To his thirty-seven thousand followers on Instagram, he has opened a digital window into his mind, projecting through his art themes of recycling, migration, property conflict due to improper documentation and a return to the past to properly understand the present.
In the years since archaeology was accepted as a respectable science, and archeologists have continued to garner recognition for their work, one of the many striking ways of studying the sophistication of ancient civilisations and societies has been their interest in art, and their progressive developments of the arts. In certain instances, it has been in the ways they were able to turn ordinary clay or much sophisticated metals to timeless masterpieces. From rock paintings to skyscrapers, it is impossible to have a society that has not been blessed with artists. From record keeping to the psychedelic experiences their works provide, artists are reflections of history, the present and, in many ways, predict or design the future.
Ghana has a non-exhaustive list of artists. In fact, artists have been one of Ghana’s major exports, and this is not a 2023 phenomenon. From the making of kente to the making of cars, there is a Ghanaian for any art form known to man. Fortunately, in recent years, Ghanaian artists have begun to gain more international recognition and increased local respect. Sincerely, I love this for us. For so long the misconception that artists are unserious, unsure of their place in the world, and just people who are not as intelligent or as important as the “science students” has been an albatross around the necks of this very talented, very focused and very important members of our society. So it is with great joy that I type this, having spent part of the day with the artist who has indeed mastered his own craft, Afrogallonism. Sergei Attukwei Clottey, Afrogallonism, born to a father who was an artist and surrounded by other relatives who were into diverse forms of creativity, had both feet dipped in creativity before he could walk.
Arriving at the Afrogallonism Studio at the heart of Labadi Maami for our 12 pm meeting, I was met by a team of young men in various processes of cutting copper wires into three to four inches, linking neat square pieces of yellow gallons with the copper wires till they were long strips of variable yellows. Inside one of the rooms, other members of this silent crew were chopping up gallons into precise one to two-inch squares. Out there in the courtyard where the chopping up of copper wires and stringing together pieces of gallons was going on, the captain of this ship, and some of his crew, were working on a new concept he had imagined and was already piecing together. This was something for a fashion event he was trying to add to his long list of communal participation art. Standing around the table with them, I tried to look at the pieces on the table through their eyes, the checkered fabric that had been cut into a silhouette of a person, and the face cutouts from old banners around his community which were meant to be additions to the silhouette. Giving them life and personality.
When we eventually got to sit in this studio that is actually a two-hundred year old family house, which has seen various renovations done to it decades and decades after, I wasn’t sure I still needed to conduct an interview. I had seen more than enough in the ten minutes since I arrived. In 2010 when he had needed to model for Exopa so he could afford some of the basic necessities for his art, it would have been almost impossible to imagine this level of growth, celebrity and investments in the lives of those in his community, and his immense contribution to art in Ghana. Then, he hadn’t been as exposed to the reality that certain artists worked with a crew. Instead he had been an army of one, at some point taking almost a year to finish a piece that now takes about a month with his crew.
To his thirty-seven thousand followers on Instagram, he has opened a digital window into his mind, projecting through his art themes of recycling, migration, property conflict due to improper documentation and a return to the past to properly understand the present. Being that these are unproblematic themes that are relevant today as they were decades ago, and will always be, his international recognition owing to the art houses, events and commissions in Europe, the Middle East and America that keep him jet setting the world, has also become a cause of worry to him. Being the hand on the rudder, how will this ship sail as best as it can if he isn’t physically present a lot of the time? A lot of his support has come from this crew of mostly young men and a few women, some of whom have been with him for a decade.
This crew can be as thin as seventeen people, or fatten to thirty-plus, depending on the scale or the direction of his creativity. Young and old throw themselves into his creative process, possessing the process and the result as theirs. “I have a good crew,” he said more than once, admiration in his eyes as he watched as they made invaluable contributions to his work.
This 18th International Architecture edition of the Biennale, which will be held in Venice by November of this year, will be the first time he has been invited to the event. What stands out to him aside from the invitation is the centering of the event on architecture. With the crisis of homelessness turning into a pandemic that is robbing people of their basic rights and freedoms, his next foray would be into architecture. Unsurprisingly, the idea came to him from one of the volunteers in his community who had told him he could be making good use of his gallon pieces if he pieced them into houses. In Desert X California, a little before this idea was shared with him, he had built his gallon pieces into large cubed structures. Thousands of very small square gallon pieces linked by yards and yards of copper wire. With the coming Biennale, he believes this could be confirmation he needs to go all out and make a lasting impact on architecture and the future of homes. To start this, he has this idea of creating a functional cube home to house people for a few weeks, while documenting their experiences in them.
Indefatigable in his pursuits for more things to try, other art forms to master, his London installation, Tribe and Tribulations, presented an opportunity to use sound instead of paintbrush and paint, or gallons and copper wire. “I am interested in migration…now in the sense of sound…my installation in London – Tribe and Tribulation – focused on how sound can be used as an archival tool. What happened 400 years ago during the peak of slavery…I went to all the forts in Ghana built by the British, and from 5am to 6am I recorded the sounds within those forts…the sound of the spaces. There aren’t many recordings from those times to capture the struggle of the enslaved people, and the ridicule and abuse they were dealt. These recordings couldn’t capture those nasty experiences, but they did bring a semblance of life to those forts, revisiting the sounds that haven’t changed as much all these years, and providing depth for the understandings we might have about those times”. Each recording was placed in one of four different boxes, and each wood used to make the boxes were picked from the localities where the forts were built or are situated. Taking inspiration from the wooden boxes that were for hundreds of years used to transport teas from Asia to the UK, he created similar boxes. But this time to transport sounds from the Motherland to the UK. Today, stacked on each other, and connected to electricity to play for two years, are these four wooden boxes replaying on loop sounds from forts that had once been symbols of English strength and their stranglehold on one of Africa’s most resilient nations – as in many other part of Africa, and the world. With the River Thames in the background, the voices of people speaking various Ghanaian languages – Fante, Twi, Ga – waking up to start their day, fishermen pulling their nets to secure their catch, cocks crowing and the sea giving a resounding majestic roar, can be heard from behind the O2 Arena. “It was also based on research. I had to go to the Greenwich Museum for two weeks for my research into that period, spending time in their library. When you get to the British Museum they have been able to archive plants from their former colonies, clothes worn during those times, spoons and other utensils used, even teddy bears – preserved under certain atmospheric conditions to avoid or slow the process of deterioration. In contrast, the state of our museums here are very depressing”. Clearly, one of the major strengths of the ex-colonisers was and is in their ability to preserve history, which is something that is still remote in today’s Ghanaian society.
Over a decade of doing what he does and getting good at it and much recognition for his work, as demanding as each creation is, needing the support of his community, Sergei cannot shake off the realisation that art is not just a hobby; it is responsibility. “I am always in search of what I could do next, and I am yet to find it. I feel that the more I get to travel, the more I get to do different projects, my curiosity and hunger to do more only increases. Every idea that I have I have to execute them, and be consistent in getting better at them. Now I am interested in creating a fashion brand; a brand inspired by my art and the community engagement that drives and cushions my work. Observing this community there are specific brands that people patronise, no matter how expensive or cheap. Some of these brands you will find in the ocean. I had an installation in Miami two years ago centered on fast fashion and the migration of clothes and accessories made by popular brands ending up at the shores of some of the beaches down here, thousands of miles from their place of origin. Do those brands think about the afterlife of their products, what happens to them when they have served their purpose?”. With this intention to add a fashion brand to his portfolio is the birth of Attukwei Montana, the name of his fashion brand. A documentary has already been planned to follow the development of this idea into something tangible and ownable.
For every installation, piece of art or ongoing project by Afrogallonism, there is a community that is involved, stands behind and beside him, and knows their contributions don’t just matter but also elevates the ethos of their community, while inspiring the next generation of artists.
Some parts of our conversation required that I was sworn to secrecy about certain commission projects and some personal plans and projects. However the most I can say is that the year 2023 could really be one of his best years, if not the best. By extension, Ghana’s place on the international art scene is getting more cemented with its roots reaching deeper into the earth and its branches spreading toward the heavens.
@Afrogallonism on Instagram