Godfried Donkor, the First Day of the Yam Custom: 1817
Internationally renowned artist Godfried Donkor was born in 1964 in Kumasi and moved to the United Kingdom at the age of 8. He earned a BA in fine art and a Masters in art history from St Martins College of Art and the School of Oriental and African Studies respectively, before going on to study painting at Escolla Massana in Barcelona. Donkor’s work engages the iconography of mass media. Combining styles and imagery from the conflicting sides of the political and cultural divides, he investigates the subject of creolisation ̶ a mixture between people of indigenous African and European descent resulting from colonisation. Some of his images depict iconic athletes, boxers, and scantily dressed women mostly from Trinidad, taken from fashion and pornographic magazines.
Donkor has won numerous awards including 1st prize/ Best International Artist at the Dak’Art Festival (1998). He was also Ghana’s representative to the 2001 Venice Biennale. He has participated in several exhibitions both in the United States and in Europe and his work can be found in many prestigious museums and institutions around the world including the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Tate Modern, London, La Palais Des Beaux Artes, Brussells, Horniman Museum, London, Museum Haus der Kunst, Germany and the Museum Belvedere in Austria.
When did you decide to become an artist?
I guess I decided to try to become an artist when I graduated from art school. The option was there to set up a studio and start practising, however, we were never taught during our time in art school how to be artists when we left. So becoming an artist was a process of learning and acquiring knowledge.
What is the underlying philosophy behind your work?
As a visual artist I have been influenced by many things, different art forms and practices, as well as enjoying a wide range of subject matter. I started wanting to study fashion; that was my reason for attending art school. I ended up being very interested in painting, however, I wanted to keep my fashion aesthetic and somehow merge the two disciplines… I have also always been very interested in history, which is supposed to be about facts and real events… as well as mythology and folk tales, which are stories from different cultures and form part of cultural identity… My underlying philosophy over the years has been to identify the various subjects I’m interested in and to develop a way of merging them to create visual imagery. This is a constant process and a work in progress.
Though you work predominantly in collages,your oeuvre includes drawing and photography. How have you been able to achieve a balance between these separate media in your work and how have they influenced your technique and creative process?
I studied painting though I mentioned that my first love in the creative arts was fashion. I was into photography because it is closely aligned with fashion… collage came into my studies as a form of drawing for my painting. During my fashion stage I was always cutting out images and simply pasting them in scrap books… The collages evolved from my fashion scrap books. These were a mixture of photos and drawings or designs I wanted to make. When I started painting, I simply used the same technique of collage as drawings and preparations for my paintings. The collages have now become art works in their own right… I still use them to prepare for the paintings I want to make.
Over the years, I have been increasingly interested in overlapping the various media I use in my works as much as possible, simply to see what the outcome would be.
Your upcoming exhibition The First Day of the Yam Custom – 1817 will be held from August 7 to September 30 with Gallery 1957 in Ghana. What inspired your new body of work and what do you hope to achieve with this exhibition?
This project has been many years in the making. History is a major part of my practice and a great source of material. As a visual artist I am also a student of history and a wannabe academic, so for my second degree I studied African art history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. During my time there, I was still practising as an artist. In the SOAS library I came across a wonderful publication called Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee by an English explorer called Thomas Bowdich. Bowdich wrote the book from his time in the region then known as the Gold Coast in 1817, and published it in London in 1819. In one of the chapters in the book, he describes the scene of the Ashanti festival that celebrated the harvest of the yam crop and the pageantry of the Ashanti king’s court. In the book, he made these fascinating colour sketches of the festivities of the yam custom including scenes of Kumasi, the Ashanti capital. These images form the basis of the current exhibition. Also these images were the first visual depiction of this region and her peoples by an European that I have come across. It took the establishment of the Gallery 1957 in Accra and a conversation with its director Marwan Zakhem to open the exhibition in Ghana after a residency period of four months.
The timing for this current project seems perfect as the original exploration by Bowdich was in 1817; it is about two hundred years more or less that he made his paintings. My reinterpretation is to realise a life-size version of the original and create an installation which celebrates this region as a global stage for commerce and culture.
What can you say about the increasing global attention to African art, how sustainable is it and what does the future portend for it?
I think that we are entering a new and intriguing phase with the increasing global attention to African art. It will only increase with young emerging artists all over the continent now featuring in major international exhibitions all over the globe. There are major art historians and curators working within the continent and in the diaspora to sustain this growth, as well as art institutions on the continent that are now establishing spaces of incubation for the constant flow of talent. In addition, there are an ever increasing number of crucial players like galleries, collectors and art fairs all playing their part… Art is a cultural commodity and art from Africa is no exception. The future, I think, looks bright.
You have enjoyed a successful career within the art industry for decades. What are some of the milestones you have achieved and what advise do you have for young emerging artists?
I have been fortunate during my career to enjoy a slow and steady level of productivity…this is very important to me as my practice involves a lot of research and time. The opportunity to work and exhibit in various parts of the globe has been my biggest milestones. I guess it is for young emerging artists to be aware that an art career can give amazing opportunities in life …it can also be fleeting and capricious…In the end it may come down to a steady and constant level of production and a commitment to research. Perhaps, most importantly, they should learn to enjoy the process of making art. It is a privilege.
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