In this new issue of The Debrief, Foreign Agent's interview series, we meet Joseph Awuah-Darko, the 24-year-old creative and artistic multi-hyphenate who tells us about becoming a Kwesi Botchway muse, his Noldor Residency in Accra, and Ghana as a hotbed of artistic talent.
Tell us more about how you became one of Kwesi Botchway’s muses. How did this come about? Any idea where your portrait is heading next?
I remember speaking with Kwesi during London’s first lockdown in early May and we spoke about a new body of work he was contemplating. He knew about my depression, how I was feeling and the angst that came with uncertainties brought about by Covid. We grew closer over the months, we spoke virtually and before long he had asked for high-res jpegs (images) to use in rendering me for his upcoming exhibition. So in that sense there was no sitting due to limitations of where we were and you know…..Covid. I think this was his way of giving me a sense of optimism and something to look forward to on his part – even if the piece wouldn’t be a part of my collection ( I don’t think I’m vain enough to own a piece that large of myself). Upon returning to Ghana in June it was really humbling to discover the work nearly completed during a studio visit. I sort of enjoy not knowing where the portrait will end up but sincerely hope it finds its way into a good home. Glad it could be celebrated and observed openly in London.
There is an incredible amount of talent coming out of Ghana. There was of course the 2019 Ghana Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and now this new wave of afro-impressionists like Amoako Boafo and Kwesi Botchway. What’s so special about Ghanaian artists?
I think when it comes to Ghanaian artists there’s a sense of being uniquely rooted in our identity. I think the point of view that Ghanaian practitioners share is one steeped in a commitment to creativity and exploration within lived experiences that has always existed within the ether in Ghana. This all the way to the days of James Barnor who captured Ghana through photography at a pivotal point in attaining our independence in 1957. I’ve also found that there is a strong coterie of Ghanaian artist who form part of the diaspora like Lynette and Amoako who still resonate that recognizable clarity of vision and intent that is indicative of portraying that lived experienced in their work. I think it is that Ghanaians are good storytellers too and this resonates potently in our visual language. There are many possibilities, who knows - maybe it’s something in the water.
You yourself were the youngest artist presented at gallery 1957 in Accra at age 23. You’ve also had a career in the music industry and play an active role as a social entrepreneur and philanthropist. You made the Forbes Africa #30Under30 list in 2019. You are the Head of Sales Strategy at Sulger-Buel gallery in London. What path will you take in 2021?
I think I’ve been privileged to have had many lives as a creative and artistic multihyphenate. In February of 2019, I am glad Marwan (Zakhem) gave me a unique opportunity to express in my craft of upcycling to create a body of work inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made ideology. The Forbes Africa feature that followed this was quite grounding in that I hadn’t had a chance to look back at all that I’ve achieved. I think moving forward my greatest legacy has been in the founding of the Noldor Artist Residency this year in November 2020. For a long time, I have looked at which part of the contemporary art ecology I fit into and given the personal relationships I have fostered with many of the artists I’ve come to cherish I felt I would best suited and most useful as the director of an artist residency. One that would combat and alleviate the severe lack of infrastructural support that emerging artists here experience. Especially with the exacerbating effects of Covid-19, I felt now was the best time to establish the Noldor Artist Residency – and I’m pleased with how our pilot artist-in-residence (Emmanuel Taku) is doing and our preview opening of his new body of work on 4th December 2020.
How about the family business. You are the heir to a Ghanaian insurance empire. Is this something you are considering?
This has always been a fact to which I have simply been accustomed and does not necessarily dictate the way in which I live my life. My family has been custodian to the insurance conglomerate for over 44 years and I am a part of that legacy which my grandfather started. But beyond that I am my own person with ambitions and goals that stretch beyond that reality. My interests in the contemporary art world as a young boarding school kid reading huge Assouline and Taschen books on Basquiat and Julian Schnabel was authentically my own and it is that hunger to find my own path that has brought me here.
What does it mean to be wealthy in Africa today?
I think the continent as a whole is full of many exciting emergent markets that are thriving across industries like technology (Fintech), forestry, real-estate and healthcare. I have been fortunate to have friends and peers doing amazing things entrepreneurially within these fields with well documented excellence. My privilege does not make me remotely oblivious to the glaring challenges faced by parts of the continent but rather appreciative of the progress being made despite it. I think having wealth on the continent simply means that you get to be a meaningful part of the echoed and evolving narrative of it and that you have resources to empower others. My greatest achievement in that regard was becoming the youngest major donor in the history of my alma mater - Ashesi University. Creating opportunities for others is important to me – helping where you can is important.
You have been very public about living with manic depression. Is there still a big stigma about mental health in Africa? How do you believe one can change this?
I think as heterogenous and as diverse as African culture is, there is still a sense that mental health isn’t something that is openly addressed. In Ghana, I’ve done what I can through my transparency on social media to my video “It’s Okay” addressing the needs to destigmatize the local perception of mental health and depression. But this stigmatization also exists very much in parts of the developed world where these discussions are also self-suppressed. It will take time to get to a point where we are all more comfortable normalizing safe spaces for open discussions on mental health.
Coronavirus has taken a huge toll on everyone's mental health. How did you cope with the lockdowns and quarantines in the UK and then in Ghana? Was it worse in Africa or in Europe?
I think Africa (Sub-Saharan Africa especially) has had it much better than most parts of the developed world and Europe. In London, at the climax of the pandemic mayhem I could sense the fear and intensity of the situation which was further consolidated by the sound of several ambulance sirens out of my Sloane Square window. Upon my return on any repatriation flight in June to Accra, there was a sense of social distancing and many people were very cognizant of wearing masks at all times. However, the number of infected individuals and deaths though valid were relatively negligible in the global scheme of things. Fortunately the situation seems to have improved but we are in the cusp of a major election and so it is really hard to tell if we are really in the all clear or if it just been ignored.
As an insider, tell us what a perfect day on the Accra art scene should look like.
A perfect day would consist of a visit to James Town known for its hidden art centers and nostalgic post-colonial charm is definitely a great place to start and is where Ghana’s annual ChaleWote Fesitival takes place. There is always a sense of something buzzing. Then the day would continue to visit to ADA Contemporary at Villaggio Visa and Gallery 1957 at the Kempinski Gold Coast Hotel. An then we can’t forget La (also known as Labadi) - a charming area where the 150sqm workspace of my residency (the Noldor Artist Residency) exists. There is nothing like having a chilled virgin mojito on a beach front terrace in La. The Sandbox beach front designed by dear friend Sir David Adjaye is definitely a choice location within La. It also has great proximity to the studio space of friend and artist Serge Attukwei Clottey who creates his famed yellow gallon tapestries near the location and Prof. Ablade Glover’s Artist Alliance which has been present for over a decade.
You’re an aesthete. Describe your personal style in a few words.
A classical yet minimalist sensibility merged with an idiosyncratic insouciance.
What is your most treasured possession?
My most treasured possession is a lovely vintage pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather, Nana Awuah-Darko Ampem I – it reminds me of his sense of character and mindfulness.