Felicia Ansah Abban / Text Jareh Das

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue
Jareh Das 

“In Ghana and Accra as a woman, succeeding and thriving in the creative arts is very, very hard, and to uncover this history of this woman, who for 60 years stood her ground, is so empowering,” said Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, founder of ANO. “It’s important that we know that we are not starting from scratch.”

– Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, New York Times, 2017

© Felicia Ansah Abban, self portrait
© Felicia Abban, self portrait
© Felicia Ansah Abban, Studio portrait

Felicia Ansah Abban’s beginnings in photography can be traced back to her childhood in Sekondi-Takoradi where she frequented her father Joseph Emmanuel Ansah’s photography studio, and from the age of 14, worked as his apprentice. Abban’s formal photographic practice began in the 1950s and she is widely regarded as Ghana’s first female photographer. A move to Jamestown Accra as a newly married 18-year old in 1956, a year before Ghana’s independence led to her setting up Mrs. Felicia Abban’s Day and Night Quality Art Studio specializing solely in portraiture. Her studio was located in the centre of the capital city alongside Ghanaian photography legends including J.K. Bruce Vanderpuije with his studio “Deo Gratias” and James Barnor’s “Ever Young Studio.” Abban garnered attention for her portraiture, particularly her self-styled portraits because, in her own words, ‘I looked good and it was good for business.’ Establishing her studio was a remarkable feat at a time when there were few women working in the formal sector, and even more unheard of, working in photography. 

In 1957, Abban became the official photographer of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and she played a pivotal role in documenting important events of the time ranging from formal state functions to key social, political and cultural events. In turning the camera to herself to capture self-styled portraits, Abban created images that captured the early days of the country’s independence from colonial rule. These documentation by the artist no doubt left indelible marks to the photographic history of Ghana as today, a vast archive of images now exists due to the over 60-year oeuvre Abban has created over time. In an interview with Laurian R. Bowles for African Arts in 2016, Bowles explains of Abban’s influence; ‘as a professional photographer who worked before, during, and after Ghanaian independence, Abban’s self-portraits are an opportunity to engage intent and subject-making by photographers, particularly the way self-portraits are gendered embodiments of modernity through dress politics.

Exemplary in her use of dress as political, social and cultural tool are the range of styles and fashions in these self-portraits that were combinations of traditional and western dress in a variety of fabrics including silks, lace, hand-woven kente as well as imported wax prints. It is important to mention that Abban’s husband was a textile executive and he designed the commemorative cloth of Ghanaian independence. This meant that she occasionally chose to photograph herself in vibrant patterns to both celebrate and support the domestic textiles which were made on less expensive cotton, but she also adheres to social expectations with more expensive Vlisco fabrics in this new Ghanaian era of a class-driven gendered modernity.

The rediscovery of Abban’s work has been spearheaded by the influential curator, writer and filmmaker Nana Oforiatta-Ayim who, with her arts organisation ANO, presented the first public showing of the artist in 2017 with the exhibition Accra: Portraits of a City. The exhibition included other artists Deo Gratias, Paa Joe, Serge Attukwei Clottey and architects Latifah Idriss and Mae Ling Lokko all of who according to the press release ‘explored the capital city and the birth of modernity, – its mythologies, rituals, social changes and structures, – through architecture, photography, sculpture, public installation, film and writing by six Ghanaian creatives.’ Through ANO, there are ongoing plans to turn Abban’s original studio into the Felicia Abban Museum, an organisation that will ‘preserve and showcase her work, as well as for workshops for younger photographers.’ One can discern through Abban’s images, the excitement of independence in Ghana. A period which signalled the dawn of a new era and a celebratory mood for long-awaited freedom where she used portraiture to project a bold new image of cosmopolitanism, pan-Africanism, Black consciousness and Nationalism.

© Felicia Ansah Abban, self portrait

Abban’s portraits as Tobias Wendl reminds us, ‘become “visualized speech” inscribed with classifications of ethnicity, class, and gender where dress reinforces and illustrates social integration.’ She expressed a range of modern Ghanaian identities by using fashion to embody coolness, status, and ultimately, the image of an independent working (female) artist. Abban’s photographs are included in the first national participation of Ghana at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019. Titled ‘Ghana Freedom’, after the song composed by E.T. Mensah on the eve of the birth of the new nation in 1957, the pavilion curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim examines the legacies and trajectories of that freedom by six artists, across three generations, rooted both in Ghana and its Diasporas. 

In SWAG high profiles
Jareh Das
April 2019