Ghanian painter Kwabena Partey wants his art to tell an African story

Ahmed Kwabena Partey grew up in Accra, Ghana with no toys to play with, but he was a kid who loved art and had a good imagination so he took advantage of the flowers, plants, tree branches and other natural things around him, mostly secluding himself in my own world while playing with these things.

When Ahmed was about 11yrs, (he’s currently 28) he always went to his friend Prince Nuuno Mensah who lived close by to watch him draw cartoons and try to depict or recreate animations like Mickey Mouse.

He would just draw a giant Mickey Mouse and mount it on two stilts, we just had to imagine the movements. I think this was where my imagination was sparked. I realized that I wanted to do this, I always went to his house to watch him draw. He always encouraged me to draw and be fearless about it. One time he was painting a Ludacris portrait on a t-shirt and when I went there to watch he gave me the paint brush and paint to continue. I feared because I had never done such a huge painting before and I feared I was going to mess it up. But he kept emphasizing fearlessness in arts. He sparked my love for art. I started drawing comic book characters like spider man, judge dread and ninja turtles among others.

He went on to study Visual Arts in Accra academy and the introduction to General Knowledge in art where we studied African art, sculptural pieces and masks which also would influence my whole world view and subject matter. Accra Academy he went on to study Film & Television with a major in animation at National film & Television Institute (Ghana).

“When I reached level 300 second semester there was a rebellion in the way to me the school was suppressing my expressionism, my individuality, I left in 2015. Before I took this radical decision just 2 years back I quit being a Jehovah’s witness (I was born a Jehovah’s witness). The decisions were very rebellious and it lead to a whole lot of problems emotionally, psychologically and physically but I knew where I was going and what I wanted and nothing was going to stop me. At home I concentrated on making art, studying and diving deeper into the African arts, culture, sculptural pieces and masks. I spent a lot of time alone finding myself, my style my world view, at this point the deaths of my dad and older brother, quitting the JW church/organizations, emotional abuses I had while growing up from my mum and my studies of African art molded me into what I do now. I found a way to connect all these feelings and thoughts. My works are a direct product of them. I believe every individual has their own uniqueness but it takes a while to pull it out because it’s been suppressed so much from a general culture and education system that is designed to stifle creativity.”

We caught up with the visual artist to talk about his work with Ghanian Skateboard collective SurfGhana, new projects and the Ghanian art scene.

MB: What do you understand about art? What’s intriguing to you about it as a form of expression?

Kwabena Partey: I view art as an expression of my innermost thoughts and feelings. Art is everything that influence us growing up, from birth to death. For one to be able to do unique and great art they would have to find themselves. Finding yourself here means spending a lot of time with yourself, being honest about who you are ,what you want, what you don’t want without the constant influence of external forces that force their own perception or mindset on you. What really intrigues me about art is the fact that the moment you are able to understand who you are you can translate it via various mediums. Art doesn’t have any boundaries, art is freedom. The ability to constantly evolve, explore and experiment.

How would you define your approach and style as an artist? What are your inspirations, what do you want your art to speak for you?

Over the years I have developed a combination of styles and approaches. Earlier on I raised the point on how a lot happening in my life as a child growing up shaped my style and subject matter. I developed this style I call ‘earth and water’ where I make little colorful pieces that form a bigger picture with complex meanings and vibrant colors. During my studies over the years in the quest of finding myself I realized that I had this transcendent connection with African masks, sculptural pieces and West African symbols like the Adinkra & Ga samai. When I make art I want it to connect and identify with people especially Africans. I want my art to depict the African identity, its influence and culture in the past, now and in the future.

You’re very particular about mixing African stories and elements into your pieces, why is this so important?

One word, Identity. I feel that to make art that makes meaning and is relevant throughout generations and everywhere else you need to make something authentic, authentic things can only come from a place that you as the artist can connect deeply with which is for an African our cultural roots, family, environment and personal experiences. I have seen a lot of African artists make art all they do is repeat what has already been or what we already know as Africans, I am not saying that is not important it is, but I felt that I needed to fuse these (African art) with myself which in turn births a completely refreshing look and meaning on African art.

How’s the art scene in Ghana currently? What are you looking forward as the scene grows and attracts a broader audience?

The art scene in Ghana is growing, it’s very slow but it’s growing. It is far better than a few years back, actually with the launch of the alternative arts festival, Chale Wote in 2011 a lot has changed. Attention is gradually being drawn to the Ghanaian art scene. Just about three years ago a lot of galleries such as Gallery 1957, Nubuke foundation, Ano Ghana, Limbo among others have been established. There have also been a yearly art competition known as Kuenyehia prize, hopefully, there will be more. I look forward to exhibiting my art at these galleries and worldwide.

You recently collaborated with Skate and Surf collective Surf Ghana on this year’s ‘Skate Tour GH’, how did that happen and are you part of the skating scene currently booming in the Accra?

I had the opportunity to exhibit at the 2017 Chale Wote festival (Wata Mata). It was really fun, that was how I met the Sandy at surf Ghana. At that time there was Kwame who was also part, he approached me with the goal that I make art on plain skateboards they were going to provide. They were going to exhibit them at the festival. I was really happy and opted to participate. From there I came to love the idea of painting on a skateboard. We had a friendly relationship from there and this year Sandy approached me with the idea that I make the theme art for ‘Skate Tour Gh’ this year. She specified that I use the “earth and water style” that’s how it happened. We talked about the idea I had in mind and she sent me some images of the Surf Ghana guys skating, everything developed from there. It was a great and fun collaboration. Well, I’m more of the guy who wants to make art on the skateboards than skate actually, maybe one day I will try to learn it.

Your interpretation of faces with African masks, why is this so? What’s your fascination with them?

African masks are my biggest source of inspiration. I feel a great sense of connection every time I see one. You know, African masks represent people who are no more with us here, people who have transited into the spirit world; the ancestors, according to the African traditional religion. The masks immortalize them. The faces with masks is a representation of identity and immortality. It reminds an African what our culture was what it is now and what it will be. It is supposed to remind us of who we are, what we feel, the thread between life and death.

What’s kept you going so far?

Relentlessness, when I make my mind up nothing changes it. Also, anytime I see my own artworks I am motivated to do more. I always picture myself at the Normandy beach (Invasion of Normandy 1944, world war II) where there were Nazi soldiers right at the beach firing machine guns in front of the allied soldiers who were dropped on shore. No other way around, the only option is to fight your way forward. That is how I view life and my artistic carrier.

Adedayo Laketu

Adedayo Laketu is a creative inventor who's interested in curating a New Age for Africa across all mediums.

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