Surrounded in a sea of jerrycans, SERGE ATTUKWEI CLOTTEY and his group GoLokal stunned audience members this past Independence Day at the newly opened Gallery 1957 with his latest performance art and installation works. Wearing the clothing of his mother, entitled, “My Mothers Wardrobe”, the group paraded through the entrance and breezy courtyard before leading to Clottey’s pieces exhibited in the gallery named after the year Ghana gained (in)dependence.
Born in Accra, the multidisciplinary artist studied in Ghana and later moved to Brazil which gave him a wider perspective on how to produce art. He describes how, whilst there, he developed a language that addressed issues of politics, religion and the environment. This he achieves through the manipulation of yellow jerrycans, a concept that he calls AfroGallonism. “Seeing how Africans struggle with the object, imported from Europe and America”, he says, “has become symbolic in our lives”. It urged him to take action and for the past fifteen years he has produced a range of works with the plastic gallons.
We recently sat with Attukwei in his Labadi studio to discuss his mother, connection and disconnection, jerrycans and making performance community art.
Can you talk more about why you wanted to focus on your mother in this latest work?
My mother has played a major role in my career because, being an artist when you’re young, there is no way you can make money from your work. It’s been a challenge for me and my mother was there. Although she doesn’t understand art, she has been supporting me, she has been collecting these plastic gallons from friends and from other people. When my mother passed I felt like I had lost that connection. Though the plastic gallons remind me of her, I lost so much. In our Ga tradition, when mothers die, their wardrobe is locked up for a year, and after a year, they bring out their belongings and share them among the family. I’m the only child, the only son, and I couldn’t get any of her belongings because I’m a son.
Everything went to my mum’s siblings and when I heard about that, I felt like the main part of my relationship with my mother was taken away. Fabric is something that mothers connect to their children. When you grow up, when you are born, they have a specific fabric that is used, and when you die, too. So for me, I think about my childhood, and this idea was to reimagine and create a visual connection with the plastic that I use to signify my mother’s wardrobe. Also I question why gender balance and tradition clash. It is tradition that the men are not supposed to get any of their mother’s [items], so for me, it was the juxtaposition of gender balance in this situation.
Working with men wearing women’s clothes, it started as a personal conversation, but I’ve realised that it’s a general thing that men don’t speak about but it’s something that’s within their experience. So the guys that I work with, most of them have also lost their mothers. They are facing the same challenges in that they feel disconnected. So they have to go to their relatives to get their mum’s [clothes]. I asked them to go and make sure they get what belongs to their mum and wear it. It’s also creating another relationship between mothers and children.
It’s something that I’ve come to realise, how fabric is part of our history. Human beings were exchanged with fabric and through that it has become part of our tradition. We adopted it from the European colonising countries. I’m also looking at design, contemporary design and traditional design, because when you look through the fabric you can tell what has changed over a period of time. The designs ten, twenty years ago have changed and different companies, different prints, come from China, Holland, even different parts of Africa, so you can tell how history has changed over time whilst still having connections with each other.
Which came first: the desire for social activism or the desire to create?
It started with the desire to create, but now it’s becoming more the desire to be socially active. I’m engaging a wider audience in terms of the people that I work with. Labadi is a small community but I’m able to use the art to develop mentally. I’m trying to build a community to be part of the performance, because then they understand the process. I have about six or seven guys who I always work with in the process, every single day we work, so it gives them a skilful understanding of how to approach materials.
You stated before that you value public participation. What does that mean to you?
As an artist, I think in performance, and I think about how to reach a wider audience. So for me, the idea of performance was to incorporate audiences from different walks of life. In each performance you see people trying to take photographs and within that they are also playing part of the performance. They are being seen on camera, their movements, and sometimes they lie down to take photographs. The audience is something that I’m interested in because it’s a greater dialogue. When people speak about the performance, they come to understand what the performance means.
When you talk of the movie industry in Ghana I’m not so convinced of their content, so for me as an artist I create content that will be relevant to our situations as Ghanaians. I choose themes that people can express themselves through. We use the artistic performance to hijack space – we go to abandoned spaces. Where that place becomes neutral they get to be a part of the performance, it’s something that doesn’t take political or governmental involvement.
People try to put up barriers but performance reaches a wider audience than artists painting in a studio and taking it straight to a gallery. I want my work to be discussed, for people to touch the materials, because it’s something that they can relate to.
Did exhibiting on Independence day impact upon your work at all?
Yes, I’m a very political artist and I try to use my work to criticise politics. For me, Independence is something Ghana needs to celebrate if we have a thing that we have achieved, a massive or important thing. I think that our political system is weak. It is not clear what we are celebrating. I always use that period to criticise, especially the water situation.
Ghana is struggling with water scarcity and I think that water is life, water is everything. This is a basic thing, but we can’t even achieve that. If there is no water, there is no life, so I look at what people are facing: people struggle to carry water long stretches maybe once a week. We don’t have access to good water, to safe drinking water, so the plastic gallon is something that talks about water.
The Akosombo Dam was constructed by our first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and after that our presidents haven’t maintained that legacy. I collect the number of gallons depending on the year and paint the portrait of Kwame Nkrumah, the founder of Independence, on it to criticise the situation that he constructed. That is the legacy that he has left, so what are you doing to that legacy? I keep repeating the portrait by adding a gallon each year, now I use 59 gallons.
What artists influenced how you approach your work?
I was inspired by a lot of European artists because when we were in school at Ghanatta College of Art and Design, we were taught about 18th and 19th Century European artists. We were not taught about Ghanaian or African artists. We got the textbooks from Europe. So I was inspired by Pablo Picasso, his abstraction and how he used African masks in his paintings. I felt like part of us have been taken and this has been modified by Europeans.
I wanted to play back to African masks by using a jerrycan as a mask in performance. That’s a very relevant mask of our time, it symbolises water but it’s going beyond that – it symbolises an African face. Just recently in 2010, I became familiar with El Anatsui’s work. [At that time], I was working in the idea of trying to be an artist by not painting. I paint without painting – that is how my plastic is used. I want to still create a canvas piece but [with] found objects, so El Anatsui inspired my idea of scaling, how I can elaborate into large scale.
I think that Kofi Setordji has also inspired me in the way of his sculptures and how he has been encouraging us to work. As artists, we have to work. We shouldn’t just see ourselves as African artists or Ghanaian artists – we are also part of the art world. We have to play a major role.
Do the reactions to your work differ when you exhibit internationally compared to when you exhibit in Ghana?
My work was recognised and appreciated in Europe before Ghana. When I started, the galleries here were not interested in my work. People were not sure what I was doing. So I was using social media and other online platforms, to promote my work.
While I was in Ghana, I got a lot of publicity in Europe, my work was being published in different newspapers, magazines, and online galleries. My work was well appreciated but only recently Ghanaians started to understand my work based on the publicity from Europe. I was travelling for residencies and that is where it changed.The idea was developed in Ghana, Ghana inspired everything, but travelling around gave me a sense of breaking away from the chaos. So that also inspired my ideas and gave me a wider level of experimental concepts.
Will jerrycans always be a part of your art?
I think that it will always be a part of my art but I’m finding ways to approach it differently. I used to use the full volume and now I’m in the cutting process, the next stage is the melting process and so I’m looking for other alternatives to manipulate it.
Since Ghana is still facing the water crisis, we are still consuming so it is an item that I will still exploit until the end, until it ends. Though I am working with other materials such as wood and car tires, I think that the plastic is very significant in my work. It is how Afrogallonism came about.
The “My Mother’s Wardrobe”exhibition runs until May 20th 2016.
-By Liza Tait-Bailey