"Everything is layered in your thoughts and in the way you travel and the influences you have, you're always mingling with so many types of media, people and societies, so I think with collage you can really bring everything out. With the collage there are no rules and at the same time everything is clear, that's what I really like about it."
Does the practice of using collage make your artistic practice more visceral or does it sort more planned?
I think every artist works in a visceral way because things are just coming to you and you're not really searching for it so I think with collages you can just let it flow. It's also the same way when you paint pictures: you start at one point and let it breathe for a while, and you just let it sit there and you come back to it and it doesn't necessarily tell you “now I'm done”. It's like there's no beginning point or no ending point due to the fact that you can always bring on more or just leave it the way it is. That's the nice thing about collage. I think all the elements that I use in my collages can speak in different ways. I let them flow easily. That's why I prefer collage instead of drawings. Collage is more physical than using a pencil: you can mix, cut and toss things. Collage is my thing, probably also because I prefer working with fabric elements.
Do you feel like if you are restricted by medium that you need to add another layer to communicate the things that are important to you? So, when you introduce performance, do you feel that gives you another layer of freedom to communicate?
I don't see myself as a performer. I would rather call my process interactive or an intervention because I don't really like putting myself in the center of my work, that's not really my approach. I want to be sure that I can lead and guide the people. For example, in Ghana the non-art audience need to be guided a little bit more– you give them a little hint so they open their minds to think differently (freely). Ghana is a very conservative country in terms of putting art in a particular way and people have a perception of how art is supposed to be, but they don't really have the knowledge of what art, contemporary art especially, really is.
You started out or you first made a bit of a name for yourself in the fashion industry, did you do any modeling yourself? Were you modeling?
I was doing some things in that direction at first, but it was mostly at the time while I was studying. I was growing professionally in the fashion industry because I would often lend a hand to my colleagues and in return ask them to be models for my lines, but later I had to distance myself from it because it was a bit outside my comfort zone. Sometimes I used myself as the model because it was very hard to find sufficient budget in the small production. I think my experience in fashion is also one of the reasons why I gained the keen interest for making collages. I was always intrigued by the use of so many diverse forms of media at the time, but at some point it tended to be unnecessarily overwhelming and I could not grow as an artist, so I decided to put a stop to it. I think the design aspect in my work is still present, and will always be, as well as the passion for developing aesthetic ideas of how things should look like.
I get the feeling in contemporary art world, we are tending towards a skill set that is unique to an individual where design and concept come together to produce unique objects that are valuable, that are collectable and that have all of the things that are fascinating about art, so I think like, my theory is that it simply would appear to me that design seems to be the filler that binds, design and photography I would say are the two principals points on which a lot of contemporary artists rest, would you agree with that assessment?
As far as I know, design is finding its place in the art world. I mean, you just saw the Making Africa exhibition, which is focused on design, especially the aesthetic traits representing Africa. Aesthetics are what people are so much focused on or how things look like, example; in terms of fashion but then also not forgetting the “living” condition (quality). People want to be surrounded by style and finesse. I think it's also something rising in Africa and in the creative scene. With respect to design, it's very important to look at art, because of the way art is presented in a very subtle way. How exhibition designers are putting together art works is also a form of design on its own. Sometimes when I work with local carpenters in Ghana, I feel like they don't want to do something different. I really like the contradiction posed with statements like; “this is very traditional and this is how it has always been done”, while at the same time I have a very special imagination of how I want to get something done. On one hand I want the traditional way to always remain and on the other hand, I want people to open up to understand where I creatively come from, so there's probably no absolute recipe.
You mentioned style. Do you feel that style is something that we cherish in Africa and do you think is an important thing in communicating our own identity?
Clothes are very important because they speak your identity, your family background, status in the society and they also show your individual style. There are fashion codes when it comes to occasions like weddings, funerals etc. People want to show who they are/where they are from, as well as what they have to offer. People express their social status through clothes. I always feel like dressing down when I'm in Germany and dressing up when I'm in Ghana because usually, it is the environment that tells you how to dress. For example I was traveling around Brazil in 2006 and the way I was dressing was too outstanding for the environment. I was looking too arrogant for the people. The way I dressed was strange for them. I think it depends on the kind of environment or society, the climate, religious restrictions and of course you always aim to have the freedom to express individually, but somehow, in a subconscious way, you adjust a little bit to what is around you.
You mentioned your time in Brazil, was there ever anywhere you were sort of overdressed?
Not overdressed, but there were patterns and shapes in my clothes, which were not easy to work with in the daily Brazilian style. My style didn't communicate with their opinion about style. In Ghana, when you're in the midst of people, they expect you to cover your navel. It happened to me a few times.In Brazil it's the opposite. Rather, the girls ask; ”Where's your bikini?”
My research leaves me to understand that you like looking at people's wardrobes. What's interesting about people's wardrobe? What does that reveal to you about the identity, their sense of place, their sense of time, their existence in the contemporary space? What do you understand by people's wardrobe? I'm referring to your project Hand-Wash Only.
That was actually not the wardrobe. I observed clotheslines on the streets. The project started in 2008 in Dakar, where I had a beautiful spot on a roof and could really peek at compounds, backyards, and people. I started to zoom with the camera. Looking at the appearing images, I was fascinated by the way things were shaping and forming and changing constantly, the position of clothes lined and their outlines. I did not really consider what I saw, in terms of clothes, patterns or colours. For me it was more about how the wind created different shapes. When I moved to Ghana, I continued this research. I was walking around and tried similar setups but most of the time it wasn't successful. I didn't really have the access to backyards to get the pictures, so it was almost a little bit like peeking into houses and then if I could speak to the right person, I would then be able to take a picture. Sometimes, I had conversations with people about their clothes or traditions. I like to study clotheslines, because you can read social codes from the specific clothes people prefer to wear. You see a lot of second hand clothes because the majority of Ghanaians are not in the position to buy new clothes. They rather go to the market and buy the second hand – ”Obruni Dead”. An important fact for me is the interaction with people, to understand what they like to wear on a daily basis. This gives me an inside view of their lives and cultures, a culture which I did not have the chance to grow up in. As such, I can explore and discover everything myself now. But during the process of developing the so-called sculptural draping, I didn't really think about what I was doing. I was just curiously observing the “installations” but then it turned into something else.
Can you speak about your residencies?
During my first artist residency in 2012 I loved the interactions with other artists. I was curious about their wardrobes and how it related to their backgrounds, because they came from different parts of the world. I was curious about what they had in their luggage for that particular short period of stay. My curiosity became the driving force to commence the Sidespecific installations in the field. It was an intimate experience; looking at people's wardrobes, listening to narratives, which became awake through the pieces we used for the hanging. I didn't think about what I saw on the street anymore, and I actually felt like I wanted to go further. I wanted to make it much bigger or expand. I wanted to extend the size and the scale of the work.
I think I'm at the point now, I'm ready to work big scale. But I still feel the shyness is always showing up in the work; a little bit like I am holding back.
I think my work is hard for people to understand or maybe not. I always prefer that the work would speak my feelings. I actually don't like people asking about my work, because I can't really translate it into words. But then when I explain, I also notice that it helps them to understand. It is a big part of the art world to analyze the praxis behind an artist's work. Most of the time I feel, people who write about my work are brilliant in bringing it into verbal language, even much better than I would ever be able to.
Whenever I come across a really good review of my work, I become impressed about how it can really go far to read into depths what I couldn't understand at that point. That also directs my view in new directions where I hadn't looked thus far. I think it happens a lot when people who are passionate about a piece speak in African metaphors. Someone like the writer Nana Oforiatta Ayim, who surprised me with her interest in my work. She is always creating a new angle of appreciation.
I feel very honored by my female followers. In 2012, a lady told me that I have a feminine touch in my photographs especially the hanging installations. Then I realized that the Handwash Only project expresses really romantic aesthetics. It's also something that requires a lot of sensitivity like being able to take my mind back to my childhood times, when I was fascinated about watching clothes on lines in the garden moving with the wind.
When you talk about identity, there's always the struggle in the way you want to keep your roots but at the same time you want to be open to new way of expressing yourself. Do you need to be always loyal to yourself or do you need to adapt with the environment around you?
That's the point. There's a little bit of contradiction. Talking about honesty, considering what lays in my roots, can the art that I create be honest or can I be an honest artist? My roots keep me enrooted strongly. But then, I have a permanent search for belonging, through my passion for speaking the truth, speaking my reality, hoping to be honest or staying authentic, just what comes from deep within me. In the end I bring different influences together, it's a process. Most of the time I feel it is my advantage to be enrooted to keep the drive of moving and learning about my identity and expressing it in my work.
Do you define yourself as a fashion designer?
Not anymore. I had lots of beautiful experiences in the fashion business. I had a coach for one year and one day she asked me: “Do you like the idea of drawing in fashion? Because you always have this approach to express something that is very honest and you know in fashion, the drawing and design are not very important”. The design part is so small, the developing of pattern might be a bit comprehensive, but everything else is just business.
She pointed out that the expression I am aiming at is closer to art. She was right because every time I'm looking at fashion now, I really know what she means, I really love fashion but I couldn't live with it, it’s too blurry.
It comes back to this idea of having a sense of freedom to express yourself, freedom to sort of exist, mentally survive, that's something that I find to be recurrent.
..I think not every African artist is concerned about social conditions or politics. I feel it really depends on perspectives you have. I’m not letting people put me in a box because they categorize me as black, or mixed or white. I'm fascinated by the garments & second hand clothe trade but it doesn't mean I'm a socially aware person all the time. I was not really looking for something to lay a claim on as a social condition. I don't want to be categorized. I'm happy to be in a ”category” when it comes to belonging to the Ghanaian art scene, because it is pushing and testing my work. It identifies me with a place I love, but I don't want to cross out possibilities because I want to belong to a certain movement, not at all. I think artists should not be limited (due to their origin), or feel a certain branding (cliché) because there's no cliché unless you believe in it.
In London, Milan, and Paris or in Berlin, people go into second hand stores and they are called Vintage Shopping. In Africa, these clothes have a completely different context, no one associates them with vintage, it’s called Second Hand and it’s always seen to be that a lot of people have problems with it.
The worst quality of donated clothes are those exported to the third world countries; where they used to be intended for charity or donation purposes. Presently, it's grown into a business since it's become a very popular aspect of the everyday Ghanaian fashion taste. Consumers welcome the trade not only because it has become a very common thing in the social space but also due to the fact that it has grown on them and as such they are not bothered about the significant differences and disadvantages. Second hand clothing has one way or the other become the norm. To change this, there has to be the introduction of a new form of affordable clothing that people would identify with. Actually, I don't envision an end to this unless the importation of such clothing is banned totally at which point Ghanaians would have no choice but to buy into Ghanaian clothing. Local products would then be patronized; as such it would enable local dealers at the local markets to be able to grow their business again. This is very important since we're at a point where the Ghanaian textile industry is experiencing low patronization.
It's a known fact that a blow has been dealt our textile industry in the sector of school uniform production. Chinese fabrics are the main materials being used because the Ghanaian government signed one of those neck-breaking contracts with the Chinese. Literally, every student in Ghana who needs a uniform contributes to the booming Chinese economy rather than our own ailing economy.
During my Billboard project, I had a discussion with students between the ages of 10-14 years. I asked them; “if you go to the market and you see a piece made of local tie and dye which goes for 10 Ghana Cedis and then you find a pair of imported second hand jeans(for example Levi's) and you could pay 5 Ghana Cedis for it, which one would you gladly purchase?” One replied; “I'd rather pay the 10 because I want to support Ghana.” Another answered; “I'd pay the 5 because I can't afford more.” The kids hereby exhibit a clear sense of understanding of where they are coming from; that their background limits them. As such, they would undoubtedly continually support a market that they actually don't really want.
Did you have a chance to talk about your work and to discuss these issues with people that were just observing and maybe were out of the art world?
Can you tell us about Who is wearing my t-shirt - The Billboardproject?
Not really. I have this impression that the biggest audience who are interested in my work are fashion students. I had a lot of feedback from them and I actually plan to install more works in Kumasi next year in collaboration with Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). I have realized that there are young minds, who like to invest time in gaining knowledge about such experiments and would welcome me to talk about my art practice.
It was a very difficult task to get the locals to understand what I was doing during the process of installation. While they felt campaigns or advertisements were a normal thing, it was hard to make them understand that The Billboardproject was an anti-campaign. I had discussions with random people who showed interest while we were setting up the works or regularly when I visited the installations. I had some interviews on TV and actually found it very interesting having it discussed as a potential business strategy. I believe The Billboardproject is something I have to repeat. It will somehow reach the subconscious mind. I wish that with time I would get more feedback from people who are actually not into the arts, so I will keep on exploring the concept further. I would love to be part of a change.
In the everyday Ghanaian street life, everyone is caught in their own world of daily hustle. I have realized that makes it even more likely there's not much attention given to the billboards. I think Ghanaians would appreciate if they had more chance to see more art in public spaces. These kinds of set-ups would be appreciated at some point, although it could take some time. From the start, the rather creativity-insensitive educational system and society rarely supports inventive children to harness their ingenuity. Access to the understanding of art is limited during their upbringing, but I am sure that with time this situation will change.
Can you talk about your experience with the performance?
I want interested people to be present at my exhibitions, rather than just look my work up online. In Ghana, I usually have a performer for the opening of a show, but I do not practically indulge in performance myself.
Speaking of visiting other art presentations, my reserved nature makes me prefer to be in the background during a live performance. On the other hand, when push comes to shove I posture myself in close proximity with the performer, and the impact due to the vibrant energy around me makes it a real spirited experience. Having to see it on a screen is really not the same, you know, like making a documentation in a gallery space and uploading on Vimeo. Of course, when they are not purposefully structured for a big audience, performative presentations can be very exclusive moments. It's almost the same feeling like visiting a show and observing an artwork first hand. You can’t compare a moment of having a live experience and resonating with the energy of the performer to having it recorded and seen online. There's this feeling as if there's something missing - there is a disconnection between the performer and the observer.
Who are the artists working in Africa or related to Africa whose work resonates with you?
I could make mention of so many, but lately I've been checking out the works of Boris Nzebo, whom I really like and follow. He works in Cameroon. I love the scale and the choice of colours he works with. Unfortunately when I met him personally, we couldn’t really get into a discussion with my little French and his little English. I learned that he started by making paintings for hairdresser shops, more like in the direction of promoting their brand. But later it turned out into something else. It's really amazing how graphical lines go to influence local architecture creating a contemporary African image while the artist keeps focus on the aesthetics of the African hairstyle. I also like Robin Rhodes' style; the way he merges mural painting with performance into one image of storytelling. His performances make use of a language of graffiti, street art and photographic elements, which is fresh to me.
People in your pictures Textures looks a bit like objects as well, no?
I feel it's become quite organic, but think it even tends to be the more organic when I do the shooting outside rather than in the studio. In the studio, it looks as if it's close to an object. Outside, I try to have it more natural but it's still at the experimental stage. So nothing is set in stone. It's something I'm still developing and probably will continue in the next couple of years. My work includes making portraits, but my definition of what a portrait is may differ from the layman's definition, you know (laughs). For me, making a portrait means to actually capture something and use it as a medium to portray something. Not everything falls directly under a category. I'm just looking forward to where it gets to, where it develops too.
Speaking about your project Sidespecific. Why did you decide to develop it in the forest?
I have to say, that space was actually right in front of my studio. So actually, we had no choice but to use the field for art purposes. It was just outside New York, close to the Hudson River at an artist residency. My studio was luckily at the end of a barn facing that forest. I had this interesting environment in view and I really felt like hanging something up there, but for security reasons I couldn't go high up, just a maximum of 6 meters high. I actually wanted to work with a crane but then I ended up working with a ladder on the platform, which also worked fine. I figured out that the higher it's lifted up, the more a formation of clothes can be recognized. When it hangs lower, it just looks like a normal clothesline.
I really liked the environment, it gave me a chance to stretch the wire and I wanted to repeat the process in Ghana. I'd be interested to use a typical forest like the ones in Volta region to repeat it and of course, go further with the work. I would also love to involve water; an example is by placing the billboard installations on water such that they float, so there are ideas I want to go further with. I think nature is just very important to me because I have always been connected to it strongly to be creatively challenged.