During a private sale held at Phillips Auction House in collaboration with Artemartis, a Ghanaian-owned art collective, and agency, London discovers the best that Contemporary Ghana has to offer through the group exhibition title “Birds of a Feather” (viewing February 1-10 2022). A jaw-dropping selection of societally aesthetic works brings forth a new group of talented artists.
The show exhibits the works of artists Araba Opoku, Ayiboro Hawa Ali, Abdur Rahman Muhammad, Courage K. Hunke, James Mishio, and Kwaku Yaro. Presenting individuality in a burst of textile and street style, Emmanuel Kwaku Yaro wins the metaphorical award for “most likely to have stood out”. He fearlessly uses a wide range of mediums to transport his viewers to the coast of Accra.
Besides the graphically compelling textures, the artist has a message to communicate in order to help his people, the way they have helped him.
Through an interview with the artist Kwaku Yaro (born in 1995), and the owner and founder of Ghana’s Artemartis, Selasi Gomado, I am able to share with my readers the several layers in depth of Yaro’s work and certain aspects of his life.
I think it is important to mention the impact that “Birds of a Feather” has had since its opening in London. Not only is it a sold-out show but it has visitors coming in and out of Phillips Auction House, sometimes visiting a second time to stand in front of the emotion-provoking paintings of this selection of artists.
The success of the show came as a shock to us the same way it came as a shock to everyone in London.
I have been the owner and founder of Artemartis since 2018, working with multiple artists to try and develop their skills and we’ve been working on this show since October of 2021.
Yaro is an artist who has been experimenting with multiple materials and mediums since he started painting. When you look at the work he has done and his journey in the past two years, you see the amount of good that he is creating. He has helped his people the way they have helped him with his artwork.
I work and live in Ghana. This is where my studio is situated and this is where I amass all of my inspiration. Between the dawn and the evening of a day, I am able to be inspired by the people of my city. I see through them their stories, resembling mine, which allow me to create.
I am privileged to have made it this far as an artist. I am lucky to be able to tell the story of my people in the special language of my works.
I personally felt a human contact with your works, although they are objects. This is what touched me the most while tackling your pieces as an art specialist, it is the fact that there is so much being produced in the contemporary art market today, and I now find those moments of being changed by someone through their art, rare. Please tell me more about your practice and specifically the materials you use.
I grew up in Labadi. And I noticed the daily activities of my people having a lot to do with the market. People go to the market to sell and buy and there is a lot of waste produced as a turnaround of our daily activities. I live close to the beach and I could see the damage made by the culture of polluting. I felt the need to show the usefulness of the materials being thrown away after a single-use.
With those materials, I was able to create the clothes that I dressed the people I depicted in my works. I love fashion, and that is thanks to the stimulating style choices my people wear. I saw that I can use those materials to recreate the suits and outfits I saw in my community to truly share the life we live.
I thought about the best and most accurate way for me to tell the story of my people. I needed a surface to work on that would translate what I am trying to say. Eventually, I picked up a praying mat. That would be the base and surface of my work. That would be where I would sow and paint the portraits of the people of Labadi. The reasons were, those praying mats are socially more than just religious tools to pray with. Here most people spend more than a third of their lives sleeping on those mats. They are part of our identity and our reality.
Looking at the pieces, one can’t help but imagine that the mats used, belong to the people drawn on them, and that adds to the connection being made by the viewer and the works, as there are many figurative and physical layers within the pieces. (The previous statement made the artist smile and nod). Tell me more about your childhood or what lead you to become an artist.
I would draw as a kid in school. My mother would complain and would ask me to find more useful activities such as reading to learn more. I would isolate myself, sit in my feelings while I distance myself from friends. I preferred drawing to other activities. I remember spotting a gallery at a 5-minute walk from where I lived. At first, I didn’t know what it was, I asked questions but wouldn’t be let in as there was a dress code. I eventually dressed appropriately and made my way in to discover the works of artists and understand that this is an option for a lifetime job. Since then, any time that gallery put up an exhibition I would attend to view the works and ask questions to learn more about artists’ practices. My mom was not comfortable with the idea of me going into the arts, I think she wanted me to become a doctor as she wanted what was best for me. Eventually, she saw that my artwork matters and now supports me fully.
I would like to mention that in addition to having personal connotations, Yaro’s work also addresses political and government issues. We have many problems relating to pollution. The plastic containers used at the very popular markets are made of rubber substances. So after a day of shopping, everything that was used to transport the goods is thrown away and most areas around the sea-shore are being damaged by the lack of awareness. Yaro involved himself in a conversation with the community to gather some of their used containers to create a mentality of recycling as he uses them to complete his art pieces. So now after a day of shopping, there is a new outlook amongst his neighbors which leads them to realize the damage made and the possibilities of reusing these materials.
In Yaro’s work, one can notice the use of jute textile to create some elements of the characters’ clothing. This jute comes from the cocoa bags used in the African trade to transport cocoa and most specifically the Ghanaian trade. While people are depending on the government to act on certain things, they don’t and there are not enough jobs being produced to put the Ghanaian people to work, there is strong export being created through the cocoa trade, yet there is not enough import towards the people of Ghana, there is not much being installed for them to support a developing economy. Hence the amount of time they spend sleeping on the prayer mats
Sharing the discussion held by Selasi, Yaro, and myself was my attempt to encourage the audience to move past the decorative aspects of Yaro’s work. The pieces are touching without knowing the details or the background of the way they were created. However, the reasons why they exist as political statements are important to recognize in order to enjoy their multi-stimulating quality. Not only are Yaro’s works beautiful, shocking in color, and in style, but they are also part of a greater good that an emerging artist is creating to accompany his works.
In order to know more about Yaro’s work, kindly get in touch with the house specialist.
Ⓒ Mira El-Khalil is an art market specialist with works in art writing, dealing, and curating. El-Khalil is the Creative Direction of Mira El-Khalil House of Art and acts as Editor In Chief of House of Art Magazine.