By Rhoda Woets “Sarenco is mafia,” said painter Almighty God (b. 1950) while he grabbed my arm and pulled me towards a black and white painting in the back of his workshop, “he also cheated other African artists.” We are in Almighty God’s extended open-air workshop at Suame junction, one of Kumasi’s jammed thoroughfares where an unremitting stream of cars and buses head further up North. A strategically positioned painting of a human figure, covered in blood, warns drivers on their way to the junction with the words “drive with care, over speeding kills.” During an enchanting tour among vivid paintings nailed to the white walls, palisades and wooden structures in his workshop, Almighty God told me that Sarenco owed him 4,200 dollars (US). But the contemporary African art “specialist” Sarenco never answered his phone calls; how should Almighty get his precious money back – all the way from Italy to Ghana? To underscore what he had just said, Almighty God pulled out his phone to dial Sarenco’s number in Italy once more. And indeed, no answer.
It had been several years since Almighty God travelled to Orvieto, a picturesque town in Italian Umbria, as one of the participants of an exhibition entitled The Return of the Magicians. The Sacred in Contemporary African Art (1999-2000). Almighty God received a cash advance upon his arrival in Orvieto but could forget about the 4,200 dollars that remained. Almighty God did not sign a contract with Sarenco; he had simply taken the man for his word, like he did with other customers: Ghanaians and foreigners alike. “Sarenco spent the night in my house with my family,” said Almighty God, with an intense expression on his face, “I did not expect somebody that I welcome to my house to cheat on me.” When I came face to face with the black and white painting that Almighty God hauled down for me, I could not help but laugh. It showed the notorious Sarenco with a white beard, lying in a wooden coffin though looking very much alive (see picture). Almighty God’s face peeked around the coffin’s lid, looking down on his debtor in full earnest. “Why OH!! Sarenco,” read the text, “you are alive, don’t pretend… may the lord give you long life. Please pay me.” Back in Amsterdam, I laughed again (cynically this time) as I discovered some quotes made by Sarenco in an essay that was published in a catalogue of Almighty God’s work. In the essay, Sarenco decried a French artist who did not pay Almighty God for his work; and who had, above all, the dirty guts to pose as Almighty God when he exhibited paintings back home in France. “Not even the appalling British colonialists behaved quite so badly,” Sarenco wrote. “But Africa will not allow its plunderers to go unpunished,” he gloomily continued, “Terrible revenge is being devised (..)” (2007:41). Almighty God’s revenge and protest came from what he knew best (in addition to preaching, that is) which was painting. He used his creativity as well as his ability to depict exact representations of people and objects to cut Sarenco down to size.
Sarenco was not the only art dealer who owed Almighty God money. And Almighty God was not the only wayside artist who waited in vain for unpaid bills from overseas to be settled. There were more constraints in the communication between wayside artists and the foreigners who flocked into their open-air studios. Artists sometimes appeared in books and catalogues without being previously informed and the cited information was often incorrect due to the short periods collectors usually spent in the country. I often noticed that wayside artists had little idea of how their foreign customers would use their work anyway. Nevertheless, processes of globalisation, in which some of Ghana’s wayside artists gained recognition abroad and became enmeshed in a western gallery system, also brought positive changes and gave artists more agency. Almighty God was well aware of the prices paid for his work in an international art market, for instance; he persuaded all his visitors to collect his paintings using the argument that their monetary value would triple when sold abroad.
In my dissertation I go deeper into the ways in which artists like Almighty God, who do not belong to the “high” art worlds in their own country, attained international repute. I discuss the growing foreign interest from western collectors and trace this intrigue back to a re-framed – though enduring – quest for alterity and authenticity, a new kind of primitivism so to speak.
This is just a tip of the iceberg. In my dissertation I furthermore explore the underlying ideological premises upon which the category of Contemporary Ghanaian Art has been based since its inception in colonial times. I unravel the positions that artists took in discursive and social fields, in temporal as well as in spatial contexts, to gain insight into the manner in which this category was constructed and contested. Throughout this study, the remarkable resilience of a recurring discursive field in which “traditional” and “modern” art, as well as “Africa” and the “West,” were essentialized and presented as opposites becomes apparent. In the era of globalisation, this resilient frame came to be severely challenged, reinterpreted or reinforced in various different contexts. These contestations coincided with a process in which the category of Contemporary Ghanaian Art became increasingly more heterogeneous and came to include new art forms, such as conceptual, “indigenous” and “wayside” art. The socio-historical route taken in this study seeks to explain why artists who take alternative paths, sometimes on unfamiliar grounds, meet with resistance, acceptance or ignorance. The contestations that revolve around the work of Ghanaian artists can be traced back to an a history of colonialism, a process of nation building that emphasized the value of “culture” and “tradition,” as well as dominant modernist ideals of technical proficiency and aesthetics of beauty.
Rhoda Woets has been a PhD student at the department of social and cultural anthropology until 2011, and is now working as a postdoctoral fellow for the project Creativity and Innovation in a World of Movement (CIM). She will be defending her PhD theis in the auditorium of the Vrije Universiteit on Tuesday 27 September 2001, 13.45