Digital dimensions: Ghanaian illustrators test boundaries in contemporary art

Ghanaian artists can face an uphill struggle attaining national recognition for their work. Although there is a visual appreciation of the craft, often art in Ghana is viewed as indulgent, expensive and not an acceptable career choice. As a result, some artists leave the country in order to further their careers, while others opt to find more stable job alternatives. But there is a new wave of Ghanaian talent that is helping to popularise and change attitudes to art in Ghana - all from the comfort of their homes.

'Cursed Ones' actress Ama K Abebrese by Danny Arthur-Baidoo
Ghanaian digital illustrator heavyweights such as Ray Styles and Bright Ackwerh, are combining drawing skills, digital techniques and social media to target audiences with global influence, money and a love of art. This relatively recent trend has helped popularise celebrity caricatures that use satirical pieces to highlight social and political commentary.
Digital illustration has been around in Ghana for at least a decade.

But developments in graphic design tablets such as Japanese-made Wacom and Canadian illustration software such as Corel, are helping to improve the quality of digital art. The more recent growth of social media and android handset usage has also helped to propel emerging artists into the public domain.

According to online data source Internet World Stats, Ghana’s internet usage jumped from 30,000 by 31 December 2000 to 5.2million by 30 November 2015. Facebook usage in Ghana was 2.9m, making the country the 7th most active user out of the 58 countries and territories classed under the African continent.
But does this increased exposure translate into better public appreciation of Ghanaian art? And is there a greater willingness from the public to pay for it? MisBeee speaks to some emerging and established artists to find out their views.

Twenty-two year-old Takoradi Polytechnic graduate Daniel Arthur-Baidoo is a qualified graphic designer, who branched into digital illustration two years. He specialises in caricatures and portraits and was motivated to draw more after receiving positive feedback on Facebook from friends and family.
Being on social media exposed him to a burgeoning network of local Ghanaian artists. In this forum, he can share ideas and learn from other artists. It is through these associations that he secured a design contract with London-based company Zipped Multimedia UK.
Etornam Qwame

But Arthur-Baidoo is not alone. Graphic design students Etornam Qwame, and Kobby Andrew - also from the same polytechnic - credit Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for helping them to market and sell their work.
Digital illustration offers obvious appeal as artists can produce pieces quickly. Even though Qwame can create illustrations using the traditional paper and pencil format, he prefers the convenience that digital illustration offers him.

“It is good to know the digital aspect because the world is moving on,” the 21-year-old said. “I was finding that after using pencil and paper to illustrate something, people would want to receive it in a digital format, which meant I ended up scanning it. So it was easier to use a pen tool – like a pressure sensitive tablet – that allows you to draw straight on to the computer and print it straight onto a canvas.”

Arthur-Baidoo, Qwame and Andrew credit YouTube in helping to boost their illustration skills. 
Kobby Andrew Illustration
“We don’t learn digital illustration at my polytechnic,” said Qwame. “In my class, we group together and practise using YouTube. A high proportion of youth nowadays learn faster from using the internet.”  

But some of these benefits also come with their disadvantages. “It leads people to think that you are just scanning images and adding effects,” said Arthur-Baidoo, who is also trained in traditional pencil and paper illustration.
"You still need to have mastered the foundations of traditional drawing to be able to do digital illustration," said 25-year-old Akwasi Boateng aka SarBoat. – a graduate from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). "If you don't have those foundations, you'll struggle to get it right." Boateng has six years of illustration experience and in 2015 was nominated in the artist extraordinaire category of the Ghana UK Based Achievement (GUBA) Awards.  
Biggie Smalls by SarBoat
Some illustrators such as Kwartelai aka Daniel Tawia Quartey, believe the digital form has helped to enhance their skill set. The 21-year-old, who is studying graphic design at Radford University College, Accra, describes his art style as a combination of manga and African art.

"I used to do a lot of pen drawing and less painting," he said," but when I went digital, I was forced to start working with colours and learned a lot from that. I am still learning."

Qwame believes this assumption about the skill and effort used in digital art affects how much illustrators are able to charge. “Some do not realise the amount of work involved and then don’t want to pay you as a result,” he said.
But these attitudes are not just the preserve of digital illustrators. Raphael Tetteh, who paints oil portraits of people and animals, started his art career in Ghana 15 years ago. Tetteh works full time as a painter under the company name Magicstix Art. He chose to leave for the UK in the last few years partly because although people liked what he did, they would complain about the price.

Since moving abroad, issues of price have been less of a challenge, which begs the question.... how is art perceived by the average Ghanaian?
"From my perspective, Ghanaians are more attracted to art that relates to real life situations or things they can relate to," said Kwartelai. "So if you are an artist who does this kind of art they will recognise you. Then again, if you are the type that illustrates based on personal inspiration, just a few people and art lovers in your field are able to relate."

For Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia, the popularity of digital illustration is largely because this type of art resonates with the artist's primary audience - "the tech savvy cartoon and comics generation that grew up watching cartoons such as Captain Planet, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo and Batman," he said. Kuenyehia is the founder of annual Ghanaian art competition the Kuenyehia Prize.

Social media has helped to extend that audience but the ease with which digital illustrations can be copied and shared raises issues of authenticity, which in Kuenyehia's view, could further devalue the art. "Social media reinforces the notion that art [digital art in this case] is/should be free and that is one of the manifestations of the “lack of appreciation,” he said.

Improving perceptions of Ghanaian art and its value is something that Kuenyehia is pushing for. He established the Kuenyehia Prize in 2014 in a bid to identify, reward and help develop Ghana’s most outstanding artists aged between 25 and 40. 

One of its most recent winners in April 2016 was KNUST graduate Bright Ackwerh. Ackwerh uses both traditional and digital forms of illustration and "found a huge audience, especially on social media, where he uses his art to push discussion on delicate issues", the Prize's website says.

2016 Kuenyehia Prize winner Bright Ackwerh with
Tweaa room: Confrontation

Among the Prize's advocates is world renowned Ghanaian sculptor Professor Emeritus El Anatsui who was part of the jury. 
Ackwerh's affiliation to the Prize, is likely to support the other essential side of promoting Ghanaian art. That being boosting the appreciation aspect and turning that appreciation into monetary sales. 

The hope is that Ghanaian audiences and artists alike will capitalise on this current trend and support emerging talent - keen to pursue careers in animation, or establish their own art galleries - with the means to do so.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

To find out more about the artists and illustrators featured, click below
Bright Tetteh Ackwerh
Danny Arthurz Creative Empire
Etornam Qwame
Kobby Andrew Illustration
Raphael Tetteh - Magicstix Art
SarBoat Designs

For more posts like this, check out 'Made in Ghana - the art of promoting home-grown talent'.

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