By Nii Tei Laryea.
Art reflects, and art speaks.
Reflecting the (re)birth of a nation and proclaiming its singular modernity to the world became the life’s work of Kofi Antubam – painter and sculptor, the first state artist appointed by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, one of the pioneers of contemporary African art, and a founder of the Ghana School of Painting.
Kofi Antubam’s designs, in his short yet immeasurably impactful life of 42 years, include Ghana’s Presidential seat, the State sword, the State mace, and even the interior and exterior of two of the first Black Star Line ships.
Born in 1922, he studied art at Achimota School from 1934 – 1936 and at the Art School of Goldsmith’s College, University of London, from 1948 – 1950. He returned to Ghana to teach arts and crafts at his alma mater, and was appointed as an official state artist in 1957 following Ghana’s independence. In 1963 he published his seminal work Ghana’s Heritage of Culture, focusing on the importance of a national art borne of Ghana’s history and identity.
Antubam’s most expansive works include the wooden reliefs on the facade of the Parliament building as well as murals for the Children’s library and the erstwhile lavish Ambassador Hotel. After over three decades, his murals for the Ambassador Hotel were painstakingly reproduced by his students for the new Movenpick Ambassador Hotel and are currently displayed in the ballroom. Internationally, his murals adorn the United Nations building in Geneva. He also held solo exhibitions in London, Paris, Rome, Dusseldorf, and in New York at the Carnegie International Center.
His style is representational, a narrative of everyday African life and community in painting and sculpture. Traditional African art forms are infused with elements of contemporary art, and vice-versa. Outlined figures composed of bold, declarative shapes reminiscent of the mass and solidity of traditional African sculptures are combined with the strokes, shading and colour techniques of various western painting styles. Abstraction or disproportion of specific body parts for the sake of emphasis are harmonized with realism and perspective. His colours, often including a range of blues and oranges, are suffused with sunlight and earth; subtle plays of the African sun reflecting off the mundane communal activities of its people.
Notably, Antubam pioneered the use of adinkra symbols in Ghanaian art. Aside of their traditional significance and meaning, he realized and invoked the aesthetics and decorative value of the symbols – an attribute now recognized globally.
Antubam’s artistic philosophy is clear: art needs to be based on “the lasting values of a people’s traditions”, whilst utilizing the “more progressive implements, skills, and knowledge” that the history of European art provided (Antubam 1963: 13, 129).
One can only imagine the responsibility of a nation’s artists at a time of transition from colonial rule to independence. In such heady times, art could not possibly be staid and static. It also could not simply be abstract and irrelevant to society. Rather, it “follow(ed) the particular people’s full realization of themselves, as a nation, and the growth of their national pride… it (was) the time of dynamic movement and realism in art”.
62 years on, the artists of today would do well to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers. Once again, there is a cry for rebirth all around us, and “art which is not an isolated phenomenon, (cannot) stand still”.
It must reflect – in both senses of the word – and speak.