Where are we going?

By highlighting the Superstar Curators collectively driving towards positive and just change in the art world, Akworkor Thomspon begins to unpick the narratives of repatriation, power and decolonisation at play
words – akworkor thomspon
location – accra, ghana

“What resonates most throughout her work in the cultural sector are the ways each exhibit or piece of writing represents an active decolonisation of institutions and a push for diversity through action and representation. The moral imperative of museums and galleries has long been at the core of her work, something consciously held dear in her position as a curator.” – Ryan Filchak

In recent years the position of the curator has shifted significantly. In 2017 an Artnet news article read: ‘Curators are the rock stars of the contemporary art world – or maybe more like the superstar DJs, mixing together every aspect of the art experience into one vision. While many curators today have a status on a par with the artists with whom they work, it was not always thus. The celebrity status of the curator has mushroomed with the professionalisation of art, the multiplication of international events, and, not least, with difficult-to-define contemporary art being desperately in need of able ambassadors to the public’ – Artnet 2017.

Curators such as Thelma Golden, Harald Szeemann, Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor, all listed in the article and referred to as ‘Superstar Curators,’ are tastemakers considered highly influential. If we focus on those of African, Caribbean and Asian descent in particular, we can see a unique trajectory forming, with many Superstar Curators building careers around practices that seek to drive forward the moral imperatives of cultural institutions, forcing them to reexamine collections, decolonise content, democratise art and increase the representation of previously silenced voices. 

forcing them to reexamine collections, decolonise content, democratise art and increase the representation of previously silenced voices.

For example, on March 25th 2021, the University of Aberdeen became the first museum in the United Kingdom to announce its commitment to repatriate a Benin bronze depicting the head of an Oba of Benin. The Benin Bronze debate has been a hot topic for many years, as ever more pressure has been placed on Western countries to return ‘artefacts’ looted from ancient African civilisations during the colonial era, and now held in their museums. Articles with headlines such as ‘Asante Gold: UK to loan back Ghana’s looted ‘crown jewels’’ have gone viral and caused an uproar, as many believe it is audacious for the UK to dictate that they will ‘loan’ what is the rightful property of Ghanaians and was obtained illegally.

Such deals fully feed into the narrative of the barbaric Africans who cannot govern themselves. These have been the enduring messages behind some ‘experts’’ desire to retain the ‘artefacts’ out of fear that they will be ruined or improperly housed. To this point, one must ask: Are such pieces even required to be in a museum? What place does an Akan nsodie have in a museum? Based on the fact that it was positioned on the resting place of a deceased nobleman to protect him, does it not belong in its original setting? Instead it is encased behind glass to be gawped at, far removed from its place of belonging.

Yet such debate will continue, alongside examinations of the lack of Black presence within museums and commercial galleries. England’s National Portrait Gallery, who have recently worked with acclaimed curator Ekow Eshun, state on their website: ‘We are working on ways to best understand, highlight and improve the representation of groups of people who we know are under-represented in our Collection but also avoid aggregating categories and remove cultural bias.’ They conclude: ‘We have a continual commitment to acquire works for our Collection where there are key gaps. Recent additions include the largest acquisition of portraits of Afro-Caribbean sitters into our primary collection with the Black is the New Black series of 37 photographs by Simon Frederick and portraits of sitters including Sonia Boyce, John Akomfrah, Benjamin Zephaniah, Stormzy, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Novelist and Prem, Jorja Smith, Adwoa Aboah, Chi Onwurah, Thelma Golden and Duro Olowu, Julie Adenuga, Skepta and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex… Currently, there are almost 3,000 portraits, including those where the identity of the sitter is yet to be identified.’

It is important to note that there are over 220,000 works in the full Collection.

Nonetheless, we must celebrate progress and the recent exhibition, ‘The Time is Always Now: Artists Reframe the Black Figure,’ curated by writer Ekow Eshun, is specifically that. It is a showcase of the work of contemporary artists throughout the African diaspora. Eshun, the Superstar Curator, sits alongside the Design Museum’s Priya Khanchandani, curator of International Art at the Tate; Osei Bonsu and ArtNoir Founder Larry Ossei-Mensah, to name a few. Is it a coincidence there appears to be a high proportion of Superstar Curators of Ghanaian descent? I cannot answer yet, but the suggestion is something to probe further as I invite you to begin opening up a more critical discourse around what is happening within Ghana concerning the burgeoning art scene and the positioning of its artists within the global art world.

Working in tandem with the institutions, many Superstar Curators have been able to reclaim, reframe and reimagine narratives aligned with art created by Black and Brown people. This work has coincided with the recent increase in appetite for art produced by African artists living and working on the African continent, namely Ghana – an appetite that I would like to define as insatiable.

Black figurative paintings and work by African artists have seen a record number of sales of late. It has been recorded that: ‘In 2022 works by Contemporary artists born in Africa generated $63 million at auction versus a previous record of around $47 million in 2021. At the end of the first half of 2022, we noted that the auction turnover generated by Contemporary African art was three times higher than during the first half of 2012. By the end of the year, however, its turnover total had risen to five times the decade-earlier annual total’ – artprice.com.

The rise of Instagram as a platform to showcase and sell art has also provided more artists living in Africa the opportunity to have their works seen by prospective collectors and galleries outside of the continent.

In a 2023 article following the openings of three New York solo exhibitions for three Ghanaian contemporary artists – Adjei Tawiah [Opera Gallery], Amoako Boafo [Gagosian] and Cornelious Annor [Venus Over Manhattan] – in the same week, the title: ‘‘This Is a Moment They Have to Grab’: How Ghana’s Art Stars Are Building a Movement to Outlast the Speculators and Market Frenzies”[artnet] alludes to the idea that the demand for African art has surprised those who believed it was an explosive moment, rather than movement; before posing the question: “But what happens when two very different art ecosystems collide? “ As the article states: “Speculation and flipping hit this group of artists hard between 2019 and 2021 – and, in truth, it’s probably why you know their names and why they’ve been covered in the media so heavily. As Laurent Mercier of Maurani Mercier, the Belgian outfit that represents Annor, Taku, and Botchway, said: “What was happening was attracting the wrong collectors who are not collectors. They’re asset managers.”

I argue that whilst European and North American institutions have often used the detox, decolonise agenda to justify their new desire to include Black and African artists in exhibitions, commercial galleries may also be doing so as a way to drive sales and, in some cases, rejuvenate and revitalise their galleries. The sole premise of a commercial gallery is to make money, for their business and for the artist, so this cannot be ignored.

Let’s look at the case of Opera Gallery, a secondary market gallery founded by Giles Dyan in 1994, which has 15 galleries worldwide. In 2023 it hosted a residency for Ghanaian artist Adjei Tawiah in New York, followed by his USA debut solo ‘I Miss Us.’ The show was a major success, attracting a new audience and providing the gallery the opportunity to work with ‘Superstar Curator’ Larry Ossei-Mensah, who moderated a conversation with the artist. This was the first time they had exhibited an African artist’s body of work as a solo show. The exhibition was held in the same week as Amoako Boafo’s Gagosian debut, and a private party was hosted by African Chop House at the Africa Centre. Supporting the emerging Ghanaian artist, and introducing him to the New York scene, of course brought great benefits to the artist – but also to the gallery, especially given Tawiah’s alignment with Boafo as the pair studied together and shared a studio space. The show expressed themes of grief and loss, with an overarching message of how one heals from bereavement. Talking about Tawiah in an artnet article, the founder described him as ‘a painter from Ghana whose portraits explore the universal theme of grief and nostalgia.’

Recently, Opera Gallery London announced “The Whole World Smiles with You,” a group exhibition opening on May 29th 2024. The show is curated by Alayo Akinkugbe, who found art world fame through her instagram page, ‘a black history of art’. Opera Gallery London Deputy Director, Giulia Lecchini, commented: “Throughout history, we have relied on artists to record the people, stories and emotions of their time. Working with Alayo Akinkugbe, we wanted this exhibition to be a conversation about who we allow to contribute to these narratives. By placing figurative work by a diverse range of Black artists in dialogue, we provide a space for learning and reflection on this question.”

Here it is clearly articulated that, like the museums, revisiting art canons and showcasing Black voices in art is a way of reckoning with the abhorrent racism which is still prevalent in society. Alayo Akinkugbe, then, must too be deemed in the category of Superstar Curators.

Taking the aforementioned statement into consideration, along with the reality that the urgently necessary anti-racist movement to decolonise the minds of people is still in its infancy, it would be a disservice not to begin to probe and interrogate the interaction between Europe, White America and Africa through the art market.

If we consider Africa’s geopolitical position in the world, and the reality that it has historically been – and continues to be – a site of resource extraction for the West, one naturally asks: ‘How does this affect how galleries, and the art world, interact with the continent?’ Let’s now also consider this statement made by Hana Horáková when asking ‘What kind of information does the European audience and readership receive about Africa?’ as she states: ‘The key information is that Africa is in crisis.’ So now, to what I have previously stated, add the commonly accepted and widely internalised racist notions that Africans are inherently in a deficit compared to their Western counterparts, who are often considered to be their educators, fixers and saviours. Again I pose the question, what is the effect on galleries and dealers when interacting with artists? And if we can agree that we are yet to fully address and dismantle the deep-rooted detrimental colonial beliefs which have failed to imagine Africans as worthy, or as artists, I reiterate: What does this do to artists when they are operating in a world which was not imagined for them to exist in, yet alone thrive in?

The examination continues: Can African artists living and working in Africa be considered fully autonomous humans with agency, especially when interest in them comes from the commercial value of the work they produce? Who is the art they create really working for? The galleries or the artists? And what happens when images of African bodies become lucrative commodities? When a painting of a Black woman, reclined on a sunbed, in a lemon bathing suit sells for $881,500 at Phillips, what does this now mean? And what of the artist that is flown abroad for a residency and asked to stray far from home, in a foreign land that did not imagine them cohabiting the space with their white counterparts, alone, in isolation with the sole purpose of producing large amounts of works for the commercial use of a gallery?

I think that we cannot and should not allow ourselves to become blind to the fact that racist ideals are still prevalent, and it will take years to reprogram the thinking of centuries

As unsettling as all of this may feel, and somewhat accusatory, I think that we cannot and should not allow ourselves to become blind to the fact that racist ideals are still prevalent, and it will take years to reprogram the thinking of centuries. A failure to do this removes the opportunity to reimagine and create a new world which is not founded on the outdated and pervasive racist ideals of colonialism and white supremacy. I once read: ‘New forms of power emerge all the time and for a while they escape criticism, but not forever!’ With that said, I invite you to take the time to really reflect on what we have witnessed within the art world in recent years. Start to critically analyse the trends, behaviours and motivations driving this. Challenge yourselves to consider how unconscious biases play out, and ask whether what is happening is equitable, anti-racist and driven by a desire for liberation for all.

Whilst I argue that these lines of enquiries should be burrowed deep, to bring about positive change, not to point fingers, I have chosen to use this space to look into the solutions initiated by the Superstar Artists and Curators and celebrate and amplify the ways in which they are creating infrastructure across Africa – in this case, Ghana, to create a local and African centred ecosystem.

It is important for me to note that I am not insinuating that the interaction between Europe, America and Africa through the art market should cease; I argue that it needs examining and reconfiguring. ‘The art market’ has, and continues to, open up opportunities for artists to create sustainable incomes and livelihoods for their families and communities. Yet there are still complex problems to be addressed.

But with Superstar Curators doing the work in the west and Superstar Artists doing the work throughout Africa and The Global South, we see the foundations of a more equitable trajectory being paved. Below I share a few based in Ghana, as well as a new non-artist-initiated foundation which was created in direct response to the questions posed.

The presence of these spaces generates huge amounts of hope and excitement, and are the physical embodiment of a change in direction – a reclamation of resources and the building of a sustainable homegrown ecosystem, supported by Superstar Curators advocating for us, showing up for us, protecting our interests and amplifying our voices.

Where are we going? I’m not sure yet, but it feels like we are going in the right direction and we are moving together as a unit – Superstar Curators in the diaspora alongside Superstar Artists at home and other advocates, collectively driving towards positive and just change.

Amoako Boafo

Amoako Boafo is a Ghanaian artist based between Vienna and Accra. His artwork focuses on portraying individuals from the diaspora, reflecting on Black subjectivity, diversity and complexity. Boafo’s powerful style touches on community, social and political struggles and intimacy. He has received numerous awards, including the Walter Koschatzky Art Prize and the STRABAG Art Award International.

 

dot.ateliers | artist residency

dot.ateliers was created with the vision to cultivate an ecologically responsive and community-oriented destination within the community. The monolithic three-story structure houses a gallery, studio, café, art library, office and external yard. It was conceived as an “architectural tool” for rethinking the possibilities of sustainable design within its waterfront neighbourhood. dot.ateliers’ space speaks to the desire of Amoako Boafo to strengthen the scope for art venues in his hometown and bring about exchange between artists and the larger community

 

Red Clay and SCCA

The Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art [SCCA] is an artist-run project space, exhibition and research hub, cultural repository and artists’ residency located in Tamale, Ghana – dedicated to art and cultural practices which emerged in the 20th Century.

 

Nii Obodai

Francis Nii Obodai Provencal is a photographer and artist born in Accra, Ghana. His photography explores the intricate relationships within urban and rural culture, focusing on the dynamic interplay of environment and spirituality while telling the stories of the people he connects with. Working mainly in large-format black and white film, Nii’s photography serves as a medium for documenting and celebrating the unseen and alluring perspectives of Africa. His profound interest in how the past is remembered is evident in his landscapes, portraits, and research into environmental and oral histories. Through his visual practice, he strives to communicate the profound connection between humanity and the environment.

 

Nuku Studio

Nuku Studio is a space, an institution, a community that is strongly connected to the place it finds itself in – Ghana. It provides an innovative and productive support system for sustainable artistic and professional photographic practice. The studio creates and grows a self-sustained photography community and network. It provides the Ghanaian photography community with a safe space to meet, experiment, exchange, inspire and be inspired, and grow. Its protected space is open to all creatives and visual artists without discrimination.

 

Kwesi Botchway

Kwesi Botchway is the Founder of WorldFaze Art Studio in Accra, a studio and residency space focusing on supporting young local artists. This support for emerging talent is deeply inflected by his own introduction to painting through apprenticing with a Ghanaian street artist at a young age. He studied art at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design in Accra before enrolling at the Academy of Visual Arts in Frankfurt, Germany. He has held solo exhibitions in Denmark, Ghana, the UK and Belgium, some resulting from his residency at Gallery 1957 in Ghana in 2020. Group exhibitions have featured his work across Ghana, South Africa, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Belgium, while he has been exhibited at fairs such as Art Brussel Week in 2021. Botchway was nominated for the GUBA Awards USA as an Influential Artist in 2019, and has received significant press attention, profiled by publications such as Vogue, Financial Times, Flash Art, The Art Newspaper, Stylist, ArtNews and Frieze.

 

Worldfaze

Worldfaze is an art residency in Accra, Ghana, dedicated to nurturing emerging contemporary artists. Founded by artist Kwesi Botchway in 2011, it hosts a three-month residency program, which brings together artists from diverse backgrounds and provides them with a fully-equipped workspace, housing and mentorship. The program is designed to support artists in developing their practice through workshops, seminars, critique sessions and experimenting with new ideas while collaborating with fellow artists.

 

LA Foundation for The Arts

Founded by Safoa Aïsha Cablye-Gaisie, La Foundation for the Arts [LAFA] is a non-profit service organisation with an unwavering commitment to advancing, realising and preserving the vision of emerging and unrecognised Ghanaian art workers and administrators. Their primary objective is to create new, sustainable opportunities and to empower individual artists by providing critical support, professional development tools and resources for defining and achieving career success.

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