Serge Attukwei Clottey: ‘My body is part of my work’s mystery’
Using his body as an object, Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey works with international media – as well as plastic yellow “gallons” (jerrycans) – to speak out about politics, religion, sex and tradition
by ANNA McNAY
Born in Ghana in 1985, Serge Attukwei Clottey made his name internationally before he was finally recognised in his own country, thanks to a new commercial art gallery, Gallery 1957. His performances involve him and his collective, GoLokal, dressing in women’s clothes to collect plastic “gallons” (jerrycans used in Ghana to transport and store water), which he then cuts and uses as a mask, a canvas, or a basic building block for his installations. They have drawn positive responses, but also criticism from local people who do not understand the message – often political or social commentary – of his work. Despite a pending residency in Mexico, and being busy creating new work in between international art fairs, Attukwei Clottey found time to speak to Studio International via Skype from Accra.
Anna McNay: You recently exhibited a solo booth with Gallery 1957 at Cape Town Art Fair, for which you showed work from your charcoal series, Sex and Politics, which you also exhibited at the 1:54 art fair in London last October. In May, you will be part of a joint booth at 1:54 New York, with another Gallery 1957 artist, Jeremiah Quarshie. Will you be showing the same series there, too?
Serge Attukwei Clottey: I’m not quite sure, but I believe that it’s going to be one of my new works that I’m making right now. I’m working on a project called River Goddess, which is basically exploring a lagoon in my community, which has been transformed into a sewage system. Historically, the lagoon was meant to protect the people and to provide food for them, but, over time, the chiefs in the community have developed an interest in trading with foreigners, with the west, because they want to buy the land to build companies and housing. So they are selling the lagoon to the foreigners, who are putting refuse into it to acquire the land they want to build on. Since I’m a very critical artist, and my work has dealt with environmental issues as well as politics, religion and tradition, I’m interested in how I can use my performance to criticise or comment on this situation.
I am basically creating a bridge across the lagoon. It spans about 250 feet and divides two towns, which initially fought over its resources, so I wanted to bridge them together by using plastic gallons and then have my collective perform, travelling from one end to the other, walking on the plastic installation. I’m also interested in navigating or resetting the navigation of the plastic gallons that I use, because now they are manufactured in different parts of the world. I’m interested in making the work more interactive by using the barcode labels. I’m reappropriating the barcodes so that, when you see the work hanging in a gallery, you can use your phone and scan the barcodes to find out the story behind the work.
The process of my work has become very performative as well as very interactive. When we go to collect the gallons, my studio assistants dress in women’s clothes. The collecting of gallons is traditionally done by women. So why do we wear women’s clothes? It makes the work more of a performance, because people engage in the process, in the routine, and question why we are dressed like that and why we are collecting the gallons. I have people coming to my studio all the time to see the destination of these gallons because, usually, you end up seeing them in the ocean or at a dumpsite. The collection of the gallons has become a performance and we are all are very engaged with it. My performance collective, GoLokal, started out as just five people, but now about 100 people in my community are part of the collective. I don’t differentiate my work from my community because they are part of it. It is a community-based project.
Another project I’m working on at the moment is a housing project, where I want to build plastic houses that are very mobile. People can sleep inside them and move them around to anywhere they find themselves and then just move them back. I want to develop the community by building these mobile houses, because there is a lot of space, but there are just a few buildings. People often sleep outside. This is another project I’m going to develop together with my community team. I will document the process of how the plastic houses are being used and how they travel around the community. I’m looking at how the work becomes functional in terms of our relationship with people here in my community.
AMc: So art, for you, is not just about something purely aesthetic. Does it always have a function and perhaps a social or political element to it as well?
SAC: Yes, exactly. For the housing project, I’m also thinking of building chairs and tables, very functional equipment, which people can use, so that it gives them an idea of how those materials can be manipulated and transformed. It’s more about their use as functional objects than just using them to carry water because I believe that using them as water containers hasn’t been very hygienic for our health.
AMc: Because the plastic has chemicals in it?
SAC: Exactly. By cutting up the gallons, I wanted to keep that awareness of how we should get rid of the plastic. Cutting them into pieces meant they could no longer function as water containers.
AMc: How long have you been working with these plastic gallons?
SAC: I’ve been working with them for 16 years. When I was very young, I used to use them as a canvas because of their volume. I could paint on both sides and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. When I came out of high school, I was looking for available materials that I could explore. Since then, the work has evolved so that I began to research the background of the object – its history. The cutting also partly came about because of the issue of storage – I ran out of storage space because of the volume of each gallon. By cutting them up, I was able to reduce the volume.
AMC: Is it true that you sometimes dump your finished works in the sea near where you live in Labadi?
SAC: I store some of the work in the sea because I’m interested in issues of migration and how the sea navigates the world. The sea is used to transport goods from one continent to another. I’m interested in how it’s much easier for objects to migrate than for humans, and in how the sea moves the objects around and brings them back to the shore. I document that process and have people looking at the work on the shore. I use the sea as part of my installation.
AMc: When you say you document this process, are you filming it or taking photographs?
SAC: I take photographs and sometimes I have a colleague who films it, but most of the time I just watch how people interact with the process of the installation. People are very curious about why I put the plastic in the ocean. I live three minutes away from the ocean, so I always go there and hang out on the beach with the fishermen.
AMc: With regards to filming and taking photographs of your work, you put quite a lot on your blog and on Instagram, and this is largely what led to you initially being noticed by the art world at large.
AMc: What role do you think the internet and social media play nowadays in the art world and do you think this is a positive thing?
SAC: I think social media and the internet play a vital role. They share information all over the world and, as an artist, especially in Africa, this offers a very strong platform for me to share my work. There are global search engines looking at what is happening in different parts of the African continent. People follow my work and are even writing theses about Afrogallonism. I receive emails from people asking to interview me about it. So I think that social media is a very good platform for artists and creatives, and a good way to get a lot of feedback about your work. Last year, I was featured in the New York Times as one of the African artists who uses technology to explore his work. I have people who come to do an internship with me because they have read about my work. So I think that the internet is a good platform for artists all over the world to get to know what is happening in the art world. It has really given me a lot of opportunity to meet art collectors and art dealers and to collaborate with different artists. I have a good online presence because I share the process behind my work. My work was recognised in Europe before Africa because I use social media platforms and I apply for online galleries all over the world. Sometimes they don’t get back to me; other times they reply that my work’s great. Sometimes they offer me a residency. The kind of work that I do is quite conceptual, and it’s very political, and this didn’t interest most of the galleries here in Ghana before. They didn’t find my work interesting enough to sell. It’s only recently that Gallery 1957 showed interest. They also saw my work online and then found out that I live in Ghana.
AMc: You were, in fact, the artist that Gallery 1957 chose to show in its inaugural exhibition in Accra last March. What is the contemporary art scene like in Ghana? How significant a role does the opening of a commercial gallery like 1957 play?
SAC: There hadn’t really been a very strong contemporary space before Gallery 1957. Most of the time, artists just find their own space to show their work. There isn’t a contemporary museum or a contemporary arts centre, so most artists leave the country because there’s no sustainability here. Gallery 1957 has brought a lot of change. It’s quite relevant and very critical.
AMc: Does the political situation in Ghana affect the art scene?
SAC: Yes. We are looking forward to this new government [The New Patriotic Party won the national election in Ghana in December last year, ousting the sitting party], which has promised to build contemporary museums. But, as artists, we are very political with our work and we criticise the political system because there hasn’t been any support for the arts. Artists find most of their funding abroad or use their own funds to do their projects.
AMc: You have said how integral your community is to your work and how so many people are involved, for example, in helping to collect the gallons and in dressing in women’s clothes to do so. Is this performance generally well received or is there any negative response?
SAC: At the beginning, there were a lot of negative comments about it. It took a while for people to understand the concept, because gender issues are a very challenging topic in Ghana. Recently, when I posted an image of an article about my work at the Cape Town Art Fair, someone commented that I’m supporting gays. I find it very interesting how people look at images and make assumptions. They are not actually reading what is happening. So I want to push the idea further to make people understand the context of it. It is very challenging to put on such a performance because it took a lot on convincing to get those guys to wear women’s clothes. I had to persuade them of the idea of what I’m trying to achieve with the performance. It’s about our mothers and our relationship with our mothers. It also addresses the issue of gender because, if we believe in equality, why can’t we have equal rights? I’m trying to tap into that idea of making equality very visible for people to understand. It’s not about promoting gays or anything, but it’s about the idea of how tradition questions human rights. My work is a good platform for creating dialogue, engaging people and understanding our rights as human beings.
AMc: How significant is the use of your own body in your work? Do you see yourself as a subject or an object?
SAC: I use myself as an object in my work. I combine myself and my work; my work is the subject and my body is the object. I use my collective as an object as well. We use ourselves to address an issue or a subject. My body is part of my work’s mystery.
AMc: You mentioned your work being about mothers, and your inaugural exhibition at Gallery 1957 was called My Mother’s Wardrobe. It explored narratives of personal, family and collective histories. What did the installation consist of?
SAC: It consisted of the collective wearing women’s clothes. They wore fabrics from different parts of the continent, from old, traditional clothes to modern, contemporary clothes. It consisted of my plastic installation, which basically mimics my mother’s wardrobe, and we had a Ghana Must Go bag, which is a rubber bag that women use to transport their clothes from one place to another. Many years ago, when Ghanaians were living in Nigeria, they were then sent back to Ghana, and this is the type of bag they used to transport their belongings, hence why it’s called Ghana Must Go. Since then, it’s been used by women a lot and that’s often where they store their fabrics. So the performance actually started from my community and proceeded all the way to the gallery. We transported people – the audience – from our community to the gallery space to see the final exhibition. The idea came after l lost my mum. I felt very disconnected and I was trying to use my work and the fabric to reconnect with her.
AMc: Was she supportive of your career as an artist?
SAC: Yes, she was very supportive. She didn't understand, but she wanted me to be happy with what I was doing. So she would be supportive by collecting gallons for me. I feel like the gallons connect my mum and myself.
AMc: You mentioned before the term Afrogallonism, which you coined. Can you explain what you mean by it?
SAC: Afrogallonism is a made-up word that I developed a few years after I started working with the gallons. For me, Afro is a colonial word, which is attached to any African migrant or African descendent. The gallon originally came from the west to Africa, because they used it for transporting cooking oil. It came to Africa and we used the oil and then reused the gallon for storing water, which basically has become very symbolic in our Ghanaian lifestyle for everyday survival. As an artist, I use the gallons, I manipulate them, and I send back to the west what they left behind. So that is the idea of Afrogallonism.
AMc: Is the colour yellow significant in any way?
SAC: Yes. The gallons come in white, yellow and green, but yellow is the predominant colour, and the yellow in our Ghanaian flag represents wealth. So, for me, any time I see a gallon I see a very valuable object and not just something used to store water.
AMc: How – if at all – does the charcoal series you’re working on at the moment relate to your larger practice with the performance and the gallons?
SAC: The charcoal is something that was inspired by the current political system as well as by sexual pleasures in this country. They were originally old sketches from years ago when I was at school because, back then, the most referenced artist in Europe was Picasso and I was very inspired by him throughout my art school days. So I went back to my old sketchbook and began to scale up the drawings. I began to explore politics further by using the idea of a performance as the drawing. So, the drawing was originally a performative idea of what is happening and how people are responding to politics, and how politics has become a major concern in our country. The faces in my drawings were inspired by the gallon mask that I use for my performance. So that is the link. The mask will represent the mask of our time and symbolise the current state of the country.
AMc: What is it about sex that’s particularly significant at the moment?
SAC: People are exploring sexuality a lot on social media. Ghanaians are very religious, but social media has affected their religious commitment because you see someone posting naked pictures and yet they will say they are religious. They tell you they are Christians, but their online presence is very pornographic. I think this has really influenced the youth as well. Children know where they can find all those pornographic images. So I think social media serves as a platform with both merits and demerits. Some people are making good use of it; others are making very bad use of it. I comment on this because it’s affecting the country – it’s a major concern.
AMc: You studied in both Ghana and Brazil. What impact did your time in Brazil have on your work?
SAC: In Brazil, I was given a lot of opportunity to explore different art forms. I studied sculpting, mass media, drawing and life drawing. I had a lot of exposure and was able to break away from the traditional arts of Ghana and look at things from a wider perspective. Now, I don’t limit myself to being just a Ghanaian artist, doing Ghanaian art. I’m an artist in Ghana, doing work as an artist from different parts of the world. Brazil, for me, was a bridge. Here, I only learned how to draw and paint. In Brazil, I was inspired by performance and installation. When I came back to Ghana, I began to approach my work in a very global sense.
AMc: But still coming back to your familial ancestry and the country’s ancestry.
AMc: You also have the name of your one of your great-great grandfathers, Nii Tetteh Nteni, hanging above your studio awning.
SAC: Yes. My studio is a familiar space where we’ve had a very strong history and I think that informs my work a lot and that is the centre of my inspiration.
• Serge Attukwei Clottey will be showing in a joint booth with Jeremiah Quarshie with Gallery 1957 at 1:54 New York from 5-7 May 2017.