Atta Kwami is an internationally renowned Ghanaian painter whose work is among major public collections in London and New York. Angela Cobbinah met him at his latest exhibition in London
Atta Kwami is a travelling man who keeps a unique diary of his wanderings – big canvasses full of bold colours that jump out and force your gaze.
The geometrically arranged strips and boxes may at first appear random but they each tell a story that captures, all at once, the rhythms and tones of Ghana, where he hails from, and the memories of people and places he has encountered along the way. “Wherever I go I take my world with me – my work is part of an unfolding journey,” he tells me.
We are speaking at the opening of his just ended exhibition at north London’s Beardsmore Gallery, an old and welcome friend in a career that spans some 40 years and now sees his work held in major public collections, including the V&A, the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I mention the word abstract and his easy smile falters, just for a second. He has heard it all before. ‘My work is conventionally described as abstract but I prefer to describe it as schematic given that its starting point is my environment. Many of my images have been shaped by my experiences; they are my visual interpretation that I hope finds resonance with my audience.’
He shows me round, lingering at one of his most recent works, ‘Dzodze’, named after a town in the southeast of Ghana famous for its traditional textile weaving. In fact, it resembles the richly interwoven patterns of Ghanaian kente cloth, which are themselves symbolic, while you can almost feel the heat of the sun from a single block of yellow.
The next one down, the more earthy ‘Koo Nimo’, is inspired by one of Ghana’s leading folk guitarist of the same name, a neighbour of his in the bustling city of Kumasi.
Born in Ghana in 1956, Kwami first studied art there, at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. But that was a mere formality: ‘My mother was an artist and my father a musician so I learnt without realising I was being trained.’ In fact one of his earliest memories were the brilliant coloured paints in his mother’s studio. ‘Colour is magic,’ he declares, ‘it can change our perceptions.’
He went on to teach in Nigeria before becoming a lecturer at his alma mater and now exhibits internationally. Kele, his third show at the Beardsmore, also includes paintings inspired by African footballers commissioned by the National Football Museum in Manchester – Michael Essien and Didier Drogba among them – and relief prints used in the Origins of the Afro Comb exhibition at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum last year that he collaborated on with his wife, the painter Pamela Clarkson.
With studios in both Ghana and the UK, Kwami is frequently invited to lecture and take part in workshops and residencies around the world. ‘I love being on the move and having to juggle my time,’ he says, clearly meaning it. Perhaps this explains another recent painting. It is of Pepper Street, located not in Ghana but in London near the Tate Modern and depicted by jazzy bursts of vertical lines: ‘It is such an urban and dynamic place, just buzzing with possibilities.’