Breaking down artistic barriers in Ghana

Nana Oforiatta-Ayim on why it is an exciting time culturally in Ghana right now

“Right now, artists are using their paradigmatic freedom and the multifariousness of input to create art that’s breaking through quite a few boundaries,” says Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, founder and director of ANO—a cultural research platform based in Accra.


© Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Displaced (Performance & installation), Labadi Beach, Accra, Ghana 2015.
Courtesy of the artist and ANO. Photo | Francis Kokoroko.


This process of innovation, working within a set of limitations, making the most of what is available and sourcing creative solutions, are all ideas that seem to be characteristic of many of the local art scenes across the African continent. Therefore, although the content and context may differ, during our brief survey of emerging practice in Africa we have come to find that countries like Ghana and before it Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Angola and even South Africa, seem to be connected through a spirit of innovation and an unwillingness to wait for things to happen. And it is perhaps for exactly these reasons that there is so much local and international interest around artistic production from or connected to the African continent.

Timeously, Oforiatta-Ayim reminds us that this is because, “like a lot of people involved in creative work in Ghana and other parts of Africa, it feels like it’s not just enough for us to produce, but that we have to provide the context and the paradigms for that production.” An essential point, which arguably forms the basis of the energy and dynamism that continues to propel art scenes across Africa in much the same way that it does for Accra. What it has ensured is that Ghana–as an artistic locale–is blossoming into what ACCRA [dot] ALT–in our interview–describes as something, “complex, quite varied and emerging.” All of which feels like a breathe of fresh air, especially as the country continues to recover from what Oforiatta-Ayim, describes as a “stifling of culture” during the economic and political turmoil of the 1970s.


© Ibrahim Maehama. Installation image of KNUST museum covered with jute sacks created during ANO residency. Courtesy of the artist and ANO.


So, when Billie Mcternan Adwoa, writes an article titled, The Treasures of Accra’s Growing Art Scene, she immediately highlights the importance and impact of local cultural organisations in helping stimulate this dynamism. And, alongside the Nubuke Foundation, ACCRA [dot] ALT and the Accra Theatre Workshop, ANO operates at the forefront of this process. Setup to, “challenge current historiographies, as well as transform social contexts, ” ANO runs a host of initiatives that range from a residency program to writing workshops and a Cultural Encyclopedia that maps the trajectories of cultural production in fields such as Fashion, Literature, Art, Film, Music, Science, Drama, Maths and Archaeology. From an artistic standpoint, ANO has worked with young Ghanaian artists such as Ibrahim Maehama, Zohra Opoku and Serge Attukwei Clottey.

Therefore, with such a diverse and interdisciplinary program, we caught up with Oforiatta-Ayim, to find out more about Ghana’s current artistic climate and just how ANO fits into the country’s emerging practice narrative.

In our interview with Sionne from ACCRA[dot] ALT, she says there is a severe disconnect between how the arts were supported by Nkrumah and his government and how it is supported now, therefore how would you describe the artistic climate in Ghana now in comparison to it in the 1960’s and 70s?

It’s an incredibly exciting time in Ghana culturally right now. In the early 1960s, the arts were well supported by Nkrumah and his government, who similar to Senghor and his negritude movement saw it as an opportunity to create a national and pan-African idiom, so there was a flowering of art, music, literature, theatre. The 1970s with its coups, military regimes, curfews, and harsh tax laws saw a stifling of culture, from which it took a long time to recover. Right now, artists are using their paradigmatic freedom and the multifariousness of input to create art that’s breaking through quite a few boundaries.


© Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Displaced (Performance & installation), Labadi Beach, Accra, Ghana 2015.
Courtesy of the artist and ANO. Photo | Francis Kokoroko.


© Serge Attukwei Clottey, The Displaced (Performance & installation), Labadi Beach, Accra, Ghana 2015.
Courtesy of the artist and ANO. Photo | Francis Kokoroko.


With this breaking down of boundaries and with this paradigmatic freedom at play, what does Ghana’s institutional landscape look like and what are some of the exciting/challenging aspects of it?

There are some great independent institutions, like the Nubuke Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA) and the Accra Theatre Workshop that put on a constant stream of exhibitions, theatre events, readings, and talks. The national institutions are a bit calcified in that respect, even though recently the National Museum has been partnering with some of the independents and trying to widen its remit. The challenges as always are funding and getting to larger audiences than those who are already engaged in or interested in the arts. What’s exciting is what is coming out of those limitations and strictures. In a way it’s bringing about a greater creativity, as people have to find other solutions, whether it’s exhibiting in marketplaces or in the streets, which is not to say that the lack of government support is a good thing.

This way in which artists in Ghana are forced to work with limitations seems characteristic of our findings in other parts of Africa. But, in a purely quantifiable sense how well equipped-in terms of art education, exposure and funding- is Ghana in order to support young, emerging artists?

The arts faculty at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) is very dynamic, engaged, and avant-garde, and is nurturing a generation with an extraordinary level of talent, ingenuity, and awareness. In terms of exposure, locally there is still a lot of work. There is not much art writing or criticism or coverage of what is being done, but the workshops will hopefully change this. Internationally, there is more and more interest. Funding is dire; no government support; very little private patronage, though it’s slowly growing through initiatives like the Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian Art set up by lawyer Elikem Kuenyehia. There is also this constellation of synergies happening right now: the lecturers at KNUST who are opening horizons; people like me who are fluent in both worlds coming back, creating bridges and new narratives; artists like Ibrahim Mahama, Zohra Opoku and Serge Attukwei Clottey and many others experimenting with form; and institutions like FCA and Nubuke who are ready to support and provide communities.


© Zohra Opoku, WHO IS WEARING MY T-SHIRT, THE BILLBOARD PROJECT, Accra, Ghana, 2014 – 2015. Courtesy of the artist and ANO.


© Zohra Opoku, WHO IS WEARING MY T-SHIRT, THE BILLBOARD PROJECT, Accra, Ghana, 2014 – 2015. Courtesy of the artist and ANO.


And, how do you view ANO’s role in relation to these circumstances and in particular emerging Ghanaian discourse?

ANO’s role is primarily in creating and uncovering cultural narratives. It does this through development: through events and workshops, such as regular Cultural Writing Workshops to develop discourse around how we create ourselves through writing. And also Artist’s Residencies that involve shaping narratives around artists’ work, artistic and curatorial collaborations, as well as connecting them with international institutions. The first resident was, at the time, a young student from KNUST, Ibrahim Mahama; and since the beginning of this year I’ve been working closely with the artist Serge Attukwei Clottey. It’s already having an impact in that artists feel less and less like they have to move abroad in order to have sustainable livelihoods, or that they have to collaborate with the first person that comes along from Europe or America. Though I realise, because my engagement with the artists I work with at the moment is quite in-depth and continuous, that in a way I’m creating a very selective narrative. Institutions and curators are being made aware of these two or three artists, like Ibrahim, Zohra and Serge, and because they don’t have the time or energy, they don’t look any further, even though there are so many artists of talent here. I’m a little weary of replicating the star-system that I dislike so much in Western art discourse, and the challenge is now how to continue these in-depth collaborations and at the same time somehow broaden or democratise the process. ANO’s other main focus is documentation and archiving, in the form of films and publications; an attempt to create cultural histories and trajectories of arts in Ghana. And there’s the large-scale Cultural Encyclopaedia, which I’ve been working on for a few years and which incorporates online, published, and physical spaces. It will go public with its first physical space, a Living History Hub, a kind of kiosk, or make-shift museum that contextualises, displays, and animates objects, documents, photographs and oral histories, at the Chale Wote Festival in Accra this August.


Nana Oforiatta-Ayim is a writer, filmmaker and historian, based in Accra, Ghana. Interested in international diplomacy, she studied political science with Russian language and literature, and worked in the Department of Political Affairs of United Nations in New York, before completing a Masters in African Art History, and embarking on a PhD in African Languages and Cultures at SOAS, University of London. She began writing on art and cultural history whilst working with the African arts publisher Revue Noire in Paris; and has since written essays for magazines and books, such as frieze, Manifesta, and African Metropolitan Architecture. After doing an authorised translation of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ film on African Art, Les Statues Meurent Aussi, she went on to make the films Crossover, A Shred of Identity, and Tied and True, regularly shown at institutions like Tate Modern, London, and the New Museum, New York. She set up and runs the cultural research centre ANO in Ghana, which is currently creating new narratives and archives, such as through its large-scale Cultural Encyclopaedia project; by archiving and digitising early Ghanaian photography as part of an organisational collective; and through a film series documenting Ghana’s contemporary cultural practise.


This article forms part of the series Next Chapter: Inquiries into emerging artistic practice


Written by Houghton Kinsman.

Ghana | Doing our part to combat immappancy

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