Saturday, May 12, 2012

Contagious Art

a collection of the works at the exhibition
In a quiet neighborhood in North Kaneshie, Grandma Josiah’s house stands on the left side of the cross –roads. Three Date Palm trees beautifully guard the house. Later Grandma would narrate how the trees she planted after she returned from Europe provide fresh air for taxi drivers who come and nap in the mornings in front of the house. 

Inside the house, in a well kept garden the walls hold firmly to their bare chest a collection of artworks with vibrant colours; a young man helps a natural braid-wearing lady of average height to hang solar powered decorative lights, as the music of Asa’s ‘bebanke’ plays in the background. Intermittently, a large size philosophical painting of ‘an eye ball in a mouth’ frees itself from the wall and lands on the ground.

Naa has been painting since age 16 when she drew inspiration from her elder brother, Paa Nii, who she describes as a master artist. Naturally drawn to art, she would at the time take advantage of her sibling’s spare canvases and materials that lay around. She has grown up by simply teaching herself how to paint with freedom.  

She had the chance to hone her skills when she took her works to her school’s arts centre and eventually got accepted into an advanced art program, 

“…we didn’t learn how to draw because it was an advanced program so we just had to produce things and I think that freedom actually gave me the time and the effort …and I put the effort into developing a style.” 

Today is her 23rd birthday and she is marking the day with an exhibition that she quietly promoted to her BlackBerry Messenger friends and twitter followers who know her as @Afro_Martian. Occasionally, her grandma, dressed for the event, would pop out the front door to check who had entered her beautiful garden of trimmed grasses for the viewing.

In 2011, Naa Kofi, was privileged to have some of her pieces displayed at two exhibitions courtesy the Foundation for Contemporary Art (FCA), Ghana. The FCA is an active network of artists, art critics, curators, and art lovers that provides a critical platform for the development of contemporary arts in Ghana.

“…I’ve wanted to organize an exhibition for a long time; actually a lot of my pieces were at the FCA…they put them through one or two exhibitions and so I thought it was time to do my own, and today being my birthday so I thought what a better way to have friends and people who appreciate art to come and see what I do…”

Unique and Eclectic

“… I do think that my work has a style, if you see it you can tell that I did it”.
On display were a collection of her works, [some still work-in progress] and her brother’s. While Naa’s brother like to paint ‘incomplete men’ in deep thought which evokes an invitation to brainstorming, Naa’s own works included one of her music icons, a familiar image of Nigerian afro-pop musician, Fela, whom she eulogizes as an epitome of an African man. 

“I have chosen a lot of characters with an expression on their face and for me I think that’s what is captivating because that’s what really develops a narrative, you know, people start making or developing a story or there’s a theory or like a conscious thought behind it a wave of consciousness and I hope as you go through my work you can sort of feel [it], so it’s not really how you see the work but it is the expression and I feel like art is contagious so if you can feel or you see the sentiment behind my work then my work is accomplished I guess.”

Soft-spoken Naa does not consider herself an artist even after understudying at the LOOM, a popular art gallery in Adabraka, Accra ,

“…painting is my passion and an extension of my character…who I am, if I label myself as an artist, I have to feel like my work has to be too perfect…” she smiled as she spoke.

She adds “I have never really seen a style that is very similar to mine, and I work from photographs but I very much change them, like, with the colors, skin tone and stuff and it’s very afro-centric.” 

During her two-week stint with the LOOM, she realized her brand of painting was different from the typical themes associated with Ghanaian artworks, many of which she says are in repetition in the gallery. 

At a glance, most Ghanaian paintings reflect what she says are “women at market place, woman and child and those kinds of things…” mentioning that she would encourage others to stray away from those ideas given the opportunity.

Well fitted in an old school, Kaba, which her grandma wore in her heyday, Naa confesses she discovered on the morning of the exhibition that her great-granddad was also an artist. Art runs in her family.

Asked who her external influences are, she responds, “I have to admit I went to a very European school, so a lot of the artists we studied were [either] euro-centric or American, so you know, I’m inspired by Basquiat and I’m very much inspired by Picasso because of his story especially, he could really draw but he chose to paint abstractly and you know, I like that.”

She goes on to say, ‘I have a lot of favorites, I like Van Gogh, I like those European classics, but when I am in Ghana, I do look at Glover and stuff like that, I do appreciate their work.”

Art Camp
When she graduated from Vienna International School, Austria, in 2007. Naa returned to Ghana. Having always felt encouraged to illustrate with either the pencil or the brush regardless of whether she is good or not, she teamed up and planned what she feels was the first summer Art Camp (for children) in the country. 

“We decided that it was needed that Ghana had an art camp for children” says Naa.
But then the project in its first year mostly attracted the children of expatriates who wanted to keep their kids busy, and she laments “In Ghanaian society we found out that if your child shows slight interest in art, parents will say ‘oh no no no, stop drawing, focus on your math and your science skills’ so a lot of parents would have preferred to take their kids into science camps or math camp or something.’’ 

However she takes pride in the fact their project paved the way for other summer camps to start in Ghana.
On the ‘Create Your Future’ initiative, she worked with a closed friend, the cool and happy-go-lucky, Hansen Akatti, who is an urban/hip-hop culture cartoonist. 

Hansen, who does his 9-5 grind with the afro-bourgeois Canoe Magazine, joins Naa in the garden together with dreadlocked Tacitus, an amateur photographer, who joined the movement in its second year. They make up the complete trinity of CYF.

Wearing a white round neck t-shirt portraying an artistic impression of Lady Gaga, Hansen points out the objective of the project.

“Basically what we wanted to do was not to turn every Ghanaian kid into Da Vinci or Picasso or an artist. But help them explore their options with the tools they have… help them to become creative. We show this through art, how blank sheets present infinite opportunities with whatever materials you have and that transcends into life, in whatever field you find yourself, you could make something out of nothing if you put your mind to it.” 

For the shy-looking Tacitus, the art camp taught the kids discipline to master their talent.
“I think in Ghana we can achieve development through creativity” Naa adds her voice and the three leaves to start a tour, invited guests have started filing in.
Naa Kofi with Hansen Akatti

Among the works is a painting of two human faces symbolized creatively in the insides of the sun and the moon, man and woman respectively, beneath them is written, ‘unpredictable funk’, here Hansen Akatti tells the gazing and enthusiastic art lovers, 

“ Naa is able to reach a threshold of form, she can use solid colors to represent figures and you can recognize what it is.”