A Voy­age Into Africa’s Ur­ban Land­scape

Gideon Ap­pah

Indwe - - Contents - Text: Julie Gra­ham Images © Akona Kenqu & Gideon Ap­pah

The vast con­ti­nent of Africa con­tains a myr­iad of di­verse cul­tures, land­scapes, and lan­guages, and through­out the re­gion, there are a num­ber of prom­i­nent artists por­tray­ing the rich African con­text through their strik­ing art­work. One such artist, Gideon Ap­pah, is tak­ing the African and in­ter­na­tional art world by storm with his ur­ban creations that con­front themes such as race, pop cul­ture, and the so­cio­cul­tural and eco­nomic land­scape of his home­town in Ghana.

Ac­cra, the cap­i­tal of Ghana on the West Coast of Africa, is a hu­mid, bustling hive of ac­tiv­ity with a beat­ing heart full of au­then­tic and ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ences around ev­ery street cor­ner. It was here that Gideon Ap­pah was born in a house that in­cluded his own fam­ily of five as well as un­cles, aunts and cousins. Grow­ing up near the slums of the city, he was ex­posed to a num­ber of so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic chal­lenges fac­ing the many in­hab­i­tants of this vi­brant ur­ban space.

From a young age, he was fas­ci­nated by scrib­bling, and he was paint­ing and draw­ing any­thing and ev­ery­thing that popped into his imag­i­na­tion (num­bers as well as imag­ined comic book su­per­heroes held a par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion for him). Now, as an es­tab­lished artist, Ap­pah’s work has been de­scribed as ur­ban, gritty and chaotic, and his in­cred­i­ble mas­tery of mixed medi­ums has re­sulted in strik­ing creations that delve right into the eco­nomic and so­cio­cul­tural land­scapes of Ac­cra’s ur­ban spa­ces, as well as his own imag­i­na­tion.

Ap­pah’s work draws in­spi­ra­tion from per­sonal and so­cial ex­pe­ri­ences he’s had with Ac­cra’s in­for­mal set­tle­ment of Sodom and Go­mor­rah – the big­gest slum in the coun­try. “Labour, rad­i­cal­ism, anx­i­ety, plea­sure and the shanty na­ture of the habi­ta­tion make up my works,” he ex­plains. “I am also in­spired by mark mak­ing, par­tic­u­larly the writ­ten lot­tery num­bers on lot­tery kiosks found in al­most ev­ery cor­ner of Ac­cra. This is a process which is in no way in­hib­ited by ac­cu­rate as­sump­tions or pre­scribed be­lief with re­gards to Western African prac­tice.” Vis­ual sig­nage, which has formed part of the vis­ual cul­ture of the coun­try, is also ev­i­dent in his work. One can

see the in­flu­ence of the drawn and printed posters of bar­bers, let­ter­ing, posters, la­bels of prod­ucts, boxes and sign posts – all of which rep­re­sent the shanty na­ture of the town­ships and slums in the re­gion. “I be­lieve my work, by us­ing this kind of com­mon lan­guage, re­flects a univer­sal sub­ject mat­ter.”

Ap­pah cre­ates these strik­ing vi­su­als by us­ing sal­vaged and un­con­ven­tional ma­te­ri­als like rags, torn pa­pers, bill­board pa­per, posters, and cor­roded sur­faces. Sten­cil print­ing, acrylics and oils as well as pas­tels and colour wax also make up part of the process. “My job is to try to tran­sub­stan­ti­ate these into a piece of work,” he says. “I en­joy cre­at­ing a galaxy of works with these medi­ums.”

His artis­tic process is as unique as his work and Ap­pah thrives on cre­at­ing an en­tirely sen­sory ex­pe­ri­enc­ing for view­ers of his art­work. “I carry a small diary with me all the time. I have lots of books in which I draw or write any­thing I see, smell or hear. I also record things. I write or sketch al­most ev­ery­thing in­ter­est­ing, even if it doesn’t make sense at the ini­tial point. They are ref­er­ence books for me and I gather lots of ideas for new works when I do this,” he ex­plains. “I hardly sketch onto a can­vas or pa­per be­fore I start. Some­times I prime the can­vas, some­times I don’t. Be­fore I start, I gather all the ma­te­ri­als I need, like print­outs of lot­tery num­bers, boxes, la­bels, bill­board pa­per, pho­to­graphs, coloured pa­pers and oth­ers. From there, I just tear them up ei­ther hor­i­zon­tally or ver­ti­cally or any way I want. It de­pends on what I am look­ing for. I try to get these ma­te­ri­als as dirty as I can by smear­ing them with a lo­cal Ghana­ian dye called Asiduro and coloured

wax. I do this to the can­vasses as well. This helps to put some time on the works and give them char­ac­ter”.

The su­per­im­po­si­tion of marks and trans­parency that is iconic of his work comes from prim­ing his can­vas, pass­ing acrylics over the top and then, while it is still wet, scratch­ing through it. These scratches can be any­thing from num­bers, words and di­a­grams to com­pletely ab­stract rep­re­sen­ta­tions. “I ex­plore and ex­per­i­ment with­out in­hi­bi­tion, fear or con­form­ity: images and words, free flow, splashes and drips of paint, dis­tor­tion, torn images, dis­carded and sal­vaged ob­jects, col­lage and text.”

Ap­pah’s work has taken him out of the slum and into a global arena where he has been recog­nised as an ex­tremely im­por­tant emerg­ing artist. He has achieved some in­cred­i­ble feats, in­clud­ing be­ing the first out of his grad­u­ate class to have a show im­me­di­ately af­ter com­plet­ing his stud­ies. “It was an ex­cit­ing thing for me,” he re­calls. “It hap­pened at the Goethe In­sti­tute at Ac­cra. It was a lovely show as I made these in­stal­la­tions in­side their gallery space. It was my first con­tact as an artist in­ter­act­ing with an art au­di­ence.” Two years later, Ap­pah was a fi­nal­ist at the in­au­gu­ral Kuenye­hia Prize for Con­tem­po­rary Ghana­ian Artists. “I didn’t win, but was glad to be rec­og­nized as an emerg­ing artist in my coun­try.”

Just two months fol­low­ing this, he re­ceived a call from a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the revered Absa L’Ate­lier Art Award in South Africa – a crown­ing mo­ment for Ap­pah. “I came to Jo­han­nes­burg in July 2015 for this event and I won the 1st Merit Award which was given to a for­eign artist to en­ter the com­pe­ti­tion,” he says. “I won a three-month artist res­i­dency at the Bag Fac­tory Artists’ Stu­dios from June to Septem­ber 2016.” From there, Ap­pah went from strength to strength in the art world, and as­tounded view­ers by tak­ing them on a voy­age into Africa’s ur­ban land­scape. He showed at the Leonardo Da Vinci Gallery in Cape Town be­fore do­ing a show with Gallery2 at the Tur­bine Art Fair in 2016, and then ex­hib­ited his work at the FNB Jo­han­nes­burg Art Fair where he made a name as an im­por­tant artist to keep an eye on.

This year has been ex­cit­ing for Ap­pah and he has started work­ing on a new body of work which he calls “scrawl paint­ings”. “I chose the word ‘scrawl’ be­cause of the na­ture of how the works will be made,” he ex­plains. “This word means a lot be­cause of the tem­po­rary or per­ma­nent mark­ings which nor­mally ap­pear scrawled on walls and wooden struc­tures. It will be my first series which will be mostly paint­ings, sculp­tures and in­stal­la­tions.”

Gideon Ap­pah will be ex­hibit­ing his work at the FNB Jo­han­nes­burg Art Fair again in Septem­ber. His ar­rest­ing, thought-pro­vok­ing and cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant art­work takes view­ers on a voy­age right into the heart of Ac­cra’s ur­ban land­scape, as well as the land­scape of the en­tire African con­ti­nent. He truly is an artist to keep an eye on.

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