The deadly use of force by some police officers on citizens in some parts of the world has reinvigorated an alarming situation about police brutality and rascism. The world has experienced this inhuman act and this continues to affect the blacks largely. The police have killed and violated the rights of people at similar rates to past years. In a bid to close the docket to this systemic racism, one of Ghana’s finest artist, Emmanuel Kwabena Lartey brings these images of brutalized souls back to life. I recently got the chance to speak with Emmanuel Kwabena Lartey, artist at Noldor Artist Residency in Ghana, to discuss his journey across this unique and creative images and how they informed his vision.
Akosua: What was growing up like for you?
Kwabena: You know, when we talk about life in Ashiaman, the first thing that comes to mind of most people in our country is “the-street-rascal-life”. I grew up there and lived with my four siblings and parents. At age 15, I lost my dad and I was raised single-handed by my mum. Life in the “zongo” was not an easy task at all. Any time I mention the place most people get the impression “oh, he is a stubborn person”. But because I love what I do which is art, I stayed focused and worked assiduously to change that mindset. After my Dad passed on, I had no one to lend a helping hand and I helped my mum to sell Banku with Fish. I sometimes accompany her to the market to buy foodstuffs and help us to set up. In fact, she is the reason behind my passion for art which has nurtured into something this big.
Akosua: Talking about Passion for Art, how did your entrepreneurial journey begin?
Kwabena: I started my primary school at St. John’s Academy in Ashiaman. Before senior High school, I decided not to go to school for a while and all I did was to roam in Ashiaman with the street boys. I have followed a lot of bad guys in the heart of Ashiaman but thankfully, I didn’t grow up to be like them. My mum pushed me to have my secondary education now called the Senior high school in the Volta Region at Kpando Senior High, where I studied Visual Arts.
I moved to Takoradi Technical University, 2017, with the Faculty of Painting and Decoration. In Junior High School, I used to draw a lot in social studies class and there was one teacher called Mr Kartey, who encouraged me to take painting and drawing seriously. I think the natural progression from that was to follow my passion, and that has always been art, African contemporary art, specifically. So one day he advised me to mainly focus on it and I had this strong urge to continue in the senior high school. I have always had this unique affinity for contemporary art.
Akosua: Specifically what do you mostly focus in the art industry? Is there a particular reason for your specifications?
Kwabena: Artist are often perceived as a bit “different” from ordinary people. Sometimes those of us who paint, draw, use charcoal or create art using different mediums are mostly inspired by things that others never notice, or think of as ordinary. For those of us who are gifted with artistic talent, the world sometimes takes on a life of its own when your imagination is full of wonder and your creativity is just waiting to come out on a blank canvas. My practice focuses on the effects of violence-led social injustice and its limitation on black identity. My use of biomorphic shapes are seen metaphorically to obscure or hide the full essence of the contorted black faces depicted. There have been a lot of police brutality, killing, and violation of rights that goes around. Issues of this nature saddens my heart and makes me want to add my voice to the protest. I mean none of us would like to go through such a painful moment in the hands of officers; molesting and violating our rights as people. I just use my art to educate and tell a story through these obscure images.
Akosua: Honestly, I was taken aback when I chanced on these obscure images. Some look very scary and engaging. How does it feel like retelling this story in your own unique way?
Kwabena: I refer to it as “The Unknown”. So I focus on African black faces and dead people (those who were brutalized by the police). It is actually an inhuman act and makes us feel unsafe as people. Not too long ago, An African American was shot dead at point-blank range and many others have been taken by the people who are to be protecting us. That’s the reason for this paintings you see.
Myself at Noldor Artist Residency with the incredible Kwabena Lartey.
Akosua: You mentioned it is important to work assiduously and make a living out of what you do. How is the funding going with these images? Is it worth it?
Kwabena: I used to paint rooms and more into structural paintings. So I move from one place to the other to paint structures aside working on these obscure images. Of course, in as much as these are obscure images of brutalized people, lovers of creatives fancy seeing it. Remember that not everyone has that “eye” for art. My mum always gets furious with paintings like this because she sees no reason for these- my paintings are very scary. She sometimes walks into my room and tilts the paint and says “I am tired of seeing this and I don’t know who is buying them”.
Kwabena: Before Noldor Residency, I was very depressed with naggings from my mum and I left home to clear my mind for some time. An uncle of mine introduced me to a biscuit factory. There, I worked as a maintenance artisan and a painter in the factory and doing other menial works too. I stayed focused in the factory and I was moved from my field to shop keeping at the same factory.
I used to sketch a lot in there and that was where my maintenance supervisor, Marc Yar3d saw my art and encouraged me not to stay here with my talent and skills. So that is where my transition started. Noldor Residency was founded by Joseph Awuah-Darko and I am here as one of Ghana’s emerging African Artist together with other stupendous artist. This residency is committed to nurturing African artist’ creative process, while acting as a pillar for introduction and development of an art scene.
At Noldor, there are in-house data managers and artist liaison for each artist who equip us with logistic tools and they help to build our visual language, they help to market our works, create a spot for exhibitions where people from all walks of life come to appreciate what we do. I must confess that Noldor has really had a great impact in my life and kudos to these people Joseph Awuah-Darko, the founder of Noldor Residency, Rita Mawuena Benissan, the curator who helps me with most of my research work; my mentors Obed Addo and Emmanuel Adiamah who have contributed immensely in this journey of mine.
Akosua: How is spatial painting different from canvas painting?
Kwabena: Aside Painting, I also work on spatial designs which is more of interior or structural painting. Structural painting is more of painting and designing of buildings and rooms and painting on canvas is having a material or a support on which you showcase everything you have in mind. So I do a lot of reading and research work before I start my art work. In working, I go with the guys in Ashiaman who aren’t doing anything worthwhile to help me with some of my works and I give them a cut.
Akosua: oh you have a good soul! Any wishes and how would you want this to go far?
Kwabena: I have been painting for six years and I wish my works will be found in museums and places I don’t expect. I also wish I have a lot so I can help people to develop themselves just like me and more like me.
Akosua: Any Philosophy that has kept you going?
Kwabena:I strongly believe that the destiny of a man lies in the hands of God. whatever you do, remember there are eyes watching so just put in your best effort and work at it!
Some of Kwabena’s works
he was able to find small moments to create hyper-realistic drawings and paintings which now remain in his archives.
“The heavy hearted“
Akosua Amoni & Kwabena Lartey