Advertisement

Godfried Donkor

Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana

The centrepiece of British-Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor’s exhibition is the titular nine-panel oil and acrylic painting, The First Day of the Yam Custom, 1817 (2017). Produced in Accra, the ten-metre-long work is an ambitious elaboration of Donkor’s preoccupations as an artist. Throughout his career, he has mined various print archives for historical images of blackness. Retrieval is not his sole imperative: Donkor is interested in iconicity, in what constitutes a pop image. His vivid paintings and collages have variously portrayed haloed black footballers and boxers, including Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond – freed American slaves who achieved great acclaim in the UK in the 19th century.

All Donkor’s appropriations have  involved some form of creative translation and amplification – in physical scale and metaphorical significance – of the original engravings and photographs. The First Day of the Yam Custom: 1817 is based on a modest foldout engraving in British colonial explorer and scientist T.E. Bowdich’s book Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (1819). The engraving was produced in 1818 by printmaker Robert Havell Sr. using an original drawing by Bowdich as reference. Donkor’s painting, therefore, is not a straightforward historical description, but involves cumulative layers of translation: it is a scaled-up copy of a reproduction of a drawing based on a remembered event.

web_godfried-donkor-anokyes-dance-i-2017.jpg

Godfried Donkor, Anokye's Dance I, 2017. Collage on paper, 70 x 120 cm. Courtesy: Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, © the artist

Godfried Donkor, Anokye's Dance I, 2017. Collage on paper, 70 x 120 cm. Courtesy: Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, © the artist

In 1817, Bowdich, an employee of the African Company of Merchants in present-day Ghana, was sent to Kumasi, the royal seat of the powerful Ashanti Empire, to negotiate a treaty with its ruler, Osei Bonsu. Bowdich spent roughly five months in Kumasi. During his stay, he attended the annual yam festival, an important social and political event held in September when this edible tuber ripens. His meticulous verbal and visual description of the festival was the earliest western record of the complex rituals of authority, citizenship, pageantry and patronage in the Ashanti Empire.

Bowdich wrote of the festival: ‘The number, splendour and variety of arriv-als, thronging from the different paths, was as astonishing as entertaining.’ Donkor’s vast tableau, which richly deploys his signature gold leaf, successfully monumentalizes this pageantry with the minimum of painterly exertion. The many people packing the scene are simply described. It is nonetheless easy to pick out the military figures, noblemen, musicians, slave traders  and visiting emissaries – including Bowdich and his two companions –  as well as a group of ‘Moors’ wearing ‘preposterous turbans’ standing beneath an umbrella topped with a crescent symbol. At the centre of the composition, seated beneath a red umbrella capped with a gold elephant, is the king, his right hand raised as he receives an oath from a military captain. The king is flanked by the flag of Great Britain, as well as those of Holland and Denmark, a detail that now reads as an augury: the first Anglo-Ashanti war broke out six years later.

web_godfried-donkor-the-first-day-of-the-yam-custom-1817-installation-view-at-gallery-1957-accra.jpg

Godfried Donkor, The First Day of the Yam Custom, 1817, installation view at Gallery 1957, Accra. Courtesy; Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, © the artist; photograph: Nii Odzenm

Godfried Donkor, The First Day of the Yam Custom, 1817, installation view at Gallery 1957, Accra. Courtesy; Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, © the artist; photograph: Nii Odzenm

Donkor’s exhibition, which has  been curated by Koyo Kouoh, further includes three oil and acrylic portraits  of individual Ashanti war captains, their elaborate uniforms a ‘blaze of splendour and ostentation’, to quote Bowdich. Ten new collages juxtapose Bowdich’s historical graphics with contemporary photographs of the yam festival. Eight of these use stock pages from The Financial Times as a ground, a found material that Donkor has successfully used since the early 2000s to highlight underlying themes of trade and bondage in his work. The installation includes an untitled stool covered in gold leaf and displayed on  a fabric-draped plinth in front of Donkor’s large painting. The stool, a royal symbol and sacred representation of the Ashanti nation, underscores the heft of the panel painting, which reclaims an ur-image of pre-colonial Ghanaian society to assert contemporary pride and optimism.

Main image: Godfried Donkor, The First Day of the Yam Custom, 1817, 2017, (detail), oil, acrylic and gold leaf on nine wood panels, 1.2 × 2.4 m each. Courtesy: Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, © the artist

Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor living in Cape Town, South Africa. He contributed an essay to David Goldblatt’s updated 2016 Steidl edition of In Boksburg (1982).

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018
Advertisement

Most Read

The whisteblower and former intelligence analyst will speak on algorithms’s impact on democracy, LGBTQ rights and...
The arrest of the photojournalist for ‘provocative comments’ over Dhaka protests makes clear that personal liberty...
The auction house insists that there is a broad scholarly consensus that the record-breaking artwork be attributed to...
‘We need more advocates across gender lines and emphatic leaders in museums and galleries to create inclusive,...
In further news: artists rally behind detained photographer Shahidul Alam; crisis talks at London museums following...
Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018