I have always had the temperament of a solitary artist, secluded in my space, hidden from the world when I paint. But when Janet Braun-Reinitz, one of New York City’s most renowned muralists, asked me to join her small art group on a trip to Ghana, Africa in the summer of 2011, I said yes without thinking. Admittedly, I was apprehensive; but, in hindsight I made the right decision. The experience was not only humbling and visually poetic, but it also influenced my pedagogical practice in the United States.
We were to be attendants of the 2nd Kumasi Biennial Symposium: Community Arts in Focus, July 16th – August 6th, 2011, held in Kumasi and the nearby village of Abetenim in Ashanti Region of Ghana, Africa. During this gathering of international participants, organized by CeCASt, Nka foundation[i], the symposium sought to address the widening gap between contemporary African artists and the community.
Barthosa Nkurumeh, PhD Nka Foundation’s Project Director, believes that there is an obvious social disconnection between the two and that the fine arts and traditional craft are viewed the same by the general public, including deep in the village. “How can we”, he said, “meaningfully engage the rural sub-Saharan population in the contemporary artistic process[ii]? We intended to address this question by creating a mural that represented the village culture. But unbeknownst to our group, the village community would inspire changes in our preliminary sketches and become a powerful part of our process, project and practice. Ultimately, this strategy became one solution for closing the gap.
The pungent red soil welcomed our footsteps as we walked along with the chief, his delegates and the entire village as they led the dancing and singing to a spectacular affair in the village of Abetenim. We visited the chief’s palace to seek permission and approval to paint a mural on an arts building (being built by other artists and community volunteers) footsteps away from the hub of the village. Permission was granted. The chief of the village was excited that we wanted to beautify his village. Janet Braun-Reintz, Dr. Rikki Asher (Professor at Queens College, NYC), Sondra Santoni (Janet’s assistant) and myself, made up this community of artists in residence within the community village of Abetenim, where we lived for almost a month.
The preliminary sketches were done in New York City for the mural before our trip. In Ghana, the images changed as we began to realize that the villages would be disconnected from the content and subject matter; the villagers bore no resemblance to the mural images: political figure with a raised hand. To encourage a communal bond, engage the villagers, and ultimately, connect with the local community we decided to include portraits of the villagers themselves with the chief being the focal point in the mural. In the final design, portraits of Nana Kraah and Benjamin (the oldest villager and a teenage boy) and the chief Nana Owusu Ababio became the focus.
This was acceptable to the chief and its significance created a sense of empowerment, pride and ownership among the villagers. By allowing the rural village community of Abetenim to become affiliated with our contemporary artistic practice we opened up the dialogue through verbal and visual conversations, which cemented the desired communal bond.
The process of collaboration between a community and a committee of professional artists was very taxing, and sometimes reaching a consensus among creative minds was trying and difficult. Nevertheless, the merging of the mural group and the villagers needed to be our main objective if social change and empowerment were to take place. As a result, the painted signatures and smiling faces on the wall became our communal bond and life-long connection. We further incorporated Adinkra[iii] symbols on the walls of the arts center and on the villages’ houses. The painting of these colorful symbols exuded cultural pride and a sense of belonging and connection to the village community.
The children of Abetenim were the links that created that powerful bond. Their curiosity propelled them to create their own arts community right in the shadows of our mural group. Many of the older children joined our group as painters, and assistants. The younger ones were given art materials and they drew and painted their own versions of reality. Their hunger for approval and their persistence graced our worksite every day from morning to night and became that cross-cultural engagement and empowerment that is vital in community arts practice.
Back in New York City, I continue the mural process and the community arts practice with the students of The High School of Fashion Industries. Janet Braun-Reinitz welcomed the idea. With the approval and support of the Assistant Principal Ms. Kate Boulamaali and the principal Mr. Daryl Blank, a small independent mural group was formed. Students from all three majors participated as an after school program sponsored by The High school of Fashion and Arts Connection[iv].
The arts community within the school community met twice per week after school with both Janet and I. They brainstormed ideas and came up with New York City as a theme. They were taught techniques of silhouette art (similar to the technique we used in Ghana) graphing, gridding, color theory, composition, intense color mixing and most of all tolerance, perseverance and problem solving. The objective was similar to the group in Ghana, to create public art with the collaboration of community. The murals greet visitors and the school community as it is displayed in the entrance of the school.
This was my first experience working on a mural on such a large scale and painting in a public space. The uplifting of a rural village in Ghana and a high school in New York City, through building and merging communities exposed me to new ways of seeing both as an artist and as a teacher. But my ultimate inspiration came from the enthusiasm and the hunger for art by the children of Abetenim. I will be telling this story, and many others from my trip, in future ALT/space posts.
Nka Foundation was established as a network of Arts Village and arts-based community projects in Africa and other industrially developing parts of the globe. In 2009, it was incorporated as a non-profit seeking company under the laws of the Republic of Ghana to carry on the work of bringing together motivated creative individuals in arts and technology, arts groups and supportive others to create cross-cultural synergy for community arts practice and infrastructure.
[ii] According to Nkurumeh, contemporary, therein is not used in the sense of “what is now” that is, “what is of common currency” within the discipline. By “Contemporary artistic” I imply, modern ways of creating and appreciating art, which at most is different from the region’s indigenous/traditional artistic modes. Some African scholars prefer use of the term “the old” and “the new” to refer the traditional and the modern African ways of knowing and doing. The ”the new” refers to the contemporary.
[iii] Adinkra are visual symbols, originally created by the Akan of Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, that represent concepts or aphorisms. Adinkra are used extensively in fabrics, pottery, logos and advertising. They are incorporated into walls and other architectural features. The symbols have a decorative function, but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life, or the environment.
[iv] ArtsConnection was founded in 1979 through collaboration between the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York City Youth Bureau, and the New York City Board of Education. This founding partnership, along with the commitment to creativity and excellence from our teaching artists and schools, has been integral to our success.