Talking Culture with Serge Attukwei Clottey
written by Keilah Wells
photos by Regual Tschumi
written by Keilah Wells
photos by Regual Tschumi
April 2016Today begins an ongoing debate about life in Ghana, the first country on the Continent to gain Independence, back in 1957. Spearheaded by the artist, Serge Clottey, along with an entourage of fellow artists from Labadi, Nima and elsewhere in Accra, Gallery 1957 is opening its doors to the public at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City. The aim of the project is to pioneer new ways of seeing Art and the purpose of culture to any society. Unlike the previous generations of Post Colonial artists from Africa, those that were given scholarships and awards to educate themselves in various European art colleges like the Slade, the Royal Academy, the International Art College or Ecole Beaux Art Superiore in Paris, we are now beginning to see a change like never before. The artists are choosing to turn their backs on the more formal training from the West and preferring to exercise something far more organic, original and home-grown, pulling from every aspect found in their proud indigenous cultures and remaking what is considered art in West Africa as a stamp for the International Art Community to look toward. This is developing a certain shift in the global mindset towards the Continent. There is suddenly a need for a re-education and a greater understanding of the purpose and meaning of Art. Through a series of unique and authentic installations, works of art and performances, the gallery is setting an impressive standard for others to follows.
Serge Attukwei Clottey has gained international recognition via the Internet and through his travels overseas with his works focusing on the yellow jerry cans, an iconic visual symbol that have become central to his work; these yellow gallon drums are used to bring water to homes of the underprivileged can be seen throughout the poorer neighbourhoods of Accra and becomes his optical metaphor for the underdevelopment of Ghana’s Capital. Water is at a premium and although considered the most essential human right on earth, in the Accra, tap water in homes is strictly reserved for the wealthy and well-to-do. Good drainage and plumbing throughout the city has yet to be achieved for all. Serge is often regarded as one of the leading lights of his era and within the last few years has effectively developed a new generation of artists from Africa – Generation X but what would his father say to his son, dressing up in his Mother’s clothes and calling it Art?
The turning point in Serge’s artistic development was when he ventured over to Brazil and worked at Belo Horizonte in 2006. This gave him an insight into what Art could be and he then began to challenge the narrow parameters of what was regarded as Contemporary African Art. Now we begin to see how he bravely took on the mantra from his father Mr Seth Clottey, whose formal, conventional more conservative artworks brought him fame in the years during Independence and beyond. Although his father’s paintings are highly accomplished works of Art they do tend to favour a Colonial appetite. The idea of creating portraiture, figurative works or landscapes, stretched onto canvases and set in gilded frames seemed a little unadventurous for his fiercely competitive son. Those old-fashioned and outdated works seemed to somehow play into the hands of an oppressed past. They were created on demand and on the basis to be sold. To find a specific market for an invisible dominance that seems to have remained in Ghana since Independence. The young artist felt that his father’s generation were nothing more than Ghanaians copying the West. The culture in West Africa, just like elsewhere on the Continent, is to show your respect for your elders at all times and never to confrontation them. To do so is regarded as being utterly impertinent and rewarded with a handsome beating. His father, Mr Seth Clottey simply couldn’t understand what on earth he was up to. This tormented father/son relationship was certainly not an easy one and the very idea of creating works out of discarded rubbish was difficult for the older generation to come to terms with and virtually impossible to comprehend. Mr. Seth Clottey was furious with his non-conforming off spring, thinking him rude and disrespectful. It was at this time when I first met Serge, at his poorest and his best. He was at war with himself and all those around him. The two artists young and old were at loggerheads. His father was completely baffled by his son’s antics, thinking he would never make anything of himself playing with the discarded scraps of the city. What kind of livelihood could he make from such efforts? He never for one instance considered what he was doing could possibly be taken seriously and Ghana would end up making fun of his son and ruin the family name, so began the agonizing early years and the beginning of Serge’s artistic endeavours.
These were the tough days as the hardships Serge faced without financial or emotional support meant he was limited to the materials he could afford and the places he could sleep. Having such little money he found solace in his friends in the impoverished areas of Labadi and Nima, these are some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Accra, but it was here that the banished son found his support. He would assist in the pulling in of the nets for the fishermen in Labadi to earn a decent square meal. He lived in a simple room without running water or electricity, so painting in oil or acrylics was too much to ask, so these limitations became his greatest asset. During the day he became a beach comber looking for any washed up garbage he could use as artistic materials and bind together to create his artworks. The difficulty in the early days was to break that classic mindset of the past, that hangover from Colonialism that Art can only truly be art if it looks like the Art being produced in the West (Europe or America). It took enormous will-power and stubbornness from the young artist that was so determined to make his mark in the world of Art, but thankfully, with the introduction of the Internet and access to a wider world, all his intense thinking was echoed elsewhere. The artist’s true pathway was rising to meet him and the battle for true cultural independence was set.
At first Serge started using far more unconventional methods of creating and more in-line with artists of the past, before the time of the invaders. Using his own interpretation of modern African art Serge quickly showed his skills off by mixing motherboards and electronic innards with brightly coloured plastics with string and rope tied onto plants of wood, which made up his sculptural statements, forging his own unique creations and generating a comprehensive parable for modernity; the idea of technology taking centre stage in this newly shaping metropolitan environment of modern Accra. At the time things were changing at lightning pace but only for the few and in reality the majority were still very much the same. In the years that followed things became increasingly exciting as Serge became more visible on Social Media where he could display his works, show-off his modelling fashion photographs, his team that were building up around him as he started to document the faces of Labadi and his journeys overseas to Vienna. Here is where his work really started to make more sense and the various international artists that he was introduced to where, by and large wonderfully encouraging and compassionate. His work started to flourish along with his confidence and his performance works became a delight to watch, of a homeless Ghanaian in a European Capital and his primal desire was a tongue-in-check empty television, mocking those from the West and the miserable Africans that seem to make no sense whilst inhabiting the foolish world of unrequited wealth. Somehow, almost by magic he had found the portal to a world he knew was there but felt he could never reach. The door was beginning to open and through it he could express all his desires and beliefs in ways he knew to be, not only international but more importantly the origins of practices performed within indigenous West Africa. The secret to great Art lies in its honesty and its execution. It was a few years later and Serge was gaining fame by the day and it wasn’t long before an opportunity to tour America became available. This is like hitting the jackpot for any living artist but more-so for an African Artist. He traveled from New York on the East Coast and then moved in land to the Mid-West to Ohio and then onto the West Coast of Los Angeles and San Francisco. With all his new found American experiences Serge returned back to Ghana to a heroes welcome
This exhibition is a landmark show. A mid-career show. A coming of age, not just for this artist but for Africa too, his work speaks of loss, of sadness and his life that will never be the same again, it will seem a little emptier than before as the Artist’s mother has died. He wears her clothes and asks others to do that same in a ritualistic manner, so West Africa in its birth, so unique and daring this event must be clearly marked in the History of African Art. It answers so many questions. Are the Artists from Africa to follow the West and be cloned into something they simply are not? Are they all to wait for opportunities abroad and only then can they make a difference internally? The world is overly aware of the way in which funerals are conducted in Ghana. They are huge events, where everybody is invited and all share in the process of the burial but what about the grief, is their grief in Ghana? Of course they grieve like everybody else it is a human condition to feel loss and that sense of respectful emptiness of a life lost forever.
The symbol of Ghana is a yellow gallon plastic water carrier, used in a way to call out change of different kinds. Through this symbol we see the state of Ghana today, poor and enslaved by the rich who have drainage and silver taps with running water. They have gardens with sprinklers and swimming pools in the front and a second pool at the back too. They have huge water towels to service the house; large generators gently humming and running the electricity; satellite dishes can be seen in the garden, there to keep up to date with world news and fast speed internet. But all these mod-cons are not for everybody, purely for the elite. The greedy individuals that keep the country on its knees and favour this divided unfair society. When people talk of the economy growing what difference does it make for the poor....NONE. They are kept poor in order for the economy to grow. This will surely breed resentment and anger in the majority and so we have a group of artists who can speak on their behalf. Through his International travels Serge has learned just how powerful Art can be. Working collectively and with strict guidelines on certain messages Serge and his team are keen to highlight the struggles of those less fortunate. The artists have found a way in which to have a voice that can serve the people and make them proud to call themselves Ghanaians.