Yaw Owusu : a Black Star in the making

 Yaw Owusu, the artist, photo by Nii Odzenma ©

Yaw Owusu, the artist, photo by Nii Odzenma ©

Yaw is a little nervous about his first solo exhibition. The young artist, who only just turned 24, is feeling the pressure of his show and despite his smiles there are quiet moments of contemplation  as he looks at his works being installed.

I am late for our interview and it is a busy time at the gallery. As I apologise to all involved, I ask the man of the hour for just a quick 10 mins of his time for us to have a talk. He is honest about his nerves as we sit down outside in the damp, leafy courtyard of Accra's Kempsinki Hotel.

'I'm really feeling it now' he mutters quietly.

I assure him all will be well and this is merely a chat to get to know him more as I am such a fan of his art, fiddling with my now broken iPhone in the process to start our recording.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Yaw is affectionately known as the 'coin artist' due to his work using countless 'pesewas' - an old currency of copper coins with little to no financial value in modern day Ghana. His installations are a commentary on excess, waste and the country's ever-changing economic and political climate as young Yaw turns objects seen as worthless into beautiful pieces of art. One of his most notable works is Back to the Future (2017) a coin-clad large scale Ghana flag on canvas that was draped on a wall during Ghana's 60 years of independence celebrations. 

'I needed to do something that I felt people could relate to easily and it needed to make sense.' he explains ' the space I was given was so huge, I couldn't cover it entirely. I was worried it wasn't going to work, but it came out nice.'

It turned out more than nice! And now Yaw is getting ready to present his inaugural body of works All that Glitters that will be showing at Gallery 1957 until 3 August. 

 Yaw Owusu, Midpoint, 2017, 72 x 72 inches. Treated copper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra 

Yaw Owusu, Midpoint, 2017, 72 x 72 inches. Treated copper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra 

 Yaw Owusu, Gold Rush, 2017. 72inches diam. Treated Coppper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra 

Yaw Owusu, Gold Rush, 2017. 72inches diam. Treated Coppper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra 

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

To be honest, I didn't know art could be something I could survive on. My interests were in architecture and I had support for that rather than art. I do love to draw and I do love art so when my dad would buy people books on Sociology, Philosophy or similar he would buy me colours.

It became more serious when I went to university as I was forced to choose what I wanted to do. I had four options and I chose painting for all four! 

Oh, you are originally a painter?

Yes

Yet this work is installation and you are using coins and organic materials - when did you transition from painting?

For the first year in university we did painting (first semester) and sculpture (second semester) which opened up the conversation around materials and although I continued painting through my second year, by the third year I was open to using secondary materials as my art became more contextual so I didn't have to have a brush to be a painter.

To me, I don't feel the function of art being decorative. Even with these [he points towards the gallery] I don't consider these as a canvas that I make 'pictures' or images but I consider the content of each and the context in which I want to portray them. 

So you chose to use the old currency of peswas -  where on earth did you find them? Do people still use peswas?

Only the Bank of Ghana I believe. After some tough negotiations they agreed to give them to me. I was fascinated about the fact that most people wake up to make money and this particular money, no one wants to use it. There's an irony of money that can't be used or money that no one wants. Devalued to the point that it is worth nothing. This is evidence of the economic and political situation in this country.

 Yaw Owusu, Night in the Dark, 2017. 72 x 72 inches. Treated Copper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

Yaw Owusu, Night in the Dark, 2017. 72 x 72 inches. Treated Copper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

 Yaw Owusu, Remnants, 2017, 72inches diam. Treated Copper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

Yaw Owusu, Remnants, 2017, 72inches diam. Treated Copper coins on wood. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

Would you say you were a political artist?

Yeah, I have an agenda. There are other artists who are putting their work and voice out there too but I believe that our systems can be better and our economy needs to grow. In 20 years time I don't want to see myself or my family in the same position. We have to develop.

All That Glitters - great title - tell me about this collection

This collection.. the struggles I went through from getting the coins themselves and the contradictions and complexities of this process have all come together. I feel that this is the loudest voice I have as I am showing on my own. In all my previous exhibitions I have been part of a group. 

Yes, your first solo exhibition - congratulations!

Haha, thank you. I  am not sure how people are going to react or interact with my works but I am excited to see.

You are very young for an artist, being 24, so this is an amazing opportunity for you to have your works in a great gallery like 1957. Do you have any favourites? Or any works you are more attached too?

I like the drape-like canvas pieces because I was afraid to do them. The first time I did do them, was about a year ago. I tried it in an exhibition in Kumasi and I didn't like them. I was on canvas and changed materials, working on things like metal sheets and wooden panels. So when I returned back to canvas, I wasn't so sure how it was going to turn out to be honest. Yet, it felt like one of the greatest pieces I'd ever done. And then I did the flag. I believe that now I have improved my technicality.

 Yaw Owusu, Then and Now 'I', 2017, 81 x 60 inches. Treated copper coins on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

Yaw Owusu, Then and Now 'I', 2017, 81 x 60 inches. Treated copper coins on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

 Yaw Owusu, Then and Now 'II', 2017, 81 x 60 inches. Treated Copper coins on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

Yaw Owusu, Then and Now 'II', 2017, 81 x 60 inches. Treated Copper coins on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957, Accra

You've found your groove! Personally, I love the canvas drape work because I always enjoy movement in a piece. So lastly, are there any artists you look up to or wish to emulate?

I look up to El Anatsui and the way he uses materials; and also Ibrahim Mahama. I am close to him so I know his enthusiasm and energy . And a few others  who are more like activists, ideologists and Pan-Africanists. They influence me and my work. 

Thanks so much Yaw

© All images courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957
Yaw Owusu, All That Glitters, Gallery 1957, Accra  www.gallery1957.com