African Art On The Rise: Gallery 1957

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor / Oct 10 2017 / 15:12 PM

With now two spaces in Accra, Gallery 1957 is on a mission to promote African contemporary art at home and abroad. Rebecca Anne Proctor writes on the changing face of Ghanaian art

African Art On The Rise: Gallery 1957
Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra
Jeremiah Quarshie. ‘Stephanie.’ Yellow is the Colour of Water. 2016. Acrylic on canvas. 152 x 121 cm.

Artists El Anatsui, Mohammed Ibrahim Mahama and Paa Joe are just a few names to trickle out from Ghana into the international art circuit over the last decade. Their large installations, many filled with vibrant colourings—like Paa Joe’s fantasy coffin art pieces (exhibited widely by New York art dealer Jack Shainman) and El Anatsui’s large-scale “bottle-top installations—project a large voice from Africa out to the rest of the world. Yet there is so much more from whence they came and which still has yet to be discovered.
This comes at a time when interest in Africa has never been stronger. Most recently, on 16 May, Sotheby’s London held the first ever sale of African art, and while the auction total was low (achieving only £2.3m (hammer prices), with 32 of 115 lots (28 per cent) unsold), what it did do is reaffirm the current interest in this still largely unchartered art territory. Simultaneously, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris is staging (until 4 September) Art/Afrique: Le nouvel atelier (the new studio) showcasing a selection of some of the biggest names from the continent, assembled by Frenchman Jean Pigozzi—yet further proof of interest in the subject. Further afield in the US, institutions such as Ghanian-British architect David Adjaye's Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened Fall 2016 in Washington DC, are striving to create new platforms for African American electorates. There’s also a dedicated fair for African art, 1:54, which launched in London in 2013 and recently added a New York edition.

Serge Attukwei Clottey and Golokal. My mothers wardrobe. A performance at Gallery 1957 on 6 March 2016. Photography by Nii Odzenma. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957

While the art world has its eyes set on Africa, a journey to the continent itself will reveal a homegrown arts scene quickly developing.  Gallery 1957, which opened in March 2016, is one of Accra’s first contemporary art galleries, providing a platform for African artists with an international reach. Taking its name from the year of Ghana’s independence, it recently opened its second space in Accra, also at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City. Ghana provides no public funding for contemporary art and its artists have hitherto had to rely on independent foundations as well as foreign embassies for support. Gallery 1957 is providing this missing link—acting as support for artists and a place where they showcase their art.
Established by British-Lebanese collector and construction entrepreneur Marwan Zakhem, the gallery aims to provide a commercial platform for artists from Ghana as well as foster relationships between Ghanaian artists and the international art community. An engineer by trade, Zakhem also runs his family’s construction group that works in nine different countries, mainly in Africa. It was while living in Senegal that he began collecting art. “Something about it—the aesthetic, the vibrancy, the colours—something attracted me and I began collecting,” he says. “You couldn’t escape it [art]; it was everywhere—hotels, peoples clothes, and on the streets.” Yet it was when Zakhem moved to Accra on another construction project that he began to get to know the artists whose work he collected, meeting regularly with artists such as renowned Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover. “I would get to know them and their work and that’s when I really started collecting—it became an almost obsession,” remembers Zakhem. “I would collect an artist, or colour(s), or maybe even a typical African scene—a market place or a group of drummers—that I loved.”

Marwan Zakhem. 2016. Image courtesy of Nii Odzenma and Gallery 1957, Accra

In the beginning Zakhem’s collection was mainly centred around classical painting and the modern period: “I didn’t really go off the beaten path.” But then it evolved due to the younger generation of artists. “Serge Attukwei [Clottey—when I went to visit his studio in 2015 —something changedhis process captivated me,” explains Zakhem. “And I knew then that my Gallery would concentrate on displaying contemporary art.” Clottey, who works across installation, performance, photography and sculpture, refers to his art as “Afrogallonism,” a concept that confronts the question of material culture through the utilisation of yellow gallon containers. In one of his most powerful performances, Clottey dressed himself in the clothes of his recently deceased mother on a throne of yellow plastic water cans. Entitled My Mother’s Wardrobe, it was inspired by what the artist saw to be an injustice in Ghanaian funeral rituals.

Included in Gallery 1957’s roster are artists such as Yaw Owusu who creates scintillating sculptural installations through the repurposing of countless pieces of loose change known as “pesewa” coins, which were first introduced as an attempt to cure the countries economy’s inflation in 2007. Today, these copper coins have no value in Ghana’s financial system. Yaw incorporates them into his art, shifting their value from worthless objects into his beautiful creations. “Yaw’s practice, like many of his contemporary’s, comes out of a socio-political discourse that deals with issues of ‘now’ and not the past, not the continent’s colonial history; it’s looking at what we are now,” says Zakhem. “It’s a look at Ghanaian society at the moment—a vast majority of people are still struggling, and yet you still have these coins that are legal tender and that nobody uses. These coins by the way are still being minted in Canada and what’s the point of it? That’s his logic behind it.” There is also painter Godfried Donkor whose current exhibition, The First Day of the Yam Custom 1817 (until 30 October), reappropriates visual accounts of 19th century African expeditions as told through illustrations and various drawings, such as Thomas Edward Bowdich’s The First Day of the Yam Custom (1818). Donkor repatriates Bowdich’s painting in order to explore and expose various interpretations and contradictions of African realities outside of the continent. The aim is to rebalance such misinterpretations through visual images.

Jeremiah Quarshie, 'Naa Ayorkor and Adei.' Yellow is the colour of water. 2016. Acrylic on canvas. 152 x 213 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

Also represented by Gallery 1957 is realist painter Jeremiah Quarshie whose works edge between digital likeness and hyperrealist style painting to explore African society with acute sensitivity. There is also CrazinisT artisT, one of the gallery’s newest creatives, known for his controversial performances examining the relationship between politics, identity and gender constructs through immersive performance. Using his body as his material, CrazinisT’s art is aimed at evoking empathy from his audience through at times uncomfortable actions. BondH20, his most recent performance at the Chalewote festival in Ghana this August, explores notions of loss, identity and the human bond that unites us all.

The First Day of the Yam custom 1817 by Godfried Donkor at Gallery 1957. Photography by Nii, Odzenma. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 195, Accra

“I think it is important that this Gallery 1957 succeeds on a commercial side,” says Zakhem. “Then more galleries will follow. If we fail, doing everything possible, providing all the necessary resources, participating in international art fairs alongside an expansive exhibition space in Ghana, then I think it would be disappointing, as you really do have incredible talent here.” Right now it’s about forging a stronger art discourse in Africa and bringing on board more local collectors. He poses the question: “Is there art for African collectors and art for international collectors? Works by Serge Attukwei and Ibrahim Mahama—the more conceptual artworks—are not readily bought by Ghanaian collectors,” he states. Gallery 1957’s programming includes artist’s talks, workshops, performances, art fairs and art openings. “If you build the right infrastructure I am convinced it will be successful,” adds Zakhem. “The gallery has since sold very well—mostly internationally, so now we need to ferment this local collector base—most people here will still spend on an expensive car but not on an artwork.” On top of educating buyers, Zakhem stresses the importance of building the scene through dinner parties that generate a “buzz” to the public. Previous art openings have witnessed at times 350 people attend. “That’s a good sign—it means the word is getting out,” says Zakhem, who also tells how he intends to represent artists from other African countries—he’s recently brought on Gerald Chukwuma, one of Nigeria’s most popular contemporary artists.

The First Day of the Yam custom 1817 by Godfried Donkor at Gallery 1957. Photography by Nii, Odzenma. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 195,  Accra

More than anything, though, it’s about community enhancement. “The easiest way to showcase your country’s history and culture is through art,” says Zakhem. “You are showing the best of your country through art exhibitions.” And that’s exactly what Gallery 1957 is achieving, working to forge a homegrown arts scene in Ghana that can then serve to broaden the dialogue between the region and the international arts community. It’s hard not to become lured in by Accra’s cacophony of street vendors, colourful fabrics, festival dancing and overall loudness—there’s a vibrancy in Africa that still goes largely untapped. Ghana is just the beginning.

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