For many, the gallons still represent a lifeline, but for the artist, they have more to reveal. Having originally been used to transport cooking oil from the west to Ghana, then to store water, the gallons now, satisfyingly, are making a return journey, to hang from the walls of London’s Simon Lee. Here, they join a suite of oil paintings rendered on duct tape and corkboard which depict locals from Clottey’s community on the Ghanaian coast who also find themselves at the crossroads of complex histories of migration, consumption and exchange.
Crossroads is another symphony in yellow plastic by Serge Attukwei Clottey, who crafts intricate works from discarded ‘Kufuor gallons’. Ubiquitous throughout Ghana and named after the country’s president during a time of extreme water shortages, Clottey repurposes these jerry cans for mosaic-like tapestries and carpets. It’s a practice and a movement he calls ‘Afrogallonism’.
"Clottey repurposes these jerry cans for mosaic-like tapestries and carpets"
I can see a photograph with a boat in it behind you, and your sculpture Tribe and Tribulation on The Line, London is made from reclaimed wood, including painted timber from Ghanaian fishing boats – do they have a special significance for you?
My family migrated from Jamestown to Labadi, a suburb of Accra, around two hundred years ago, because of the trade relationship they had with the people there. The boat for me is a very symbolic part of my family history and of migration more generally.
Tribe and Tribulation includes an embedded sound installation, with recordings from former slave forts, including James Fort in Ghana which was built by the British. Why did you decide to make these recordings?
I thought that sound could be a very strong tool to describe that relationship between the British and Ghana. I wanted people to listen to the sound of the ocean waves in Ghana and compare it to the River Thames, where the work is installed. The structure looks like a skyscraper, and it’s situated near the banks of Canary Wharf and the London Docklands, the historic and contemporary centre of the UK’s wealth, which, of course, started with migration, trade, and travel.
I was also inspired by the Cutty Sark ship, which is nearby, and its tea boxes, so I built the cubes in the same shape.
This sculpture evolved through a lot of research to develop these multiple layers of history. The Line, I think, is one of the most important residencies I've ever done as an artist, because I got to engage with the UK’s museums and libraries and discover more information than is available in Ghana.
"every object has data and information, it just depends on how you manipulate it"
You also invited students to take part in a procession at the same time in both London and Accra. How was that?
For the exchange programme between the children in Ghana and the UK, they had to come together to develop a concept that is inspired by an element of my work, the mask. Some of the kids went deep into making a political mask, because of how they feel about their country, and I found that very intriguing.
My practice is getting broader by engaging children in workshops that dive into the idea of working with found objects – so they see that every object has data and information, it just depends on how you manipulate it.
"people think that they can’t walk on these works, but I always urge them to"
Speaking of sound and bringing people together, earlier I was watching a video of you and your studio unrolling this big yellow, plastic pathway made out of jerry cans and it looked like it would make a satisfying sound!
Yeah, they have a really interesting sound, especially when dragged on the ground – it brings people attention to it. Because though it's stitched together with copper wires, people think that they can’t walk on these works, but I always urge them to, because it gives you a sense of how the environment is going to be if we keep throwing away plastic and polluting the environment. People find the idea of walking on the work difficult because it makes them feel guilty. The sound makes you very cautious.
Every six months or so, we carpet the streets with the work in an ongoing project which is called ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’. The project deals with property conflicts, and it’s about displacement – the residents of many poor communities in Africa cannot prove land ownership because they do not have the paperwork. This was the case with my family when they moved from Jamestown.
My local community is a very central part of the work because they help source the objects, they help with the process, they help with the install, and I have people come in to visit the studio.
You must have a lot of immediate conversations and reactions to the work, whereas I think lots of artists might say, once I've made the work, the conversation happens over there, and it’s for critics and viewers and other people to talk about. Immediately, you’re at the heart of a conversation, I think that’s very interesting.
Yes, not everybody gets to go to a gallery to see art, because it's thought of as a commercial space for rich people to come in and buy it. People think the fact that they cannot afford the work prevents them from seeing the gallery shows, so what I want to do is to create a public gallery. Mostly, I install my work within my community and invite people just to come spend time with the work in my studio and understand how it is being made.
For me, it's more of a celebration because I believe that the working process has brought a lot of people together. People want to take part in what I'm doing. I have twenty studio assistants now, working full time, and I there are about 100 people now in an art performance collective I founded called GoLokal. We do a lot of performances, processions in Ghana, addressing issues of politics, religion, gender, and whatever else is happening.
"Okay, clothing doesn’t define sexuality, it’s just a cover, just a layer of the skin'
As I understand it, when you go to collect the plastic jerry cans, you and your studio assistants will dress as women. How did that start?
Part of my culture, my tradition, is when the mother of family dies, her belongings are locked up for a year, and then given to her daughters. Since I'm the only child, and I'm the son, I couldn't get my mum’s belonging. Why is tradition making that decision?
So, I came up with a performance called ‘My Mother's Wardrobe’. I met with the collective to take them through the concept and the fact that men would be wearing women's clothes, it was a ‘no’ for them. They didn't like it, they didn't agree with that. We spent around a month and a half discussing gender roles and what equality means. It went on like this for a long time until I referred them to part of a traditional Ghanaian festival, where men dress like women, to honour women, and it's a very important part of the festival. After making that reference, they realised that, Okay, clothing doesn’t define sexuality, it’s just a cover, just a layer of the skin.
After that, they started dressing from home, which was quite surprising: they had people helping them where their mums' clothes and wigs and makeup. The procession led all the way to the gallery for the opening. I was able to bring local people in the community to this fancy hotel, which has a gallery inside. After that performance, there was a huge dialogue around the community, and I think that has been one of the radical changes in the community.
We decided that when we go to collect the gallons, we would dress like women, because it creates a dialogue. The oil container is very symbolic for women, because they tend to be the ones using it to carry water, to take care of the family and the house. More than the oil, the containers themselves are valuable, because they are used to store water and have helped people survive the water scarcity for a long time. We have people coming to talk to us, and even people helping us to carry them because of the fact that we dress like women. It makes them question what we use them for. Some of them even follow us to the studio to see, and there, they realise that we are actually cutting them – which is another problem, because they don't want us to destroy the containers.
In some cases, people get really angry with my team, but I demonstrate what the inside looks like when you store water in them for a couple of days; it gets contaminated. It's because of the plastic under the sun, and it's not hygienic. Once they see that, they realise that okay, this is actually causing a lot of health hazards as well as environmental issues. Some people then start sourcing the material for me, and it's created a whole job where people collect them and bring them to my studio for me to buy.
Could you talk about the paintings in Crossroads? Who are these people?
Crossroads is a body of work which gives you the lifestyle of where I come from, portraits of people living here on the coast. They are really interested in Western culture, and you have local rappers dressing hip hop artists in Western clothes. The women also use local fabrics but to look Western, middle class, and I find it very interesting, how you see people and wonder if they have lived abroad, but some of them never lived abroad, they just learn from the media, and from social media, what is happening in the West. They adapt and combine that with our tradition, and then it becomes like a lifestyle, which is very fascinating, especially living in the suburbs.
In Crossroads, I wanted to bring attention to how clothes don’t actually define backgrounds anymore. The world is a global village, and it's easy to find or to see things that that will influence you, but to be able to understand the contemporary you need to know your traditions. You have women in Ghana using fabrics from Holland to create African clothes, so you start to question what is African in this case? It's cultural migration in the sense that your culture has been taken elsewhere and been appropriated and then sold back to you.
This exhibition is focused on how fashion has influenced, you know, how Western fashion has influenced us as Africans, and it's also about fast fashion, how we are using fast fashion as markers of identity, to explain who you are and where you come from. But at want point does identity become industry?
By Sammi Gale