He made the ordinary spectacular

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
The writer

How did it happen that Atta Kwami, one of, if not, the most famous Ghanaian artist has died, been buried and been celebrated around the world and there hasn’t been a word about his passing in the Ghanaian media?

But then, maybe it is my personal pain and bewilderment that I am projecting to the national scale, in which case I apologise.

I discovered on Sunday night that Atta Kwami, painter, printmaker, sculptor, curator, art teacher at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) since 1986, whose works have been exhibited and are in the collections of both the national museums of Ghana and Kenya; the Victoria & Albert and the British Museums in London; and the Met and Brooklyn Museum in New York, as well as the National Museum of African Art in Washington, had died on October 6, 2021.

I then discover that not only has he already been buried, there have been well-deserved obituaries published about him in various leading newspapers around the world and there hasn’t been a word about him in Ghana, not in Ho, Gbadzeme, Amedzofe where his roots are and not in Kumasi, the place he has called home for much of his life.

Attah was the male half of a set of twins born in September 1956 to the distinguished artistic couple, Robert and Grace Kwami.

Robert Kwami was a famous classical musician and Music teacher in Achimota School and his wife, Grace, was an artist, who later taught Art in Mawuli School for years.

Attah and his twin sister were six months old and their elder brother, Koku, was three years old when their father died in 1957 in Achimota School.

It was in 1958, the year I entered Mawuli School that their widowed mother, Mrs Grace Kwami, arrived with her three small children to start teaching Art in Mawuli School.

As my father was teaching in the school, the Kwami children and my younger siblings, Sammy, Fred and later on, Susie, became good friends and were in and out of each other’s homes all the time.

The elder of the Kwami children, Koku, had demonstrated very early he had taken after his father and by the time he was five years old, he was playing the piano to the joy and amazement of us all.

He was to become a famous musician in later life and died in 2004. It wasn’t quite clear where Attawa, the twin sister of Atta, was leaning. She was demonstrating both musical and artistic talent but tragically she died in 1970, aged 14.

Nobody needed to tell you Atta was an artist; as their mother would put it, he appeared to be painting before he could walk or talk.

Competition

It was a big deal for us the young people when at age 10, Atta won a national competition to design a poster for Golden Tree chocolate.

He learnt to weave under the tutelage of one of the master Ewe Kente weavers when he was a teenager in Mawuli School.

He loved paints, fabrics, clay, charcoal and he could draw and make beautiful things out of any material.

To his childhood friends and colleagues, he was already a famous artist. If there was to be a difference between him and his mother, it showed in his love of vibrant colours as against his mother’s subdued colours.

It was part of the script that he then went to KNUST to read for an Art degree and ended up teaching there from 1986.

He became known for his signature brightly coloured geometric compositions that came to be seen as breaking the expectations of what Ghanaian art should be – traditional, figurative and palatable to Western tourists.

His works brought him respect in the artistic community at home and a growing reputation in Europe.

When walking the streets of Kumasi, he often carried a small camera or a sketchbook with him to document the ad-hoc creativity he saw on the streets.

“Poverty is the only thing that money cannot buy,” Atta said in 2012. “The voice of the poor can always be felt in the way they can transform their environment with dignity through personal aesthetics.”

It is not often that an artist is able to talk eloquently about his work but Atta was insightful and articulate about his work.

Book

In 2011 he published his book, Kumasi Realism, 1951-2007: An African Modernism, which grew out of his PhD from the Open University.

He saw Kumasi Realism as an artistic vocabulary shared by both college-trained artists and the hundreds of painters who met the “demands of advertising, shop front decor and commercial portraiture” in the city.

Between 2009 and his passing, he spent his time between Kumasi and Loughborough, where his wife, Pamela Clarkson, also an artist, had a home.

His many awards and honors were icing on the cake for those who knew him well.

Last year, he won the 2021 Maria Lassnig Prize from the Maria Lassnig Foundation in Vienna and the Serpentine Galleries in the UK.

This is what he said when he got that award: The Prize is completely unexpected. I am very happy it has come at this stage of my life. I shall always be humbly grateful for all the people who have supported me, my mother, my wife, my galleries and my friends both inside and outside Ghana. I am glad for myself and for Ghana.

John Picton, emeritus professor of African Art, SOAS, University of London, said in his tribute to Atta that he found the extraordinary everywhere and described his death at the age of 65 as a tragedy for art.

According to him, Atta’s burial in the Loughborough countryside was an event of peaceful magnificence.…..

I am sure his wife, Pamela, must have wanted it that way, but how I wish Kumasi and the Art community had a chance to say goodbye in their own inimitable way.

Mawuli School needed to acknowledge a famous son, Ho and Gbadzeme should have given a riotous goodbye and there are many of us who needed to say goodbye.

Atta had a knack for turning every ordinary thing into something spectacular and I read that Sir David Adjaye had asked him to design the stained glass for the national cathedral.

Now we shall never know what Atta Kwami would have made of it.