When Serge Attukwei Clottey realized that he could create something out of the broken plastic gallons people from the neighborhood would leave at his family house, he quit being the conventional painter he had learned to become in art school. The artist started to use plastic gallons to create a new kind of work that he called Afrogallonism.
For Attukwei, Afrogallonism is not just art for those who regularly attend galleries. Art is made to address social issues head on. The texture of Attukwei’s work designs a conversation to confront the viewer into examining individual and collective social behavior. Essentially, how are humans interacting with ourselves, one another and the environment?
Passionate about human relationships to the environment, history and the transfer of belief systems, Attukwei’s mission in 2015 is to use his art to tell Ga stories. The artist who describes himself as a “freedom creator” is not restricted to only one art form – he creates visual art, performances, interventions and photography projects. His work tackles current issues affecting folks on the continent such as urban tension, unstable energy and ineffectual leadership.
Last year, Attukwei was hardly seen in Ghana due to several residences throughout Europe. Recently I visited his studio in Labadi. We had a chat about his plans for the year, the concept of Afrogallonism and developing cultural spaces in Accra.
ADA: You work in multiple mediums. How do you define your kind of artistry?
ATTUKWEI: I wouldn’t say I’m a painter, sculptor or a performing artist, but I will describe myself as a freedom creator. This is because I’m not specific in one form of art. I play around with all the art forms so I see myself as an artist who creates from anything. I create independently without restrictions in whatever forms that I want.
ADA: In 2014, you were busy moving around the world showing your work and participating in residencies. What were the high moments for you in 2014?
ATTUKWEI: 2014 was the greatest year for me as an artist because I was travelling, exhibiting my works and going on different residencies. The first residency I was suppose to go to New York but I got stuck in Austria because I had a three-month residency there. I was in Vienna to talk about my project Migration Messages. I don’t only relate to human migration but also the migration of goods and culture.
It was a challenging project but I achieved what I wanted. And also I was able to interact with the diaspora, which has become a part of my thinking process – of how to relate my work to the diaspora. After three months in Vienna, I was invited to Slovakia for a 10-day painting residency. There were 14 artists invited from all over the world. I was the only African there but I was able to relate to all of them. The paintings were later exhibited in Nitra and Bratislava.
From there, I went to Germany for another residency for 15 days. I was able to collaborate with an artist who lives in Germany and has a different take on art. Last year was a successful year for me because I was able to work with people from different backgrounds. After the long stay in Europe, I felt Ghana was missing me so I came back in time to take part in CHALE WOTE 2014.
I feel free to work when I’m back home because I am not restricted. That’s why some of my art and performances back home are very extreme.
ADA: What is your design process?
ATTUKWEI: The fascinating things about my design process are the materials and people I work with. I work with gallons. How to get the gallons begins my design process. I have to make time to collect the gallons.
The things I think about most in my designing process are the time, space and production team. I look around the environment to see the problems that I can highlight and help solve. That starts the whole design process. For example, the gallons I work with always remind us of a problem when it is only used for water storage. But they can be put into use apart from storing water. I’ve created a roof and seats with these gallons. Sometimes we create stuff for the sake of art but they can also be functional for people to use.
ADA: You started a project called “Afrogallonism” in 2013 and it has become a signature work for you. What is Afrogallonism?
ATTUKWEI: This project came into mind after realizing how I could maintain these gallons for years. When I was a child, my family had a big water fountain where people came to fetch water. I was responsible for collecting money. I also helped people identify their water gallons by painting and writing on them. So a relationship developed between the plastic gallons and me. They became a part of me because I was always seeing and working with them.
Sometimes people dumped their broken gallons at our house. Growing up as an artist, I thought these gallons were materials I could work with. So I decided to get out of the paint and brush comfort zone and experiment with these materials. I started using the broken gallons to create sculptures and many other things. So that is how Afrogallonism started. Also working with these materials allows me to explore more because I relate them to human lives.
When I started this, people did not understand it. Some people even doubted if what I was doing was art. They said I couldn’t survive as an artist if I continue with this, but I don’t care about the surviving aspect. I’m interested in creating something that people can relate to and that’s my responsibility as an artist. As an artist, I want to create works to keep me going. So I went ahead to experiment with plastic gallons, using them as canvases where people get the chance to write on them. But people don’t even realize they are a part of the art. So somewhere in 2013 I decided to make this a brand, a futuristic project. Afrogallonism is basically highlighting some of the problems in Africa, and finding solutions to these problems.
ADA: What fuels your art?
ATTUKWEI: My Ga background. I was raised in James Town but later my family migrated to Labadi. So I think our movement from James Town to Labadi has influenced in my work. Some of my works educate people about Ga culture and history. Sometimes I feel really uncomfortable that so much attention in Ghana is given to Ashanti culture and history. Most of my works have Ga names. Some of them have colonial influences because the colonizers settled on Ga land on the coast.
ADA: You’ve been sharing some new works on your Instagram page lately. Tell us about them.
ATTUKWEI: They are new works inspired by some of the current issues happening on the African continent. I know other artists from different African countries are also using their form of art to address their issues. As an artist in Ghana, I use my Afrogallonism project to address conflict in Africa. For example, the Bokom Haram killings in Nigeria propelled me to use materials to confront the issue in an artistic way.
ADA: There have been many discussions about the lack of cultural spaces in Accra. What’s on your take on this issue?
ATTUKWEI: I think we have less space for creative people in Ghana. This is making it hard for artists to even think of projects because you have to consider the space to show your work. You have to think of how to get funding to rent a space. Personally because of this issue, I exhibit my works in public spaces.
Artists have lots of work they want to exhibit but they don’t have places to do this. I think we creative people have to come together to create and own our spaces. The few ones available are owned by foreign agencies and they dictate to an artist what he or she should do. There are restrictions to what an artist is able to do. Some people are helping to solve this situation. For example, Mmofra Foundation has a nice space, which is owned and managed by Ghanaians, and is always ready to help artists.
ADA: What are your plans for 2015?
ATTUKWEI: Chale, this year will be very busy. Right now I’m putting together a team of youth who will engage in the production of Afrogallonism art. I’m focusing on incorporating more traditional beliefs and symbols in my works. Due to certain modern behaviors, the traditional system is being banished. For instance, the Kpeshie lagoon that lies between Ga and Teshie serves as a source of fishing and food, but it is has become a dumping site because of such development. But these lagoons and rivers are gods that protect us, and so if we pollute them, the gods get angry and either fight us spiritually or they move away. We need to protect the spaces that these gods live.
Sometimes we forget about our traditional beliefs when we anticipate development. So I’m creating a project called The Plastic Journey under Afrogallonism. When it’s done, I’ll put up an installation to cover the Kpeshie Lagoon and protect what’s remaining. I want people to relate to my work and change their behaviors. So this year I’ll be creating art purposely for the enhancement of the lives of people. I’ve also had invitations from different countries to do installations, exhibitions and presentations this year.
By: Nana Osei Kwadwo