‘Terribly Brave’ – Atta Kwami’s glorious posthumous mural unveiled at the Serpentine

‘Terribly Brave’ – Atta Kwami’s glorious posthumous mural unveiled at the Serpentine

‘Terribly Brave’ – Atta Kwami’s glorious posthumous mural unveiled at the Serpentine

Atta Kwami’s latest work is still wet in some places by its final touches by his widow, who painted it on her own design. I sit next to her in the Serpentine North garden, next to the many pots of paint she used to complete her late husband’s mural. “Our main concern was: ‘Is this an Atta Kwami?’” Says Pamela Clarkson Kwami, herself a painter and printmaker. “If you went too far it became a kind of caricature.”

Kwami was a Ghanaian painter and art theorist with a generous and joyful abstract vision whose working life seemed destined to change gears when he won the Maria Lassnig Prize in 2021, an award for a “mid-career” artist that includes an audience artistic commission for the Serpentine Gallery in London. Kwami was born in 1956 and spent years teaching and researching before he could afford to paint full time – a perfect recipient for this anti-ageist art award. However, Kwami had cancer. He died last October just as his work was beginning to receive the acclaim he deserved – and with his project for a still-to-be-realized mural at the Serpentine.

I was thinking last night about the words that describe his work: one is joy and another is hope

Pamela Clarkson Kwami

Yet here it is and it is glorious. There is something truly vital about Kwami’s large painting, a dance of rectangles in red, yellow, blue and many other intersecting planes of color, against a gray bank of early September clouds. It used to be even better in the sun, I was told. It will be fantastic in any weather, I am sure, it will change with the light and take on new intensity with the arrival of winter. Because this is a painting that promises something: rebirth, redemption, freedom, justice… good things anyway.

“I was thinking about the words that describe her work last night and you don’t want to say them because they sound sloppy,” says Clarkson Kwami. “One of them is joy and another is hope. You flinch slightly at the idea. But that’s a terribly brave thing to present to the world, isn’t it?

Talking to her, I begin to wish I had met Atta Kwami. She fights tears a couple of times, but presents it in the most objective and unsentimental way possible. “It could be a handful. He was very ambitious and ambition is a difficult thing to deal with sometimes. “But they worked intimately side by side, against the world:” I’ve been with him for 30 years and we shared a studio and worked in the same space. ‘as an exile to his country when he was in Ghana, partly because of his personality and partly because of the way he worked, which wasn’t necessarily in line with what others were doing. It meant we had each other. and not many other people. We had each other as our main critics. “

The loneliness he sees in Atta Kwami’s life was the price he paid for his originality. As an art historian, he came up with his own idea of ​​modern Ghanaian art that did not confine himself to what his widow calls “the academy”, but instead embraced the bubbly range of popular art forms of this one. West African nation. “He has taken from many indigenous things but without being condescending. He really loved the canoe paintings. They are the traditional deep-sea canoes of the Fante people decorated by hand, not only pieces from an ethnographic museum but still in use today. He also studied “the northern murals that women paint – it’s amazing. There was a woman and she painted abstract shapes. Atta asked her where he got them from her and she said: ‘I sit on the roof and look at the cows’. “

He loved this easy fusion of art and life, the creation of abstract designs from nature, which has been a triumph of African art for centuries. Kwami’s Serpentine mural with its block rectangles pays homage to the motifs of the Kente fabric once worn by royals Asante and Ewe, now more widely available. Yet at the same time he embraces modern Western art, paying homage to the rhythm of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.

“He loved painting and therefore he loved Mondrian,” says Clarkson Kwami. Just as Mondrian loved jazz, he found it natural to mix high culture and street art. “He made no distinctions. He found that someone like Almighty God (Kwame Akoto) was really quite innovative. ”Almighty God or Almighty God is a witty street pop artist whose insignia like the painting of a smoking dog with the legend Stop Smoking for it Kills Gradually brought bold images on the streets of Kumasi from the 1970s.

For one of his latest projects, Atta Kwami created abstract versions of Ghana’s brightly painted street kiosks in Folkestone. The popular arts that he celebrates are resources of optimism, survival, hope: these words his widow admits that it is difficult even to pronounce them aloud. Her act of love and memory made her message resound in a London park. Perhaps there should be multiple versions of this artist’s inspiring work, all over the world.

For Pamela Clarkson Kwami, painting him from her drawings and with her deep knowledge of his work was a way to keep him close. “Have you seen The Repair Shop? They take things that have meaning somehow and fix them, and they say they’ll remind me of my grandfather – and I thought, well, I’m so lucky … “

Looking at the calm and warm vision before us, he feels he has understood correctly. “I think he would have been happy with that.”

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