The fourth New York edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair kicks off on May 3rd, returning to Pioneer Works, one of Brooklyn’s most avant-garde cultural centers. Building on the successful February launch of the Marrakesh edition, the 2018 New York edition will present 21 galleries from all over Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Europe, but the core messaging remains about what founder Touria El Glaoui calls her mission to “enrich contemporary arts across Africa and the diaspora.”
This year, my first port of call will be the Gallery 1957 booth. The Accra-based gallery—always one of my favorite pit stops when I am in Ghana—is showing works by Gideon Appah, within what it calls “an immersive recreation of the artist’s grandmother’s Accra-based home.” Appah, who in the past made some interesting work with salvaged objects, has been compared to a young Oscar Murillo, yet several of his critics felt that some of his previous artworks were derivative of Basquiat. In Memoirs Through Pokua’s Window, Gideon uses blues, greens and charcoal, placing typical domestic interiors from 1980s and 1990s Ghana against elaborate landscapes without falling into the traps of obvious nostalgia.
Over the last two years, I have had several conversations with Gallery 1957 founder Marwan Zakhem, most of them relating to the cultural cues leading to his gallery shows. I was really impressed by recent shows by Yaw Owusu, Zohra Opoku, Serge Attukwei Clottey and Modupeola Fadugba, but the advance images I was sent for Gideon Appah speak to an entirely different sensibility and set of evolutions.
“I’ve known Gideon for nearly three years now and have always been a fan of his work,” said Zakhem in a recent email interview. “His new body of work is, in my opinion, the young artists coming of age, and while he is still very young, especially in terms of artist years, these works show a certain maturing. His earlier works I found were overworked or overthought, and as a young artist obviously heavily influenced by other artists. His newest works show more confidence in his own style, with simple monochromatic colour used in layered textures to provide vibrant evocative paintings. The idea of presenting his work as a site-specific installation by recreating his family home was an idea that came to me almost immediately after seeing his works at Nubuke Foundation last year. That was when I approached Gideon to collaborate, and we decided to exhibit at 1-54 New York.”
In essence, Gallery 1957 is welcoming visitors into a recreation of Appah’s family home in Accra. I asked Appah how growing up in a large Ghanaian family affected his approach to creation. “I grew up in an extended family setting,” he said. “Family members, family friends, close neighbours and religious leaders, they all played a big role. As a child growing up, I was exposed to religious and societal activities and beliefs, which we understood. It passed on from family to family. My grandmother served as a certain kind of spiritual or religious leader to the Christian faith and that carried on for a number of years.”
I was immediately drawn to a particular type of West Africa syncretism I thought I’d detected in Appah’s work, and I may not have been wrong. “I remember one major activity that would happen when any of us should fall sick,” he explained. “She called it a ‘spiritual bath’. She would use a local wooden sponge, which we called ‘sapor’, local soap (‘alata samina’), and water. So then if I were sick, I would be on my knees with a bucket of water in front of me. My grandmother would then light a candle and pass over it over the water, allowing the wax to drip into it. She does this around my head seven times clockwise, and seven times anticlockwise and recites these words which I remember vividly: ‘Alabisaa… Alabilabisaa…’ It was a kind of spiritual invocation. She then baths you with the soap and sponge, rinsing and then smearing shear butter all over your body. And believe me or not, it worked.”
Religion was a big part of the rituals. “There is a straight line between physical activities, service and the spiritual—what we can’t see but perceive to exist. Visions and dreams become that kind of spiritual connection to the physical. Being able to perceive in the spiritual what will happen in the future is commonplace, especially when you grow up understanding this strange phenomenon. My mother is a dreamer who communicates what she sees and hears.”
Appah says that his works are very much a result of a continuous strange imagining of a non-existent world, with a need to find answers, recreate that space, and to give new life within the paintings. The rivers and monochromatic fields, emotional nature, and settings of choice of colours are the elements that give him that nostalgic feeling of growing up. “The spaces which I paint my subjects within are not related to the original spaces in the photographs which I have collected, but rather the subjects give the space a new life or an exaggerated phenomenon or situation. The photographs and the installation are stereotypical representations of a middle-class Ghanaian home—either the living apartment, which in Akuapem dialect is pronounced ‘asaso’, or the kitchen as ‘mukaase’.”
As a child, he was exposed to charcoal. Appah’s family didn’t have gas in their home at that time, so his grandmother would buy these huge sacks of charcoal for cooking. Because there would be lots of it around, Appah remembers creating line drawings around the home, drawing basic shapes. “It is that kind of infantile style of drawing that I try to replicate on paper. That innocence of expression with simple lines within the items in the home such as plants and pots. In some of the drawings, you can see photographic prints. This adds memorable depth to the narrative of the story.”
In a deliberate decorative choice, photographs were mostly mounted on wooden curtain frames, sitting just above the windows and doors in the interior of the house. “Colours such as blues, greens, and violets were mostly favoured as the ‘cool colours’ for rooms, whilst hot pinks, oranges and yellows were preferred for the porches. These were communicated as the urban colours of this time. Many of my works are landscapes and figurative paintings, including portraits of members in my extended family, and strangers found within photo albums, inspired by old photographs found in an album belonging to my mom with images ranging from 20 to 50 years ago.”
1:54 is at Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, May 4-6