Out of Africa, with Serge Attukwei Clottey

Comprehensive depictions of contemporary African art elude most institutions, but Ever Gold [Projects] succeeds in “Defying the Narrative: Contemporary Art from West and Southern Africa.”

Four works by Serge Attukwei Clottey. | Courtesy of the artist and Ever Gold [Projects]

On a July day in Menlo Park, Serge Attukwei Clottey stood on a mechanical platform inside Facebook’s shimmering new building and looked up at his giant new artwork. The sculpture is two stories tall and more than 10 feet wide — a cascade of interlocking yellow pieces that Clottey, his team of assistants, and assorted well-wishers assembled in the artist’s native Ghana.

In the capital, Accra, Clottey and his support staff made the Facebook art from discarded oil jugs that originated in the United States and Europe. In Ghana, they’re repurposed for carrying water — and they’re an environmental hazard, a cheap product that ultimately taxes the country’s ability to recycle. Clottey not only recycles the plastic into art, he uses the proceeds from his artwork to pay assistants and support a growing art network in Ghana. As he oversaw the hanging of his new piece at Facebook three months ago, he thought about that network, which includes children learning about art. He thought about the Ghanaian map that he’d embedded into the piece. And he thought about how this colossal two-story curtain of yellows had come a long way from its assemblage in Accra, where Clottey and his art community spread that and similar works across dirt roads and atop buildings.

“What excites me about the work and the commission is that the work is originally made in Ghana, and how many people were involved,” Clottey tells SF Weekly by phone. “Facebook is about community, and bringing people together. So the work brought together a lot of people in my community — including those who had heard of my work but hadn’t seen it before. The whole outside installation and working in public brought a lot of people together. They feel that they’re part of the work. And I felt joy because it was as if I brought the whole community in Ghana back to Facebook’s premises.”

Smaller iterations of that same yellow Facebook art help anchor “Defying the Narrative: Contemporary Art from West and Southern Africa,” an Ever Gold [Projects] exhibit that also features another Ghanaian artist (Paa Joe) and artists from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ivory Coast, and Great Britain. Almost 400 million people — or five percent of the world’s population — live in West Africa, and about 100 million more live in Africa’s southern tier.

It’s a herculean task to pick visual artists who represent the current state of art in West Africa and Southern Africa. Even the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, which has more than 1,000 works of contemporary African work, struggles to convey the true depth of the continent’s emerging art scene. But that didn’t stop Andrew McClintock, the owner of Ever Gold [Projects], from assembling his aptly named “Defying the Narrative” exhibit.

Traditional masks may be the continent’s most widely known art form. But there’s none of that at Ever Gold [Projects]. The closest thing may be Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s maze of small, drawn figures and shapes — with names like Untitled (Mythologie Bété) — that resemble folkloric playing cards of playful Ivory Coast archetypes, including musicians, couples, and suitors. And Paa Joe almost steals the exhibit with his huge rhino sculpture whose African-patterned interior is a perfect fit for one person. Yes, Rhino is an art coffin. 

Also worth noting is South African Simphiwe Ndzube, whose Torchbearers is a fantastical assemblage of headless, armless figures trying to find their way in a room of cones, ties, and other odd elements. So, too, is Gresham Tapiwa Nyaude, a Zimbabwean whose The Duplicity of Waiting Part 2 is an abstraction of shapes that read like a map of human toil.

Clottey’s small pieces in the San Francisco exhibit speak to the overriding term that Clottey coined for his jug-pieced art: “Afrogallonism.” That’s also the title of Clottey’s Instagram account, where he has almost 15,000 followers, and where he posted a photo of himself on that July platform inside Facebook, where his piece takes up one of the main lobby areas. “We are very proud of you,” Ghana’s Ministry of Tourism, Art and Culture, which follows Clottey, posted on Clottey’s Instagram.

The ministry’s comment is indicative of Clottey’s growing status in Ghana, and in the global art world. The 33-year-old increasingly exhibits his work around Africa, Europe, and the United States. Clottey spoke to SF Weekly from England, where he was invited to give art talks at the University of Brighton and to collaborate with the university’s “Responsible Futures” team, an academic offshoot that researches new ways to improve environmental sustainability.

“My work has evolved,” Clottey says. “More people are paying attention, especially in Africa. It’s about the material culture — about exploring different materials and finding narratives in the material. The only pressure is to stay focused. I don’t want to be dragged into African politics. I just want to be an artist. I just want to stay focused on my work and develop a community.”

Besides Afrogallonism, Clottey has started to invest in projects about migration that have the title, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” The title is a reference to The Wizard of Oz, where the yellow brick road is a magical directional that leads the main characters, including Dorothy, to the Emerald City. Dorothy’s adventure takes her to magical places and — at least in the movie version — back to Kansas, where she says, “There’s no place like home.”

For Clottey, “home” is anywhere that people — art-goers, academics, and others — are curious about artwork with an environmental message, a message about the economics that link world powers and African communities, and a message based on yellow material that from a distance could be the yellow of jewels or even yellowish gold. Like the work of the veteran Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, Clottey’s sculptures reveal their pedestrian origins when you get up close. By then, it’s too late: You’ve already seen the art as something alluring and something that’s valuable. Facebook executives paid a lot of money for Clottey’s work — but that money is being recycled back into the Ghanaian economy, including to recyclers who bring jugs to Clottey’s Accra studio. The theme of recycling and interconnectedness — between continents, between geographically close areas — is there at Ever Gold [Projects]’s exhibit and, in the longer term, in Menlo Park.

“Even the smaller works have a lot of people working on it,” says Clottey. “It has people cutting, it has people stitching. People who are drilling and assembling. Some of the smaller works have very specific patterns. So they take a lot of time as well. Every piece goes through a whole sketch and an assessment.”

The two-story Facebook piece took seven months to make. “It’s the biggest piece I’ve ever produced,” says Clottey, who grew up in the area of Accra called Labadi after his parents moved from another area called Jamestown. “The work relates to the history of [Labadi], as well as my family’s migration history from Jamestown to Labadi. The work tries to replicate a map into patterns. I’m interested in using my history of migration to demarcate that space. So it has the history of Labadi, because I invited the community to be part of the process. The work brings people together. We live on the coast, and the work went to San Francisco, which is on the coast. We’re trying to have this conversation whereby people work on the piece and the piece migrates to San Francisco.”

Ed Moses, 1, Courtesy of Brian Gross Fine Art.

In the last years of his life, Ed Moses would appear at art events with a cane or in a wheelchair. He needed a little help to get going, just like he needed a little help in the art studio. But only a little. Moses was full of ideas and energy even into his 90s, and the last canvases he did — like the grid paintings on display at Brian Gross Fine Art — have the vitality of Moses’ work from long ago.

His painting called 1, which is eight feet tall, is an especially intricate piece that has layers of paint overlapping and bubbling up in places, with some spots that look almost misty and foggy, and other spots with distinct brushstrokes that crease across the canvas. In 2016, when the gallery featured a series of other grid paintings, Moses, who has been an art fixture for more than 50 years, told SF Weekly that he was “not looking forward or backwards. Now is now.”

Moses died in January at age 91. His six diagonal grid paintings at Brian Gross are layered with lines of yellow, red, blue, black, and white — but it’s 1 that’s a kind of grid of grids. Dense and mysterious, it’s easy to get lost in the painting’s shadows and criss-crossing patterns. 1 is like an architectural hive — an homage to movement (and Moses) that takes the eye in almost every direction.

“Defying the Narrative: Contemporary Art from West and Southern Africa,” through Oct. 27 at Ever Gold [Projects], 1275 Minnesota St. Free; evergoldprojects.com

“Ed Moses: Last Grids” through Oct. 27 at Brian Gross Fine Art, 248 Utah St. Free; 415-788-1050 or briangrossfineart.com

 

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