Can a Local Commercial Gallery Make a Difference for Artists in Ghana?

On March 6th, Independence Day, a new contemporary art gallery celebrated its opening in Accra, Ghana.
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Serge Attukwei Clottey, My Mother's Wardrobe, installation view at Gallery 1957, Accra. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra. Photo: Nii Odzenma.

Gallery 1957: A New Gallery Highlights the Contemporary Art Scene in Accra, Ghana

On March 6th, Independence Day, a new contemporary art gallery celebrated its opening in Accra, Ghana. Named for the year the African country declared independence from the United Kingdom, Gallery 1957 was inaugurated with a forward-looking mission to support the local contemporary art scene and Ghanaian artists, from established to emerging. On the day it opened, Serge Attukwei Clottey and his performance troupe, GoLokal, wrapped themselves in garments from their mothers' wardrobes and proceeded to make their way through Accra, from the artist's home in the neighborhood of Labadi, to the Kempinski Gold Coast Hotel, which houses Gallery 1957. Clottey's solo exhibition at the gallery, "My Mother's Wardrobe," explores issues of politics, culture, and the environment through the use of everyday objects, such as textiles and bright yellow plastic gallon containers.

Serge Attukwei Clottey and GoLokal, My Mother's Wardrobe, performance at Gallery 1957, 6 March 2016. Courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra. Photo: Nii Odzenma.

"Without doubt there is something very special happening to Ghana's art scene at the moment driven by a pool of young, talented artists and creatives," says Gallery 1957 founder Marwan Zakhem, a British collector and international entrepreneur who has spent the last 15 years living in Africa, where he began collecting contemporary art from the region. Zakhem's personal collection is on display throughout the Kempinski Hotel, including works by Yaw Owusu, Zohra Opoku and Jeremiah Quarshie, and the gallery, located in a 140 square-meter "white box" space within the hotel, will commission new site-specific works for the hotel, such as recently completed installations by Clottey and Ibrahim Mahama. But the hotel is not the only client of Gallery 1957, a commercial gallery in a city more known for its independent art institutions and non-profits, such as the cultural research platform ANO, the Foundation of Contemporary Art, and the Nubuke Foundation. Zakhem explains that the motivation behind the gallery comes from a "combination of my passion as a collector and supporter of Ghanaian artists, and the entrepreneurial side of me that believes there is a need for a commercial gallery here." The primary focus, however, Zakhem maintains, lies on supporting the development of the contemporary art scene in Accra, adding, "I want to provide increased opportunities for artists based here so they don't feel they have to move abroad to pursue their careers."

Serge Attukwei Clottey, Social Reactions, 2016, plastics, wire and oil paint, 86 x 188 inches. © Serge Attukwei Clottey. Courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra.

Clottey's work, in fact, rose in prominence internationally before it became recognized in his home country. The son of a painter, he first pursued more traditional arts before studying in Brazil, where his work took on a more conceptual bent. "At the time the galleries here weren't interested in conceptual art," Clottey recounts, "so I turned instead to social media to promote my work." Over the internet, interest in his work grew, which led to opportunities to travel and work abroad, which he says "permitted me to understand the more global context of my work, not just as an artist from Africa." The establishment of Gallery 1957, however, marks a turning point for the art scene in Accra, providing a much-needed platform for experimental work by young artists working outside traditional subject matter and media, such as concept-driven, inter-media, and performance-based work. "Gallery 1957 for me is somewhere that's not afraid to break away from those boundaries," he remarks, "and it's engaged with a lot of contemporary Ghanaian artists who don't have space in the traditional system."

Nana Oforiatta Ayim. Photo: Nii Odzenma.

Writer, filmmaker, and cultural historian Nana Oforiatta Ayim, who also serves as founder and director of ANO in Accra, is Gallery 1957's creative director (a title she prefers to "curator") and understands the nuances of the local context as well as those of the international contemporary art world. She maintains that the presence of a local commercial gallery in Accra will benefit Ghanaian artists' careers in that it will promote greater sustainability, visibility, and "for a greater focus on the evolution of artists' practice." A commercial gallery close to home has other benefits as well, she says, "it means working with people that understand and live in the artists' context, rather than continuously having to explain or mediate themselves, or having to ascertain who and what to trust in what can be the wild west of the art world."

Nana Oforiatta Ayim and Serge Attukwei Clottey.

But beyond helping to sustain and support the arts infrastructure and provide a platform for artists in Accra, how much of a market for contemporary art exists locally? "I'm not sure there is a 'market' as such, in that there is nothing you could call systematic," Oforiatta Ayim replies. "There are definitely people that are interested in art, and those that collect, and that are looking for places to be able to buy art from," she continues, remarking that Gallery 1957 will serve as a place to commune and connect with artists and others who are interested in the arts. "I think the gallery will definitely make a difference in terms of being a cohesive presence, of bridging the gap, and bringing artists and those interested in art together," she says.

Serge Attukwei Clottey, Ghana's Millenium Cloth, 2016, plastics, wire and oil paint. © Serge Attukwei Clottey. Courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra.

Gallery 1957's programming reflects a deep interest in gathering different communities together and presenting a nuanced and complex portrait of artistic practices present in Africa. There is a strong interplay between the programming of Gallery 1957 and Oforiatta Ayim's work at ANO--artists from ANO's artist-in-residence program (such as Clottey) will be among those shown at Gallery 1957, and ANO's exhibition programming will in turn add depth to the themes explored by the artists through accompanying films, publications, and research. In a way, the exhibitions shown at Gallery 1957 could be considered the formal and aesthetic counterpart to the research driven exhibitions at ANO. Under her curatorial direction, the programming at Gallery 1957 will also build upon ANO's concerns with forming new cultural histories. The next exhibition will feature work by internationally recognized, Accra-based multimedia and performance artist Zohra Opoku, while future exhibitions will consider older generations of Ghanaian artists and artists from wider, international contexts. "As the narratives of programming emerge," Oforiatta Ayim remarks, "I hope that those watching will begin to see something of the depths and multifariousness of our cultural output." And every exhibition will entail some kind of public component, with performances and installations to "broaden out audiences and reception beyond the conventional 'art space.'" Clottey's performance is one such example of how Gallery 1957 intends to break down some of the boundaries between the public space and the gallery. "Performing in the gallery space was very fascinating as I'm used to outside spaces; infusing those two spaces creates a lot of dialogue," Clottey observes.

Studio of Serge Attukwei Clottey, work in progress for My Mother's Wardrobe. © Serge Attukwei Clottey. Courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra.

Gallery 1957 is not just a local endeavor, however, as it will maintain a presence on the international stage as well, through art fairs and other events. Oforiatta Ayim hopes, however, that "instead of just mimicking or fitting in seamlessly to the systems that currently exist, and which to some extent are defunct, [Gallery 1957] will begin to create its own paradigms that draw on our environment, as well as having synergies with those outside, and thus create new relations and relativities of being." Like its name suggests, this new African gallery will assert its own independence.

Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Independence Arch, 2016, plastics, wire and oil paint, 95 x 89 inches. © Serge Attukwei Clottey. Courtesy Gallery 1957, Accra.

--Natalie Hegert

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