In Studio with Atta Kwami

Sharon: We’re here in Atta Kwami’s studio in Loughborough, and I’m amazed at this space (laughs), there’s just so much creative energy that I feel, just looking at the works and the set-up. You are an artist that is active and very much engaged in what you’re doing. Thank you, for having me here.

Atta: Yes, you’re welcome, you’re welcome.

S: I wanted to get the chance to start with your journey as an artist from the beginning to this point. Tell me about who you are as an artist, and what you’re trying to express in your work.

A: It’s been an interesting journey. I was born to a family of artists, my parent were both artists. My father was a musician and teacher; he was a pianist. My mother, Grace Salome Kwami was also a recognised Ghanaian artist. She was a sculptor and a painter, and she did so many other things. But mostly she liked working in clay… I was encouraged to cultivate this spirit of enjoyment, of course, there are struggles in being an artist but we had fun growing up, and by the age of 6, I started painting. In class one, we did drawings using chalk on boards.

Then, I started entering for art contests and competitions, some with or without (laughs) the knowledge of my mother. After my father’s death in 1957, she moved to Ho, where she taught at Mawuli school, and so I was brought up in the Volta region in Ho. I went to school, at Accra - Achimota, Mawuli School in Ho, and then later at Tamale in the north of Ghana. In the sixth form at Mawuli, I met Kate Ofori who was a really dynamic, great teacher, and she taught me hand-printed textiles, still life, and  figure drawing.

So I had a good grounding in those areas, before going to the College of Art in Kumasi. I met a few other inspiring artists and teachers there, and then when I left art college, I went to teach for a year in Tamale. An opportunity came up in Uyo, Cross River State, Nigeria - to set-up an art department for the School of Arts and Science, which was a really posh sixth form college in a beautiful part of Nigeria. I loved it, stayed there for four years, and when I finished, I travelled to Britain for the first time in 1985. I returned to Ghana, freelanced for a while, and then I rejoined the College of Art, KNUST, Kumasi, where I was a senior lecturer when I left after 20 years of teaching.

S: When I see your work, the first thing I thought of was the Kente fabric, and I see you also have some Kente fabric here.

A: Well, I have a collection of textiles, but that’s not the only thing. And I think it would be (laughs) stereotyping the work to think that it’s all about textiles. I love architecture: I explore that in Ghana, Senegal, South Africa (a kiosk in green and yellow was made for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale), and in Kenya in 1999 with the Archway installation for Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi. It was later moved to the Kuona Trust grounds near the national museum before its disintegration. The idea of a public walk-through sculpture was continued in Accra and Kumasi. Because of travelling and working in different environments I experience different architectural forms. I take all of that in and in my work I can deal with the contradictions of pictorial space and physically tangible space. My installations and relief constructions bring up all these elements together.

Materials in Atta Kwami's studio. Copyright, Sharon Obuobi

Materials in Atta Kwami's studio. Copyright, Sharon Obuobi

S: So what do you appreciate about the sculpture versus the painting? How do they differ in how they allow you to express what you’re doing?

A: I’m primarily a painter - I also make prints — but I have this understanding that within painting, I can deal with some of the concerns that sculptors deal with. So there is a sculptural element in some of the pictures, but in the installation you can see that although it’s a painterly language, painted only onto a two-dimensional support/object, (painted on all sides), that brings in three dimensions, it’s primarily a painterly language that I’m exploring, it’s not illusory. In my paintings, I see all these structures, and it’s more the urban character that comes through the work. I also make prints and I see a parity between printmaking and sculpture. I did a series of prints for the Liverpool World Museum.

S: Yes, I saw that..

A: … I was inspired to create the prints after spending three days in Liverpool sketching these wonderful canonical, African artworks donated to the World Museum by prominent people like the Gold Coast barrister John Mensah Sarbah, Nii Kojo Ababio IV of Accra, Awoonor-Renner and A.R. Chinnery. They wanted to show that they came from civilised backgrounds or cultures.

S: I know you’ve done quite extensive work as an academic or as a scholar, can you tell more about your research and what you are interested in, in terms of the scholarly perspective?

A: Well, I did a study of painting in Kumasi, which is Ghana’s second largest city and the cultural centre more or less, looking at the interrelationships between college-trained painters and the city workshop-trained artists, for over a 50 year period. The book examines the systems of training as well as the history of the development of art education in Ghana, largely because Kumasi College of Technology is the oldest institutions of higher training in the West African region; it happens to be quite a fine institution of art in Africa.

So this book, Kumasi Realism, won an award from the Ghana Denmark Cultural Fund. The actual research period went beyond the period it took me to complete the doctorate with the Open university, Milton Keynes, UK, as part-time student. It originated in my student days at the KNUST, talking to people like Ablade Glover, Ato Delaquis, who were teaching at the university in Kumasi.


S: Yea, it’s quite a well respected - we have a copy - it’s definitely an important art reference (laughs)

A: And I also write about modern Ghanaian/African artists occasionally, and reviewed Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, retrospective at Tate Modern in 2013 for African Arts. (African Arts, 47: 3, 2014, pp. 82-84.)

S: Yes, at the Tate..

A: Recently I was asked to write on KK Broni, the Ghanaian ceramicist, who died in 2016; the article may appear in Ceramics: Art and Perception. Yea, a few other articles and reviews.  Writing, some of them may have got me into trouble (laughs)

S: (laughs) Oh no!

A: Because when you write sometimes with a critical eye, people don’t like it. They are offended.


S: Are you aware of how the art is going on in terms of KNUST university, and the young artists that are coming up out of it? How do feel about it?

A: I just came back from Ghana about a month ago. I think it’s a very interesting direction, lots of new things happening. At the same time, when we were students in the mid-70s to the 80s, I found quite a lot of interesting, adventurous approaches to art-making as well. People did similar things. This sense of the “new contemporary” may not be entirely justified. Contemporary with what? You can talk about contemporary art practice in relation to other arts, in a city or nation. When was contemporary art?

I think it’s a very positive direction because a lot of it is looking at local materials and cultural production in the country. But there has to be more inclusivity. If you have installation, you have other practices like painting, graphic design, print-making, textiles, fashion, performance arts, photography, jewellery, metal work, ceramics and so forth.

Recent directions in art from Ghana expose problems in Ghanaian political history. I believe that painting or any other art form like poetry and music can provide a private space for thought and reflection. 


S: Why do you believe you are an artist?

A: I don’t know. Why do I believe - I mean, I’ve always wanted to be in the position - be surrounded by art, either making music, creating art, reading… It’s a subtle existence.

In Atta Kwami's studio, Copyright Sharon Obuobi

In Atta Kwami's studio, Copyright Sharon Obuobi


S: I also read in your personal statement, that when you are producing your work, you can sometimes get lost in the process, in terms of feeling that you are in a trance, or feeling the vibrations of the colour..

A: Yes, but the process of art making for me is like being in dialogue with other makers, but you have all that weight of history, art history behind you. It’s like I’m in contact with those who have come before, and those who are around, and we are bombarded by some many images, moving images in film and through the new media, mass media. So much that you have to process and come up with your own individuality. It’s not easy. That statement stood some time ago. Now it’s probably …


S: .. changed.

A: Yea, we change.


Atta Kwami (left), Sharon Obuobi (right)

Atta Kwami (left), Sharon Obuobi (right)

S: How do you decide which colours... I know I asked you before if you were into colour theory, but it just seems like a very thoughtful process of deciding which colours are going to be placed next to each other. Is it on instinct, is there a science to it, is there a method or just..

A: Well, it’s a combination of rationality, and a bit of instinct. Certain things you just know, but we are three in this room. Your father, Yaw, and us two, and if we were to decide on the notion of red, I think we would have three different reds when that comes up. But it’s not only in the real world; it has to do with abstraction, the language of geometric abstraction, which deals sometimes with pure form and colour.

But then, there’s also the aesthetics, the individual aesthetics that I have evolved over the years. I was just saying a moment ago, how listening to jazz music from the 70s down here, as well as other kinds of music, Ghanaian highlife, Koo Nimo, classical music, have in a sense made me aware of other forms of tone, colour, musical colour, conceptions. How do you pull these influences in making a work of art? It’s very complex.


S: You have an exhibition coming up actually…

A: Yes, I do. The exhibition is coming up at the Howard Scott gallery in New York, that’s in Chelsea. I think the title of this exhibition is “Thami: Recent Paintings by Atta Kwami," after the late South African artist Thami Mnyele (1948-1985) the South African artist and activist who died in exile in Botswana. The atmosphere of the studio in Amsterdam, its generous proportions, its location, and the organisational support of the team were enough to launch me in a new direction. These paintings, the Thami Mnyele paintings, embody the rhythms and spatial dialogues that excite me when I experience the drama of city architecture.

Last July/August, I was at a residency in Amsterdam at the famous Thami Mnyele studios, as the result of an award, Thami Mnyele awards for 2016, that enabled my wife Pamela and I to live and work in Amsterdam for a month. It’s usually three months, but we could only stay for a month at the time. And a number of large canvases, new paintings, reinventions of my current goals will be exhibited in New York for the first time.


Sharon Obuobi