Ayodeji Rotinwa recently visited Ghana to tap the pulse of its burgeoning contemporary art scene. He found a prodigy.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t want to condemn my country to you, a Nigerian,â€ Yaw Owusu tells me, laughing.
We are talking about slums, political disappointments, income inequality, currency and the vanishing of Ghanaâ€™s middle class; some of the inspirations for and references in his debut solo exhibition, All That Glitters, curated by Osei Bonsu that recently closed, in the countryâ€™s foremost contemporary art institution, Gallery 1957.
We are in the executive lounge, on the seventh floor of Kempinski Hotel, Gold Coast City â€“ also home to Gallery 1957 â€“ where the â€œcheapestâ€ room retails for $349 a night. According to the World Bankâ€™s last count in 2005, 25.2% of Ghanaâ€™s population lives poor, on $1.90 a day.
Were one of them to visit the hotel, they likely wouldnâ€™t be able to afford the most basic thing on the menu: a bottle of water.
Owusu is playfully hesitant to speak about these sharp contrasts, honouring the long-time rivalry and history between our two countries where one has tried to best the other in music, sport, economic achievements and just about everything else. Speaking ill about his country to a rivalâ€™s hearing is a kind of betrayal.
I assure him it is not. While our countries have many differences, we have many ills in common.
In Lagos, Nigeriaâ€™s economic capital, the construction of a new road no matter how small invites fanfare. Special budgets are set, drummers are hired, ribbons are drawn and colourful Ankara outfits are selected, designed and worn just for the occasion. Locals are called upon by the government, to bear witness to its achievement: a problem solved, hope restored. Usually, six months after the roads are commissioned, during the rainy season, cracks start to appear. Soon, the little cracks become big puddles, potholes: holding up traffic flow, tearing into tyres, causing accidents. In a year, the road returns to the state of disrepair that inspired â€˜constructionâ€™ in the first place.
Citizens hopeful of a new beginning are left disappointed.
This is the life thread of Owusuâ€™s exhibition: broken promises.
All That Glitters tells the story of what could have been but never was. Owusu employs the smallest denomination of his countryâ€™s currency: the pesewa coin, the size of a thumb, to create large, sometimes life-size sculptural, jewel-like installations, commenting on economic value and socio-economic fracture in Ghana. The pesewa coins were first introduced in 2007 by the Ghanaian government as a solution to control the countryâ€™s spiralling inflation rate. The government embarked on an aggressive media campaign to convince its citizens that the little piece of copper was the same in value as and a good replacement for the paper notes of 100 Ghana Cedi (Ghc)
It was an experiment that failed.
The coins were not accepted by citizens and soon lost its value a few months after their introduction.
Curiously, how Owusu came to convert the now worthless copper to objects of shimmering beauty, value (his works are priced within $5,000 – $9,000) and critical discourse was also an experiment â€“ or accident. Though unlike his governmentâ€™s, his had better results. His process is an ongoing set of reflections or question(s) one comes away with from the exhibition â€“ which Owusu asks himself, to no one in particular during our conversation:
â€œAt what point does money become money? What becomes what? The pesewa coin was copper, a precious metal. When it was introduced it was the least of currencies, in the denomination. It was devalued again and no one wanted it. Now it is an art object, does it still possess the accreditation of money? Is it a different object?â€
Owusu chose the coins as an object of artistic practice in his third year studying for a degree in Fine Art at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He admits he was not the most compliant student. He didnâ€™t attend nor was punctual to classes because he did not find the coursework compelling.
â€œI felt it was quite boring because we would do figure drawings, still life paintings. I felt it was something I could do in the house, and not in class,â€ he says, deadpan.
In his third year, he was finally given freedom to do something he felt was challenging. He created a pinhole camera by hand and travelled across Ghana to shoot nature. He decided on the coastal region of Ghana to shoot the sea because of its unpredictability. The pesewa coins were in his pocket while he got to work. On returning home, he discovered the salt water that touched them, had altered the texture and colour of the coins in a way that was â€œunnatural to the copperâ€.
â€œI realised this could be interesting. I had to research into money, and economy and politics. The idea of money that existed that people didnâ€™t want to useâ€¦I saw it as an opportunity to talk about our economy, money, resources,â€ Owusu explains.
Owusuâ€™s conversations occur across up to 24, 000 coins on each piece, fixed on wood, draped over walls, canvas and other surfaces. The coins have been migrated from their default copper colour to elegant tones of purple, blue, ruby, silver, more. Owusu realises these alien transformations through chemical treatments that use of Ghanaâ€™s economic resources: saltwater â€“ which represents the salt mining, fishing trade of the coastal region; and vinegar â€“ which represents the vegetation and plantation industry of the eastern Ashanti region. Some treatments take a few hours to achieve the desired result. Some, a few months.
Time and chance are as much co-creators in the work as the artist himself.
â€œMy work is 95% accident and mistakes. There are treatments I never thought would give the outcomes I have now,â€
The coins have made other journeys: from the vaults of the Central Bank of Ghana to his chosen canvas. The bank is the only institution that still distributes the pesewa. Owusu tells me he spends a significant amount of time, discussions and money to secure the coins and in the quantity he wanted. The bank has a lengthy bureaucratic process for making the coins available and was at first suspicious of the intentions of this young artist who wanted up to 400,000 coins to create art.
Owusu is 24.
Some bank officials and other government officials in positions heâ€™s not sure of, have eventually come round and see his works as beautiful. Others see it as illegal, believe he is defacing government property and have gone so far as to threaten him with a lawsuit. Owusu is more interested in the latter set of people.
â€œIt is part of the process,â€ he says. â€œIf I am defacing what was already devalued, spoiling what is spoilt, I wanted to see what context it put the material to, and if it could relate to the issues I was raising. These comments make the work move from mere nice pieces to a space where it is worth contemplating about.â€
These comments and conversations are currently happening within the walls of Gallery 1957, in government offices, amongst Ghanaians and likely soon, amongst Africans in other countries and globally. Gallery 1957 has made international visual art stars out of Ghanaian contemporary visual art talent such as Serge Clottey. Given the breadth and power of Owusuâ€™s, he is undoubtedly next up.
Owusuâ€™s work though experimental â€“ from material, origins and choice of alchemy to alter it, its inspiration â€“ has ties that bind neatly together, comes full circle in the way its subject â€“ the socio-economic status of Ghana â€“ has not yet.
He believes this status is a failed promise that traces all the way back to Ghanaâ€™s fight for independence as led by the legendary statesman, Kwame Nkrumah. The fight that was eventually won in 1957, was fuelled by the belief that Ghana could successfully manage its affairs and delivered boundless hope to all Ghanaians of an assured, stable future.
Sixty years later, according to Owusu, only the political class benefits from the economy, fancy gated estates sit by sprawling slums, politicians are only seen or heard from during election season when courting votes, development only happens in the capital, Accra, while the rest of the country does not enjoy similar attention.
The substance and evidence of things hoped for has not been seen.
All that glitters isâ€¦