A Voyage Into Africa’s Urban Landscape
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.