Kojo Marfo on African Diversity and Representation
Kojo Marfo is a Ghanaian artist based in London. His work is inspired by his upbringing surrounded by traditional African artifacts. His vibrant works juxtapose visions from his childhood with a current narrative, as a part of his constant drive to grow and evolve authentically. His work has been exhibited internationally in Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, New York, Barcelona, and London. In this recent interview with Omenka, he talks about his journey, creative process, and upcoming exhibition in The Next Wave: The Power of Authenticity and Self-Validation.
You enrolled at the University of Ghana, New York University, and Central Saint Martins University, but dropped out of all three. Would you say you are entirely self-taught? What challenges have you overcome in achieving recognition? Has the absence of formal training actually been an advantage, and in what way?
Personally, higher education wasn’t for me. I didn’t like the academic set-up, and I didn’t want to follow certain ways of practice. I realised that everyone was following the same way; everyone was moulded into the same person, indoctrinated with ideas they were fed.
Sometimes I feel like I need to have a higher university certificate to prove a point. But then, to whom would I need to prove a point?
Yes, I consider myself completely self-taught. My influences are wide, from Picasso to Ibrahim El Salahi. I see myself as an anti-academic artist who believes art shouldn’t be intellectualised. Art should be based on intuition and your ideas, instead of being formed into something a university wants you to be. The absence of formal training has been an advantage, as I’m doing things by intuition. I get a chance to apply any method without constraining myself from experimenting with different techniques, such as using my hands. People form their opinion by associating themselves with my work. To understand and to know what I am doing is crucial to me. I have to create art that has a relationship with people, with society in general, and with politics. Even though I didn’t take part in a university environment, I read a lot about post-war artistic avant-garde.
Initially, not finding the right gallery and not having the right platform to showcase my work were a problem. At the beginning, in the US, I struggled, but found a few galleries who were willing to take a chance. When I came back to London, it was a complete culture shock. Nobody was interested in my art, and no gallery would want to buy any of my paintings. Times were hard, and I was torn between finding a “real job” or being recognised as an artist. The challenges these days are very minimal compared to those days. Back then, it was very difficult because I tried to sell my art in marketplaces and had to chase galleries to sell my work but couldn’t get enough to live on. It got to a point, in 2005, when I had to give up art for some time to take up other jobs.
In 2010, social media took off, and everyone was using it to promote their work. A friend called me to have a look at other artists’ work on Instagram, which motivated me to start painting again. By that time I had financial security to give it a go once again. I found a few galleries in New York and the UK which took me on and also encouraged collectors to invest in me. With social media, I found another platform to showcase my art and was approached by collectors. For me, it turned out to be a very good way of self-promotion. It gave me the opportunity to showcase my work to collectors and galleries.
What role does cultural hybridity, identity, and migration play in your work, considering you grew up in Ghana and now live in the UK?
I am interested in using my practice to reveal the hidden dangers woven into the West’s social and geographical fabric. They expose viewers to the biases behind the “global perspective” of the Western world. My work reflects the diversity and richness lost in the deceptive mainstream representations of the African people and explores a self-referential perspective of the Black image. I develop these portrayals through a vital practice that requires a lived experience as a part of the African diaspora. My inspiration comes from the societal inequalities and the frustrations I feel as part of my lived experience. I have a natural curiosity about my place on earth and a thirst for sincerity in all forms. A uniquely vital aspect of my practice is rooted in traditional African artifacts, while at the same time searching for something new. My aim is to be fearless and confront the elephant in the room, helping to construct a different perspective of the world we live in.
Congratulations on your forthcoming exhibition in The Next Wave: The Power of Authenticity and Self-Validation, organised by the House of African Art (HAART). Please tell us more about the pieces you will be showing and how you expect them to connect with viewers.
The new pieces are based on cultural differences between us and the rest of the world. Bride’s Wealth will highlight the dynamic role of the woman in African societies. I hope people will be able to connect with the work and leave with a better understanding of my culture, who I am, and what I stand for.
In works like Peddler’s Corner (2018), you employ the use of text and figures. What significance do these tools hold?
I think there is something in the separation of words and ideas from the physicality of the person. I am interested in playing with the element of ideas and the physical on my own terms. It is something I used to do when I was a child. Whenever I heard new words from someone, I wrote them on walls and on tables. I employ the same method when I am painting now to show the social consciousness of physical beings or things.
Please take us through your creative process, including the impact of graffiti art on your work.
Usually, I try not to have any preconceived notion of what I’m doing. The composition is based on what I am thinking at that moment and sometimes incidents of luck could produce something special. I have stashed away images of traditional African carvings, so whenever I run out of ideas I go to those images for inspiration. I also take pictures of everyday objects like lamps and the shadows they produce. These shadows sometimes reveal some great images if you look at them carefully. I also mostly paint at night, as the quietness gives me the needed sense of calmness.
The graffiti scene has had a great influence on my work, as it breaks down the resistance to using striking, vibrant colours. It also gave me the confidence needed to pursue art without departing from my cultural heritage.
Breaking away from the traditional gallery experience, HAART’s pop-up exhibition model creates an engaging environment around visual arts. What impact do you think exhibitions like these will have on an artist’s career?
Although there is a place for traditional galleries, they are only based in one area. Pop-up galleries bring art to a more diverse audience, bringing artworks out of sterile spaces and into spaces where people live and work. Also, I think pop-up galleries challenge the idea that art is only for the rich and create a wider engagement.
Why do you think there is an increased demand for art from the African continent and its related diaspora, and what does its future hold?
There is a demand for African art because we have moved on from doing the same things again and again and producing the art that is expected of us. Africa and the global community of Africans are diverse and dynamic, and I think African artists are finally feeling like we can express all of the individuality and creativity that this community cultivates and inspires. African art doesn’t need to look like the traditional “African art” to stimulate your imagination.
Is there any upcoming project you would like to share with us?
I have a solo show in the pipeline for summer 2019, which I’m still working on. That show will tackle issues such as feminism and the European perception of the African.
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