The Pioneers III: Oku Ampofo – Medicine Man

By Nii Tei Laryea.

It is the rare individual who can climb to great heights in both the arts and the sciences. Indeed, it is so rare that our constricted educational system relegates teenagers to one or the other discipline, at an age when one is likely to be more preoccupied with the other sex or with finding one’s place among peers rather than with having one’s course in life determined by short-term, short-lived and sometimes spurious scores. But I digress…

Dr. Oku Ampofo was a rare individual. 

He was a renowned sculptor, with works exhibited worldwide in Senegal, Nigeria, England, Israel, Brazil and in the US. His most famous sculpture “Asase Due” (Condolences Mother Earth), of an African woman mourning in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1964, is a fixture of the Africa Room of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. 

He was also a physician educated at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, a pioneer in the field of herbal medicine who initiated the establishment of the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine (CSRPM) in Mampong- Akwapim in 1975 to facilitate and coordinate scientific research work on all Ghanaian medicinal plants. The Centre became the first World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating Centre for Traditional Medicine in Sub Saharan Africa. 

He was a strong Pan-Africanist and a cultural advocate and a member of the council which created the Institute of African Studies faculty at the University of Ghana. 

‘ASASE DUE’ (Condolences, Mother Earth) 1965
Material: Afzelia Africana
circa 1964
Material: Afzelia Africana
Materials: Queen Ebony

Edward Francis Oku Ampofo was born in 1908 in Mampong-Akwapim, the son of a divisional chief. He began basic schooling at Basel Missionary school in his hometown and went on to secondary school at Mfantsipim School for five years, and then to Achimota School from 1930 to 1932. It was in Achimota that his love for art was first stirred by the South African anthropologist and sculptural professor H. V. Meyerowitz. 

He subsequently earned a scholarship to study medicine at Edinburgh University in the UK, progressed to the Royal College of Surgeons, and undertook post-graduate studies at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Throughout all his formal studies Ampofo kept up with his love of sculpture and art, even attending night school at Edinburgh School of Art. In 1940, Dr. Oku Ampofo returned home to Ghana to start a clinic – and to establish an art studio.

On his return, in addition to the enumerated activities, Dr. Ampofo organized a group of prominent artists interested in promoting the culture of Ghana. They were known as the Akuapem Six but expanded to include twelve artistes in various disciplines including greats like J.C. Okyere (painter and sculptor), John Cobblah (potter), E. Asare (textiles), Ephraim Amu (composer and much more) and Kofi Antubam the renowned painter. He also formed the ‘Gold Coast Art Society’, which became the Ghana Arts Council after independence.

Like Kofi Antubam and other art pioneers at the time of independence, art and politics were not separate entities to Oku Ampofo. How could they be?  Art, he believed, “should go according to how we live”. And in those heady days of political transition, Africans lived independence. He believed in Africans keeping their style of art traditional, distinct from Western influence, demonstrating Africa’s independence from Europe in all spheres. His figures expressed traditional forms of beauty – long necks, high foreheads, prominent shapes – often carved out of solid blocks of African hardwoods like African cedar, black ebony and the exotic wood afzelia. A synthesis of cultural, artistic norms and the medium of expression utilized.

Material: King/Black Ebony
Material: Queen Ebony(?)

A rare individual, indeed.

How many of this rare breed have we prematurely conscribed to a narrow fate in one discipline or the other, sometimes the wrong one? Educators beware, for a mind is a terrible thing to waste. In this age of open borders, open minds are a must. At CSPMR is a bust in honour of Dr. Oko Ampofo. It reads: “Medical Practitioner, Researcher, Sculptor, Actor, Herbalist, Lover of Music, Initiator and first Director of the Centre for Plant Medicine Research. 

Our world needs more rare individuals.

4 thoughts on “The Pioneers III: Oku Ampofo – Medicine Man”

  1. The people we should be celebrating. Thank you, Nii for sharing this piece. Congratulations to the author. Have a nice day.

  2. A great man indeed.
    The “African Madonna and Child” should have been simply named “The Madonna and Child”.

    1. Yes indeed AS; a good case could be made for that as referencing Isis and Horus – yet another African gift to the world.

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