Art As A Political Critique: A Dialogue With Yaw Owusu
Yaw Owusu is a Ghanaian visual artist who creates giant sculptural installations that repurposes found objects. He uses copper coins which are subject to chemical and natural processes to evoke age and use. Winner of the Kuenyehia Art Prize for contemporary Ghanaian Art in 2018, Yaw’s large installations like; Abandoned Abundance (2018), Mud Streams and Gold shores (2017), All that Glitters (2017), Back to the future (2017) to mention a few, are exhibited in different galleries like Gallery 1957 in Ghana, ArtX in Lagos, Nigeria and places like; MACAAL in Morocco, Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York, Museum of Science and Technology, Ghana, Kuenyehia Trust, Ghana, the World Bank, and the Presidential Residence, Ghana. Yaw is currently in an MFA program at Pratt Institute in New York.
BY HELEN AJAYI
This conversation took place between the sunny city of Brooklyn, New York and a breezy cold neighborhood in southern Kaduna, Nigeria via Whatsapp chat.
Helen: I want to congratulate you on winning the Kuenyehua Prize for contemporary Ghanaian Art 2018. It was a success and a pacesetter on your artistic journey. Winning is most often about experience gained and even a call to duty. Has this in any way reformed your decisions so far?
Yaw: Thank you Helen. In many ways, it has—given it’s competitive selection process and the particular prize being the only one in the country. It has placed a sense of responsibility, not of pressure, on myself and my practice, in a way that now I have an urgency to replicate a practice that may march the pedigree of the Prize. I believe I made certain decisions based on this award, and had been in constant check of what and how I present or represent my practice.
Helen: Yes, competitions of such magnitude have a way of pushing and redirecting ideas towards paths that are aided and well-structured for achieving goals, and making dreams a reality.
Your discovery of alchemy proves this right—there was a burden and a cry you wanted to let out and you eventually found a medium, which has created a platform for other forms of expressionism in the contemporary African Art—because it has a way of rejuvenating ideas.
Yaw: Absolutely. There’s a way things like this could enormously inform decisions and introduce perhaps thoughts you’ve never had.
Helen: So what are you engaged in at the moment?
Yaw: I’m currently in an MFA program at Pratt Institute in New York. I have been interested over the past year here in exploring a rather global perspective of political and economic systems. And how they navigate our human realities. I’m working closely with materials that reflects and are connected to aspects of belonging, displacement and migration. Looking at the current global tensions and conditions of migrants, expatriates, and how our places can easily shift the conditions of our lives. I’m considering myself as an expatriate and looking at issues and conditions with regards to permissions, access and denials.
Helen: What are the challenges you encounter and how have you been able to conquer them?
Yaw: It’s not been easy considering what I have access to, but I didn’t expect it to be. I believe and hope at the end of the program and my time here, there would be something positive realized.
Helen: Let’s talk about one of your prominent and widely appreciated work – Back to the future (2017). This Coin Clad Ghana flag speaks volume and raises a lot of questions which I believe is towards solving problems related to Ghana’s independence—the state of the country, before and after independence.
Of what relevance is this piece to the economical growth of Ghana, bearing in mind the use of the undervalued Pesewa coins introduced by the government to tackle local inflation in the country in 2007?
“I’m working closely with materials that reflects and are connected to aspects of belonging, displacement and migration. Looking at the current global tensions and conditions of migrants, expatriates, and how our places can easily shift the conditions of our lives.“
Yaw: That particular work was birthed at the space assigned to me for the Chale Wote Art Festival in Jamestown. I had the walls of the Ussher Fort to produce an installation. The Ussher Fort has a history of serving as a female prison in the colonial era and that particular history became interesting to my narrative as an artist. I’m interested in spaces as much as value in all of its complexities. It was also the 60th anniversary of our (Ghana) independence and the bigger question was what the independence meant at this state of our economic strength. The Pesewa became so much attached to this complex scenario and I couldn’t express it in any other way but to reflect on the symbolism of nationalism which was embedded in the flag.
Also, the fact that Jamestown is one of the most impoverished communities in the Capitol and the nation at large, the question of hanging an object literally made of money was quite ironic for me. The ambiguity of juxtaposing wealth to poverty and assuming its subtle coexistence was interesting and dangerous at the same time.
Obviously, at the end the work was almost destroyed due to the local kids and some adults rushing to grab the coins as many as possible. The work reflected so much of our current political and economic status. How corruption was massively being engaged in public and private institutions, and how almost everybody was ‘in’ to grab as much as possible. I was also thinking of how the promise of independence by Kwame Nkrumah and the reality of it in the past few year couldn’t add up.
Helen: It seems those who fight for independence, the same who have seen the outcome of war and violence, hold a high promise in freedom. But the hurts and the scars have been passed down over time. Yet the books of history living on our shelves, even the word of mouth, is expected to help uphold this promise.
Yaw: Indeed. I had greater hopes of a fruitful and much dependent country after the great fight for this independence but the realities now doesn’t seem to reflect that. And so from the relics of this failure, I spring forth with my work.
Helen: Do you think you can successfully arouse the government to take drastic actions in changing the current state of Ghana through art?
Yaw: Obviously, a lot more of the social influential Ghanaians have great hopes and are working in their own medium to see the change that we seek. I think art in Ghana can do much and probe into a lot. Although, I doubt I can single-handedly carry on that task. There’s a need for many more hands-on activities through art to aid this course, of which many other artists in their own ways and media are poking. I can mention Bright Ackwerh whose work is equally extremely political and provocative as well.
Helen: I hope to see more of Bright Ackwerh’s work. How about in the diaspora?
Yaw: I’d love to connect you two as well. I guarantee you will be intrigued by his works. The diaspora is a thicker layer. My time here presents so much to consider and ponder upon like the question of ‘belonging’ and function of place in my narrative.
Helen: I guess I would learn more about your discoveries in due time. I believe if every sector of the economy worked together with the government, through public and private institutions, entrepreneurship, trade and investment and a lot more, we will attain greater heights.
Yaw: That’s an interesting observation, Helen. I tend to ask ‘who’ is ‘what’ in such operations? Will there be a difference if the same people are given different assignments? These are little things I think about sometime.
Helen: Often times I think about our sole responsibility as individuals in a community up to the level of being a part of a continent and even the world. Do we choose to identify our responsibilities and work to deliver them, or we rather choose to just exist as a part of this journey.
Looking at America (the world power) and her current economic or trade war with China, I realise there is a more pressing need and wake-up call for Africans to pull resources together and fight for a continent that speaks when other world powers speaks. We need to make good use of the power of individuality and not use it as an agent of division. Sometimes, you know, a lot of these questions arises.
Yaw: Well put, Helen. It’s absolutely true that Africa as a larger collective can and should be at the forefront of economic development and strength. It’s a sad thing to see the continent’s current economic situations and pace of growth. However, there still is an interesting development of innovative younger generation in numerous areas making tremendous improvements to our current realities. I believe as a collective there is an incredible amount of strength to creating sustainable standards that are custom built for our needs and will potentially elevate us to greater and much more stronger economies. It may take time, it has already taken much, but however, we can continue with an extra energy as a unified group.
Europe, Asia and America has always in so many ways benefited from the natural and tangible resources of Africa, that are extracted, re-produced and re-sold to us or intellectual resources through brain-drain that has attracted resourceful thinkers and producers to help build their economies. I wish we built on our own. If we built for us and with our resources – not in a way that is isolating ourselves from the world but rather being consciously committed to our systems in a rather realistic manner and not in the pseudo-fantasies politics has instituted.
Helen: Your work, Trial of Change, was acquired in 2018 for the Ghanaian president’s residence, has this by any means birthed a change or a movement towards achieving better governance in Ghana?
And you speak of the story behind this beautiful art piece, can you please share this particular story, maybe, just maybe government officials will encounter the story and a trend of change begins.
Yaw: Thanks for bringing that up. It was and still is humbling to have my work among the collection of the presidential residence. In my honest thought, I wouldn’t have imagined my work in the hands of the same institution I tend to criticize. However, it meant a lot more than I could anticipate, with regards to how my work can and may be interpreted by the audience.
That particular work was informed by the then political elections that had so much going on. I was intrigued by the repetition of the pseudo-cyclical political promises and manifestos that was being enacted by the political parties and as a result the title ‘Trail of Change’. Ghana has had a long-standing political history of glimmering promises that has never been executed. These trails of failure to perform has not only imparted negatively to the the growth of our nation but also conditioned us to accept and cheer towards the better promise instead of the one who can actually adhere to them. I was with the hope, however, that the mere collection and depiction of such phenomena in that work could spring up something new amidst the strata of potential developments.
Helen: The hope we have for a better economy and livelihood strengthens our decisions and helps us play our part in advancing the nations. I see a lot working out just fine, which might be insignificant to the magnitude of change we all want to see but amasses a huge sense of collective effort.
The 1 Pesewa coin was released to you for use as an object of art, at the time, though of little value to the economy, yet, it was still a symbol of value. What was the process involved in its release and how did the nation perceive it. Did they quickly come to terms with your ideology?
Yaw: Ironically, the 1 Pesewa coin still remains a legal tender on the front of currency recognition but fails to satisfy its frangibility. When I begun using it in small quantities I could easily source them from commercial banks across the country. I run out of that option as I suspect I was the only one collecting them. My only option was the Central Bank of Ghana, where the major chunk was kept. A few acquisitions didn’t raise any query as to what I was using them for, but later became a serious series of back and forth negotiations with the bank to get them in the first place. Technically, they would want the coin to be mutated or defaced the way I manipulate them, but that forms a major part of my process. The act of subverting the law in question of what can be, is very important to me.
Helen: Talking about medium, your discovery of the coin as a medium of expression is an interesting story which shows the vastness of the human mind. What other medium do you employ and how did you come by such?
Yaw: I started off as a traditional painter. Mostly portraits of historical figures in politics, pop culture and royalty. I found my process at the time not compelling enough as my focus was rather technical. These paintings opened me up to symbolism and objective representations, in that I discovered other objects that could intricately present the narratives I was interested in. I still paint, I consider my works today as paintings.
In the past few years, I’ve found other materials that I use with the coins. I use other currencies from other countries (Euro cents, UK pennies etc) as well. I quite extensively use metals (gold, silver, copper, aluminum, steel) in many forms and other found objects now, in foils and sheets. These other materials has lived before and after formal currency. I believe they reflect the trajectory of economic and political hegemonies that have pre-existed and continue to demarcate our world today. They reflect class and societal formations. I’m interested in delving into the past of the materials, and to analyze its present circumstances to then suggest a future.
Helen: I see you are exploring the West. Your words reflect a good example of one who would be interested in instituting a change in governance. Let me ask you this, if given the opportunity to rule Ghana, would you be willing to take up the mantle, for the love of your country?
Yaw: Governance. That’s a huge task per my capabilities. I can contribute as a creative and a thinker, but not so sure of having the entire country under my watch. I’d love to be a part of a growing force that promotes and initiate positive change. To create opportunities for my immediate community and not necessarily being at the forefront. I don’t believe entirely in single-handed ruler-ship, I prefer collective efforts.
Helen : Noted Yaw. Gallery 1957 played a major role through Marwan Zakhem in your debut, in some notable exhibitions. As an artist, how did your work with the gallery influence your journey?
Yaw: Wow! Memories. I had no idea about the financial reality of being an artist. Working with the gallery brought me the deepest insight of the economic implications firstly, but most importantly, I became aware of the fact that the works and whatever I was making was not entirely meant for me but has connections and relevance to a broader audience I may never be able to control. Obviously they helped in getting the work and my practice in the right direction and also added value to the content I provided. An artist doesn’t need a gallery to be, but definitely could have one to become and stay relevant. I have a good gallery which understands my process and has guided me very well.
It’s always been difficult to put money value to my works. The gallery help me achieve that through their expertise. But basically there are standard factors to consider such as material cost, time, labor, scale and others
Helen: To me, the most interesting and beautiful part of art is the freedom of expression – how an artist can birth a piece making a statement on, for example healing through his or her own experiences and different observers interpret the same piece as love from a mother to a child or as strength and endurance, ALL Through their journeys they can all communicate with the piece of art. The constructive attitude that results in the willingness to bring a change in our society, to re-purpose devalued objects, also recycling materials and making beautiful piece from waste, enhances environmental safety and a sustainable society. Art gives life to many.
Yaw: That’s an exciting thing you acknowledge. True, art gives life to many. Not only the transformation of objects and material aesthetics that reflect and inspire change, also, I believe in its ability to re-imagine the possibilities of the unreachable realities.
Helen: Yes it does. We all have access to these blessings nature has bestowed. And we choose how we utilize it for our own good.
Your work appears to many as a clean slate from which imaginations bring about today’s reality. There’s a process involved that requires adequate indulgence of the mind. I mean, the resources in the ocean wasn’t at some point valuable as far as human discovery through voyage and expeditions.
I’m interested in this ability that art possess that enables it to bring forth newness.
Yaw: There’s an extraordinary value in how art in itself transcends time. How the past is indifferent from now and the future when our abilities to re-imagine these times are carefully navigated. I think we get to such unreachable realities quite conceptually and also utilize the freedom that comes with it. We can only propose in our making.
Helen: Thank you Yaw, it’s been a wonderful time with you. Do you have a message or an advice for art lovers?
Yaw: Well, as Thomas Merton rightly says, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Thank you for engaging me in such a wonderful conversation.
Helen: Thank you for your time. Hope to see more of your works.
Helen Ajayi is an Aquaculture Consultant and an Aqua-Art enthusiast with a three years of handson experience working with farms and research institutes, she consults for small and medium sized Aquaculture businesses which may include hatching, breeding and rearing of aquatic organisms. Helen obtained a B. Tech. Honors in Fisheries and Aquaculture Technology from the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA). She is currently undergoing a one-year service through the Nation Youth Service Corp (NYSC), serving as a teacher and instructor of Basic Technology. She spends time listening to music and hanging out with friends, She does Nail Art and Photography equally, @Havilotta on IG.