Art has long acted as a tool for social change in Africa, with artists from across its 54 countries engaging in bold yet sensitive ways regarding issues of visibility, openness and representation. They are at the forefront of the fight against the negative imagery and prejudices that have long been associated with the continent, boldly showcasing the beauty, cultural riches and talent that it is home to.
In particular, Ghana has emerged as a noteworthy force in the world of international art over the past decade, producing artists like Larry Amponsah, Attukwei Clottey Serge, Godfried Donkor and Amoako Boafo. The latter, following his latest partnership with Kim Jones on the Dior Men’s SS21 collection, is perhaps the most likely to be familiar to you. But prior to that, he had already established himself as one of the African descent’s most celebrated contemporary painters.
Amoako ‘s art examines and celebrates themes of Black masculinity and culture through his distinctive style of figurative finger-painting, with an emphasis on depicting his subjects in a dynamic, authentic perspective. This also reflects a sense of brazen vulnerability and intimacy that is frequently missing from modern art portrayals of Black people. It’s something you can’t help but be struck by in works such as The Green Beret(2020), one of a number featured in the presentation of the Dior collection that debuted a fortnight ago.
His interest in drawing dates back to when he was a teenager when he was going to compete with his peers to see who copied cartoons best. His training became more formal when he enrolled at the Ghanatta College of Art and Design in 2004 and subsequently travelled to Vienna to study an MFA at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. Graduating in 2017, and receiving the same year’s Walter Koschatzky Art Prize, Amoako established a studio with his wife Sunanda Mesquita, curator and fellow visual artist, in the Austrian capital, where he lives (as well as in Accra).
It’s there we saw Amoako, who spent lockdown operating from his base in his hometown. Speaking shortly after his partnership with Kim Jones was announced, we sat down in his studio with the Ghanaian painter to explore the process behind the show, how fashion affects his practice and the potential for growth of the African contemporary art market.
Hi Amoako! Tell us, what were the main inspirations for your collaboration with Kim Jones?
Kim Jones has a deep connection with Africa. He grew up travelling the continent, living in Ethiopia, Botswana, Kenya, and Ghana; his dad was a hydrogeologist. This whole collaboration came to fruition when he saw my work in Miami, during Art Basel last December. Kim then came to visit me at my studio here in Ghana. At its heart, the inspiration for this collaboration was really about Kim portraying his love for Africa, which he inherited from his dad.
While at my studio, he was captivated by a painting of a young man with an ivy print shirt that I had done. The collaboration then began to focus on translating or transferring my pre-existing paintings onto fabrics and through the styling. I was both excited and curious to see how Kim would creatively transfer my finger painting and gift wrap paper technique, as well as my brushstrokes, onto fabric.
He is also ensuring that this collection will leave a lasting legacy by supporting my new foundation that is going to promote young artists in Accra. Kim’s collaboration with me is so genuine, and it’s very inspiring to me. It came together beautifully, I must say.
How would you describe your relationship to fashion? How has it inspired and informed your work?
I love fashion! There’s something about looking good that makes you feel good and instils confidence. You’re able to make statements just through your sense of fashion and how you carry yourself. I’m sometimes even drawn to the people that I choose to paint based on their fashion sense and style.
Dior Men’s SS21. Photography Jackie Nickerson.
How did you develop the painting techniques that you’re now known for?
I’ve explored many technical and figurative expressions of skin tone and movement, realising my process is best realised when I paint with my fingers. The hands and faces of the figures in the works have been finger-painted, with the lack of an instrument allowing me to create freely and to achieve an expressive skin tone. I love that this seemingly simple motion can generate such intense energy and unveil these sculptural figures. The lack of control I have with using my fingers is organic, and that shines through in the abstract forms that create the faces of my subjects.
There’s something quite reminiscent of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele in your work. Did they influence you while you were studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?
Yes, I love them both, they really impacted my art, especially in the way they play with eyes, colours. There’s definitely an influence there.
How have you been coping with isolation? Did you ever lack inspiration to create?
No, Ghana is home, and there is no other place to be in lockdown than in Ghana. I was so excited to be here during this period. My passion for painting is especially strong at the moment.. During lockdown, I’ve also been spending more time on the internet, too, finding further inspiration. There is no place like my home country for me, and this period has inspired me more to create. While at home, I have been painting in preparation for my upcoming solo exhibition themed I Stand By Meat Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Chicago.
What would you say are the main challenges that you’ve faced as an artist?
When I first moved to Vienna, I thought that everything was going to run smoothly for me as an artist, but I encountered some challenges. Most places I asked to show my works they told me they don’t show anything African, which was quite a disappointment. That never deterred me from achieving my dreams, though. I took it upon myself to create my own space — if I wasn’t getting a seat at the table, maybe I could create my own world. The challenges that I faced in Vienna led me to co-found We Dey, which means “We Are” in Pidgin. It is a space for queer, trans, non-binary and femme BIPOC, and is a space where we welcome people to share their work and also their experiences of living in Vienna.
Returning to Africa, what are your thoughts on the development of the contemporary art scene here?
Well, in Ghana, for instance, the contemporary art scene is still evolving. There are a growing number of creatives and talented individuals, coming from Africa but we lack the necessary infrastructure — galleries, museums and studio spaces to create. Combined with access to funds for artists, this would create a needed platform for talent on the continent to manifest and accomplish their goals of reaching a global audience, and to boost the Ghanaian and wider African art scenes. We need to make sure that we have representation across all fields — that’s the only way to change the industry rapidly. African leaders need to support young creatives through funding, by building state-owned museums and art studios — that’s what can help jumpstart their careers.
Lookbook imagery courtesy of Dior
Photography Fiifi Abban