masterpiece that [Africans] make is taken away and put in the Guggenheim or some other fancy, far-away location where Africans can’t go to see it.”

How might this affect the art that Ghanaians produce? “They cater to a western market,” Dawson lamented. “They know what westerners want to see—what the western perception of African art is—so they create it for them.”

Fortunately, there are artists who have not followed this trend, and according to them, art does exist outside museum walls. “Art is life. Art is everything. Everything is an art in Ghana,” said Everlove, a spirited and vivacious Ghanaian artist and FCA member, whose shaved head is offset by elaborate earrings of her own creation. “The way women tie their headscarves, the way they make [the dish] fufu, the way drums are designed. Everything.”

Indeed, most of the African art displayed in Western museums are practical devices that were thought beautiful or interesting enough by Western standards to feature in a glass case. From the Ghanaian standpoint, this seems rather silly. “If art is meant to be seen, what sense is there in shielding it behind museum walls patrolled by guards? I wear my art! I make it visible to the world!” Everlove exclaimed, tilting her head to the side to flaunt her exquisite jewelry.

While the consensus in the country does seem opposed to treating art as a museum ornament, many officials have taken this position a few steps further by denying the importance of art altogether. When the FCA solicited funds from the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs to organize an arts mentorship program for street girls, their proposal was swiftly rejected. Adwoa Amoah, the director of the FCA, explained, “The government, ministers— they don’t understand art. For them it’s not a priority.”

It seems simple to prioritize a loaf of bread over a painting, but as Kofi Dawson reasoned, “An arts education is an exercise in creativity, which is needed to excel in any field: business, engineering, science—it all stems from art.” Many of the FCA’s projects aim to raise social consciousness and simulate dialogue through art. In March 2007, the FCA held a series of workshops and exhibits as part of the national AIDS stigma reduction campaign. Before that, the FCA contributed artwork to the UN World Food Program.

Yet Everlove has already begun trying to develop her nation through art in her own way. She invited the Globalist to observe the FCA’s newest initiative, an arts mentorship program for street girls, funded in fact by Westerners. The program consists of workshops intended to empower street girls by fostering their creativity and providing them with professional training in the arts. In the first workshop, the street girls, aged 12 to 18, made it very clear that they had no interest in learning about art. The girls were rowdy, but above their screaming and bickering, Everlove began to teach. After an hour, the girls had fallen silent, hunched over their desks, concentrating hard on the canvases beneath them, painting their futures.