On an early Friday night, just as the sun sets and before traffic chokes Accra to a slow crawl, a small crowd of the city’s art enthusiasts meet at the half-complete Galleria Mall soon to open on the Kempinski Hotel premises.
Gallery 1957, the Accra-based gallery – named after the year Ghana gained its independence and inaugurated in 2016 –, has quickly gained acclaim for presenting some of West Africa’s most prominent artists such as Serge Attukwei Clottey, Jeremiah Quarshie, Yaw Owusu, Gerald Chukwuma and crazinisT artisT.
This evening, the man of the hour is Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor, who spent the last few months in residency at the gallery. He is closing the exhibition of his work with a conversation with famed art director and curator Koyo Kouoh.
The gallery’s walls dance with art. The pieces are vibrant but not jarring. On one side, nine of Donkor’s iconic famed patchwork collages. On the other, an enormous painting on wood panel that spans half of the room’s width. In front, two large oil, acrylic, ink, and gold-leaf on paper pieces named Ashanti War Captain I and Ashanti War Captain III.
Bowdich’s 1817 Expedition Story
The large mural, titled The First Day of The Yam Custom (2017), is the topic of conversation this evening as Donkor sits Kouoh. Kouoh has curated for museums in London, New York, Senegal, and Angola. Her work in the art world, especially that in relation to colonialism and Africa, is expansive.
There is a tender familiarity between the two as Kouoh opens the conversation with a recant of their early encounters. Kouoh shares that Donkor gave her the book Mission From Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee by Thomas E. Bowdich many years ago. This book sparked Donkor’s interest in the Yam Custom of 1817 when he first read it 25 years ago at SOAS University of London.
Donkor’s own The First Day of The Yam Custom 2017 is 10.9 x 2.43m oil, acrylic, ink, and gold leaf on wood panel. It appropriates Bowdich’s illustration of the Yam Festival he observed in Kumasi during his trip to Ghana’s hinterland as chief conductor of the Royal African Company in 1817.
Godfried explains that it is more of Bowdich’s narration, and not just his illustration of the mission that informs the spirit of his piece. The mural, which has been fermenting in Godfried’s mind since he first encountered the literature in London, gives credence to this. The piece is alive. The horns are blazing; the umbrellas and flags pulsating; the King studiously overlooks his subjects; the calcified European representatives are present; the outfitted congregation of Moors, and the Asante people, draped in rich cloths, singing, dancing, and clapping fill the mural. It is only through deliberate study and reflection that an artist can successfully transport his audience to this precise moment exactly 200 years ago.
But being able to appreciate the piece does not immediately reveal its historical importance. For me, understanding the broader context of Bowdich’s expedition makes the illustration significant.
Bowdich and The Yam Custom of 1817
The Yam Custom, traditionally known as Adae Kese Festival, is an important event in the Asante calendar and it is where Bowdich and his compatriots find themselves during their mission. Europeans of the time call the festival the Yam Festival because it is held during the yam season. It is a celebration of the Asante Kingdom, recognising the achievements of its people while solidifying ties between the living and ancestral spirits.
In 1817, Bowdich is sent on a mission with other British officers to “assess the gains the Royal African Company can expect from a grand scale intervention into Ghana’s hinterland”. This is a critical time - it is the end of the slave trade and before the colonial period, a time of increased European competition to gain the favour of the kings and chiefs of the Gulf’s coastal societies. Britain’s ambitious vision is therefore masked by an official report to “make a peace and trade treaty with the Asante, while also learning more about their culture and custom”.
At the First Day of Yam Custom of 1817 Bowdich describes the Asantehene as being blanketed in gold. King Osei Tutu Asibey Bonsu sits in a chair of ebony and gold, shaded under his state umbrella, in the midst of a procession. The items he wears symbolise his fearless leadership whilst the flags carried by those surrounding his throne represent the European countries with which his people have traded.
It is this evidence of wealth and resource in the region that “triggers British appetite for Ghana” and perhaps a greed that manifests in colonialism. It is this illustration that Bowdich shares with British officials and that Donkor transports.
Having The Difficult Conversation
If art from Africa is on the rise, then is it clear that revisiting a painful and traumatic history is part and parcel of this order. As the two hour conversation with Godfried and Kouoh deepens, one audience member asks a question that elucidates my main takeaway from the exhibit. He begins, “we are taught that Africans were running around naked like monkeys around mud huts prior to European colonisation. Why do Bowdich and Donkor’s illustrations then depict fully clothed, gold embellished people with advanced musical and technical tools ?”
We all voice an uncomfortable laughter.
The significance of Donkor’s import of Bowdich’s piece becomes resounding clear: without art that is both appropriative and subversive, we become engrossed with stereotypes, and dismiss the nuances within our history. In this case, that the idea of the uncivilised, primitive African prior to European encounter is grossly overstated. Moreover, however complex and distorted, Africans had agency in their relations with Europeans. In fact, there was a time when we traded as equals.
As Donkor explains, by resizing and recomposing Bowdich’s moment, without seeking to criticise it, he is able to resurrect an inquiry into Britain's past and present relationship with power, legacy, and trade in Ghana. A question we all continue to contend with.
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