On Nubuke and the Ghana art institutions / Text Lisa C Soto

In something we Africans got, issue 11
Lisa C Soto

Nubuke’s Accra space has recently reinvented itself. On November 23rd 2019, it opened its newly constructed gallery space and extended grounds designed by architects Baerbel Mueller and Juergen Strohmayer. The poetic tropical modernist structure, with exposed concrete surfaces, is devoid of conventional white walls often seen in a gallery space.

© Julien Lanoo. Nubuke Fondation, East Leagon, Accra

Ghana’s coastal capital, Accra, has a vibrant history of modern and contemporary art collectives and infrastructures. In the last ten years, arts education, art spaces and artist collectives continue to grow nationally in cities such as Kumasi, Takoradi, and Tamale. Ghana’s new generation of artists working in and out of the country, many hailing from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology (KNUST), has put a spotlight on the national art scene. Last year, the country raised its profile on the international stage, launching the first Ghanaian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale.  It was a celebration of artists both from the continent and the diaspora in particular Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Ibrahim Mahama, and Selasi Awusi Sosu. 

In many ways, the pavilion seemingly served as a manifestation of the decades long work art professors, artists, collectors, lawyers, business people have steadily built, erecting spaces such as Glo Gallery (1968), Loom Gallery (1969), Berj Art Gallery (1996), Arthaus (1998), Foundation for Contemporary Art Ghana (FCA) (2004), Nubuke Foundation (2008), Artists Alliançe (2008), Dei Center for African Arts (2009), ACCRA [dot] ALT/Chale Wote (2011), Ano Institute of Arts & Knowledge (2012), Kuenyehia Trust (2014), Blaxtarlines gallery (2015), Gallery 1957 (2016), and SCCA (2018).

In pre-independence Ghana, colonial scholarships were given for studies in Europe and Britain, missionary schools taught Western art classes, and exhibitions were primarily for the Western Sunday painters exhibiting in government buildings or in their homes. Dr. Oku Ampofo, a recipient of one of these scholarships attended the Edinburgh University and Royal College of Edinburgh and Glasgow where he studied medicine. Always interested in art, he also enrolled in night classes as a sculptor. Upon his return home he established an art studio and clinic. In 1945, Ampofo curated the Neo-African Art exhibition with painter and sculptor, J.C. Okyere. It was the first modern art display by Ghanaians and acted as a significant catalyst. 

© Julien Lanoo. Nubuke Fondation, East Leagon, Accra

After a series of successful exhibitions, Ampofo and Okyere formed the art collective Akwapim Six (named after the Aburi-Akwapim region where they were all from) in 1952, said to be the first modern art collective. It included artists E.A. Asare (weaver), Ayisi Gyampo (painter and graphics), Daniel Cobblah (ceramics), and J.D. Okae (painter). This group later expanded to include more artists and founded the first art society in Ghana renamed the Ghana Arts Council after independence. 

Among the founders of art establishments in post-independent Ghana is the founder of Loom Gallery, Frances Ademola, now 91 years old. She grew up in Accra and attended Achimota Secondary School, later moving to England to pursue a degree in English literature. Ademola trained as a broadcaster for the BBC, and eventually represented Radio Nigeria from 1956 – 1969, where she worked with and witnessed the rise of eminent writers such as Chinua Achebe and Amos Totola. 

Influenced by music, art, and writing, Ademola returned to Accra with a desire to continue nurturing the arts. She opened Loom Gallery as a space for painting and handicrafts but soon shifted her focus on showcasing artists such as Ablade Glover, Ato Delaquis, Glen Turner, and Anne Blankson-Hemans. Loom Gallery celebrated its golden jubilee on December 14, 2019. 

I spoke to Ademola about the climate of the art scene when she first opened her gallery fifty years ago, and she reminisces, “at that time you could count the number of artists on two hands. There were artists but they did not have the exposure they wanted. There was an art center that was a government place where you could deposit your artwork and that was it. 

Equally ambitious was Glo Gallery, which was opened by artist Ablade Glover in 1968, a year before Loom. Glover studied textile at the Central School of Art and Design in London and later became the Department Head and College Dean at KNUST in Kumasi. After retiring from the university in the mid 90’s, he moved back to Accra to initiate a communal exhibition space with a collective of artists. The collective dissipated but Glover continued and attained a space to hold the newly founded Artists Alliance Gallery in Teshi. The city grew, along with traffic, making it close to impossible for visitors to reach the space. Ablade decided to move and raised the necessary funds to build a new space in Labadi, Glover’s childhood neighborhood, in 2008. Initially questioned for his decision to showcase both classical African art and contemporary art, critics soon realized that there was a continuity from the old to the new that was revealed by the juxtaposition of the works throughout his building. 

James Barnor inaugural exhibition © the Nubuke Foundation
James Barnor inaugural exhibition © the Nubuke Foundation
James Barnor inaugural exhibition © the Nubuke Foundation

In the midst of this ecosystem is Nubuke Foundation, founded by Odile Tevie, Tutu Agyare, and artist and founder of Arthaus artist residency, Kofi Setordji. It initially opened its space in 2009. Nubuke Foundation’s multifarious exhibition history includes historical references to Ghana since independence, with shows such as “Independence-In-Dependence”, featuring artists Adwoa Amoa and Rikki Wemega-Kwawu who questioned the notion and consequence of independence in contemporary times. In 2011, Nubuke also orchestrated “Jubilee Oil”, a four-year national touring exhibition about the country’s hope of gaining a significant economic boost through oil exploitation from the Jubilee oil field.  

Nubuke is also proactive in preserving traditional iterations of culture, through its dedicated centre for textiles and clay in Wa, the upper west region of Ghana. Setordji beams, “our space in Wa is my dream. It is going to be a center for learning and a place where you can go and have a residency for people who work with any type of fiber. The artists can team up with a master weaver and weave things as a form of expression”. Currently, the centre has looms from the industrial revolution, which were originally donated to the Roman Catholics within the region. The looms have been dormant in a container for 22 years until Setordji was able to get them donated to Nubuke Foundation. Since then, the foundation has been working with the School of Applied arts from Vienna, to restore the looms.

Nubuke’s Accra space has recently reinvented itself. On November 23rd 2019, it opened its newly constructed gallery space and extended grounds designed by architects Baerbel Mueller and Juergen Strohmayer. The poetic tropical modernist structure, with exposed concrete surfaces, is devoid of conventional white walls often seen in a gallery space. An intimate 31 square meter useable rooftop space sits above the 289sq meter open gallery space with ceilings gradually rising from 3 to 4.5 meters high. There is also a 230 sq meters useable area underneath the gallery. 

Frances Ademola mentioned, ‘Nubuke is one of the most incredible parts of this [arts] growth and in a quiet way. Now in November [2019] she [Odile Tevie] is opening her new center, not just as a market place but a place where people can come and be part of the art world, I think that is important. I think with Nubuke’s vision and achievement it is a very significant landmark in the growth of Ghanaian art.” Nubuke Foundation’s compound which rests on a third acre of land, comprises a dedicated art gallery, offices and co-working spaces, a shop, a residency with a studio, and stage with plans for a café and library. 

Veteran photographer, James Barnor, christened the new gallery through a retrospective exhibition. Barnor, now 90, is a pioneer of Ghanaian photography has a career spanning over six decades as a photojournalist. His street and studio work have become an important historical record encompassing societies in transition from Ghana moving toward independence to London transitioning into a multicultural city. 

His work was initially celebrated in 2007 through his first solo exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in London which later led to his first major solo exhibition of his photographs, “Ever Young: James Barnor” mounted by Autograph ABP at Rivington Place, London. 

The comprehensive solo show at Nubuke Foundation features 80 breathtaking photographs, most of which have never been seen before. Curated by Bianca Ama Manu, Ghanaian-British curator, producer, and writer, Manu fashioned the work in a non-standard way, using a large-scale photo to introduce each theme, complimented by a cluster of smaller photographs illustrating the variety and nuance of each theme. Throughout the exhibition are short audio recordings of Barnor describing the stories behind each theme.

More recent platforms are the Kuenyehia Trust of Contemporary Art in Accra, started in 2014 by art collector and lawyer Elikem Nutifafa with the purpose of giving monetary prizes and supporting up-and-coming and mid-career Ghanaian artists. Nutifafa witnessed first-hand the lack of support and the effect it had on local artists. He would visit and often buy from young artists, in time returning to see their progress. Nutifafa repeatedly found artists that had abandoned their practice due to the lack of financial support. This instigated a desire to create an environment and a market where artists could work full-time. In the past few years the ambition of the Trust has evolved with plans to increase the prize from 35,000 Ghana Cedi to 25,000 dollars and strategize on how to encourage more female artists and Ghanaian artists outside the capital to apply. Plans are under way to create a larger gallery space and deliver workshops, which would provide a residency for artists to focus on their practice.  

Another recorder of history is the Foundation of Contemporary Art, a library and a space for critique, exhibitions and resources for artists in Ghana run by Adwoa Amoah and Ato Annan. The FCA was originally a joint venture between the late Prof. Joe Nkrumah (Anthropologist/Conservator/Curator) and Virginia Ryan (Australian-Italian Artist/Writer) with an initial founding membership of about 23 artists, gallerists, academics and patrons of the arts including creatives such as Wiz Kudowor, Kwadwo Ani (aka Big Eye) and Sam Olou which has now grown to over 300 members. 

In 2004 Sekou Nkrumah (the son of the late President Kwame Nkrumah) became the director of the Dubois Center. He recognized the value of FCA, and arranged that the newly formed organization could reside rent free as the resident art institution in exchange for its services in supporting art programming for the Dubois Center. FCA transitioned from a conservative and exclusive stage to becoming a place where experimental and critical based workshops are held with the objective of strengthening the research and conceptual elements of the members’ art practice rather than focusing on the display of art.

Although a lot has been accomplished or attempted in the cultural art scene of Ghana, clarity on its direction hangs in the air. For instance, while Nubuke calls itself a cultural institution, this has not always been translated publicly. While at the same time Setordji expresses his frustration, “we have all of these foreign art centers — the British Art Council, the Italian cultural center, etc. — so why not start something with a Ghanaian point of view, by Ghanaians for Ghanaians. Africa does not have institutions. We do all sorts of things but everything is ephemeral, there is no place where things can go. How do Africans see themselves, how do they see art from their point of view?”

Loom gallery can be lauded for taking the initiative to showcase the artists of its time but it was a personal endeavor with what many say conservative taste. The art that has been supported by this platform and many other galleries and spaces of exhibitions are seen to be supporting safe, easily digestible, ready to hang work. A particular type of work that is supported tends to be the kind of work artists will continue making, staying away from more abstract and experimental art. This tends to obscure more confrontational or provocative work that may not fit into the status quo as kari’kacha seid’ou, faculty of art at KNUST, says, ‘there was an artistic void for quite some time and from this void emerged a new way of seeing, talking about and making work by students at the University.’ So there is not necessarily an interconnectivity threading through Ghana’s art world that has aided in producing the next generation of Ghanaian artists now emerging on the global art platform but more like a surge from the core of the earth when tectonic plates begin to shift apart. The professors at KNUST have been supporting and some have been part of this surge. Along with kari’kacha seid’ou, professors Dorothy Amenuke, Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu (Castro), George Ampratwum (Buma), Dr. Edwin Kwesi Bodjawah have dedicated their professions as artists and professors to support the next generations. These professors are giving art students the permission to think more radically and not rely on the art world, to learn all aspects of exhibiting, to deeply research and search for unconventional spaces to exhibit in, to think on the future, connect to the past and most importantly to be true to themselves as individuals making art.

A concrete example of this surge is the most recent addition to the country’s spaces   the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art in Tamale, realized by artist Ibrahim Mahama in March 2018. The inaugural exhibition opened with the retrospective “GalleWinston Kofi Dawson: In Pursuit of something ‘Beautiful’, perhaps…” by painter Kofi Dawson curated by Bernard Akoi Jackson. SCCA describes itself as a project space, exhibition and research hub, cultural repository and artists’ residency. It is affiliated with blaxTARLINES in Kumasi, where Mahama was a member as a student in the sculpture and art department. Mahama’s second site, sitting on 100 acres of land is a compound of buildings that will comprise of studio spaces, art events, contemporary exhibitions, an archeological museum and cinema as well as his personal studio and permanent art installation titled “The Parliament of Ghost”. This extension of SCCA on the other side of town will open April 2020. 

© Julien Lanoo. Nubuke Fondation, East Leagon, Accra

This space addresses Setordji’s concern: “in a country like Ghana in the 21st century we don’t have a place to showcase contemporary work.”

Despite the considerable history of Ghanaian modern and contemporary art, the new surge of thinking in the past decade indicates a leap pivoting into a new direction. As in nature, it takes time for a seed to become a tree so too has the Ghana art scene. A country that has survived the ravages of colonialism by the Western world has had its natural infrastructures undermined and the riches taken with no remorse or reparations. Inundated by false foreign aid and missionaries abound, recently being approached and possibly seduced by China for what will inevitably be an uneven exchange of land, goods and services. And now a growing population in the era of climate change, traffic filled cities, and a deeper divide between rich and poor. Creating a long lasting and strong infrastructure in the Ghanaian art scene is not easy but like new plants pushing their way through concrete to the light of the sun, Ghanaian artists and art infrastructures are growing and strengthening nonetheless.

                                                                                  in something we Africans got 
                                                                                  Lisa C Soto