Made in Ghana - The art of promoting home-grown talent

Without the aid of Google, could you name 10 contemporary Ghanaian painters, sculptors, or visual artists? How about five, two or one? Did you struggle? I managed two – Kofi Agorsor and Godfried Donkor, which is a shame when you consider the massive contribution Ghanaian artists have and continue to bestow upon the art world.
Two Queens by shortlisted candidate Kwadwo Boateng Ansare

Ghana has produced some of the world's most established artists, many of whom were trained at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). Some of these leading names include Sami Bentil, who celebrates traditional Ghanaian culture and surrealism in his pieces. El Anatsui who has garnered widespread acclaim for his sculptural installations, which use a diverse range of materials from cassava graters to chainsaws. And London-trained Godfried Donkor - well known for Financial Times newspaper-inspired collage work.

But one of the biggest challenges emerging artists still face is visibility and recognition within Ghana. Those coming fresh out of university have an uncertain future often due to lack of training in business, marketing and in understanding the legal aspects that are so vital to becoming a successful artist. As a result, some end up abandoning their career path and take up other more stable jobs to support their families.

But an innovative idea by avid art collector and lawyer Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia aims to secure the futures of Ghana’s aspiring artists. Elikem has established the Kuenyehia Prize designed to give artists access to funding, resources and nurture an environment that encourages and supports Ghanaian art among corporate and government organisations. 

He talks to MisBeee about promoting art literacy, his Prize event on 9 April, and his vision to encourage the consumption of quality contemporary Ghanaian art locally.

What inspired you to champion the cause of emerging Ghanaian artists?
Shortly after moving home to Ghana from the UK 10 years ago, I purchased my first piece of Ghanaian art ‘When Peace Goes Off’ by Mawuli Emmanuel (Mawulives). At the time, he was a recent graduate of KNUST – the same institution that had produced the likes of Ablade Glover and El Anatsui.

Mawuli, and his fellow KNUST graduate friends, were optimistic about their future as artists in Ghana. However, that optimism was short-lived. After failing to sell any paintings other than the one I purchased, Mawuli and his friends turned their backs on their passion and found mainstream jobs.

I also purchased several pieces of art by Peter Atsu (Padoe) but later found out that he had stopped painting. I had not realised but apparently, I was pretty much his only market. He now focuses his attention on the more lucrative (at least in the short-term) business of printing T-shirts.
Mawuli and Padoe are just two of the many Ghanaian artists who gave up early on in their careers because of an under-developed local art ecosystem.

So how do you plan to develop Ghana's art ecosystem?
I believe that for more Ghanaian artists to command a premium for their work and succeed globally - following in the footsteps of the elite minority including Kofi Agorsor, Ablade Glover, El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama and Godfried Donkor - there needs to be a well-developed local art ecosystem and market. 

The objective of the Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian Art (‘the Prize’)  is to inspire the next generation of Ghanaian artists to produce work that will attract both local, national and international audiences. 

The Prize is structured to award and reward talent. From a shortlist of 10 artists, a winner and two runners-up will be chosen. The winner will receive a total of GH20,000 (£3,500) – GHC8,000 to buy art materials and GHC12,000 paid as a monthly stipend over twelve months. The runners-up will each win GHC2,500.

Final Destination by shortlisted candidate Michael Lokko
What about longer-term support?
The prize winners will have access to training, mentoring, and one-on-one consulting with business experts. We will offer technical assistance across a range of business disciplines including enterprise formation/legal/intellectual property, finance and accounting, brand management and public relations.

 The idea is to provide the winning artists with a tool kit that enables them to create value out of their work, and build brands or access skills to educate others. The prize winner and runners-up will be paired with a volunteer artist mentor and encouraged to produce further work which will be displayed solo or group exhibitions.

Isn’t there a lack of understanding about the value of copyright and doesn’t it make it harder for artist to make a living?

Absolutely! The current legal parameters make it difficult for artists to earn a living from royalties or to punish abusers of artists’ copyrights. We aim to educate our winning artists on understanding these issues and to be able to sell, for example, a particular physical piece but not the copyright to the work.

Through the annual prize, the trustees will focus on challenging Ghanaian artists to produce art that meets international quality standards. We will encourage manufacturers of greeting cards and related giftware to consider using images of Ghanaian art and encourage a practice where artists are paid a copyright fee. 

How much support have you had from established artists and institutions?

The Ghanaian art community has responded with resounding approval and support. The established artists, especially Kofi Agorsor, have thrown their weight behind the Prize. 

I have been touched by the generosity of the established artists who have agreed to mentor these artists - everyone from Kofi Agorsor to Godfried Donkor to Rikki Wemegah.

Ultimately, our aim is to partner with universities and polytechnics, artists organisations such as the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and Ghana Association of Visual Artists, art institutes and galleries such as the Loom, Dei Centre, Nubuke, Artist Alliance, the National Museum and private collectors, foundations and festivals such as the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, to raise the profile.

Road Safety by shortlisted candidate Isshaq Ismail

Is there any restriction on who can enter?
To be considered for the competition, artists need to upload 10 images of their works (including one which is the competing work) and to submit a written statement of motivation and a CV.

Long term, the vision is for it to become a pan-African art prize so any African in Africa or in the diaspora can compete.

For the 2015 prize, eligibility is restricted to Ghanaian citizens aged between 25 and 40 who were born, live or work there or who have Ghanaian parents. We anticipate that we will open it up to Ghanaians in the diaspora in the next couple of years. 

It may be too late to enter this year’s event but there is still time to see the 10 shortlisted pieces at a pop-up gallery in Labone before the winner and runners-up are announced on 9 April. Shortlisted candidates' work will be on show until the end of March and brings together a myriad of artistic styles from the more traditional painting and carving techniques to digital and graffiti pieces.

For more blogs on art, check:
MisBeee 123: London illustrator Lee gets creative

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