Ablade Glover – Ghanaian mirage
One of Ghana’s most renowned and revered artists, Ablade Glover, is celebrating his 80th birthday, honoured by a major exhibition at the October Gallery, London, titled Ablade Glover: 80th Anniversary. Born in 1934 in Accra, he still occupies a seminal place in the Ghanaian and West African contemporary art scene, as well as being internationally exhibited in Europe, Japan and the USA, Juliet Highet explains.
<p "="" style="coHis intensely dynamic paintings, throbbing with movement and colour, have universal appeal, represented in public and private collections as diverse as the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the Imperial Palace Collection of Japan, and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
As long ago as 1986 the late Sally Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s then first lady, commented: “The new artists of Africa, of which Professor Glover is a distinct representative, are marching onto the World stage in a most exciting and stimulating way.” And how! 28 years later, the accolades for his work still keep pouring in.
With recognition typified by an AFGRAD Alumni Award from the African-American Institute of New York, and an appointment as Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Art in London, in May this year one of his market scenes achieved an auction record in London, part of the phenomenal international growth of the contemporary African art market.
Anybody who knows anything about traditional African art is aware of Ghana’s splendid legacy of sculpture, Asante gold-work, Kente cloths, Adinkra prints and Asafo flags, to name but a few genres admired and collected around the World.
By contrast, missionary teachers, who from the turn of the 20th century introduced Western aesthetic concepts, techniques and materials, influenced the first generation of modern Ghanaian artists.
This resulted in a sometimes uneasy balancing act for this first artistic wave before and following Independence in 1957, a tension, even a struggle between adherence to indigenous African art forms and the pull of acquired Western influence, boosted by exposure to Western contemporary art.
Kwame Nkrumah encouraged this first generation of modern Ghanaian artists to forge a contemporary visual identity for the nation, but his guiding principle was that they should focus on traditional Akan symbolism, invoking a mythical/historical past of glorious kingdoms and elaborately attired royalty, decked out in traditional jewellery and cloth.
Glover is a principal representative of a second generational wave of Ghanaian artists, who as Nigerian artist Uche Okeke put it, created a “natural synthesis” of traditional African sensibility and adaptation of modern Western styles and techniques.
Gerard Houghton points out in the catalogue of 2009 for a previous show at the October Gallery: “Glover’s signal achievement in balancing the disparate demands of these quite different traditions marks a point of gathering confidence in the progress of modern African art, revealing a moment when it mastered the Western mode so completely that it began to generate novel variations of its own, thereby substantiating Africa’s claim to being an authentic contributor to the development of the wider (international) field of contemporary art today.”
Glover explains his own synthesis: “We can all pick tools and use them to express ourselves. People here have traditionally worked with the materials around them – such as weaving and with wood. What we are doing now is using alien materials we learned to use at school to express and celebrate our culture.”
Glover’s own conviction is that oil painting like his belongs with Kente cloth and Adinkra prints as one of the contemporary art forms of modern Africa.
Writing in the Arts Review, London, Mel Gooding adds: “Glover insists that oil painting has its place in the new arts of Africa, as a means of individual expression and as a potent medium in which to record and celebrate the visual richness of the continent; and his own work is an impressive affirmation of that view. Time will test its ultimate validity.”
And it has. Gooding’s comment was made in 1982, and now, by 2014, Glover’s oils have established him as the figurehead in exploring and depicting modern African urban subjects, and famous for it. His urban spaces are packed with ordinary people, not the Asantehenes of Kumasi weighed down with gold jewellery.
He depicts teeming markets with their real “bosses” – the market women bargaining and gesticulating – conveying fragmented impressions of power politics. “The scenes I paint,” says Glover, “the markets, the crowds – you can never wholly capture them because they are always changing. You can never finish painting them. My aim can only be to capture the tempo.”
It seems that Glover is endlessly fascinated with the shifting dynamics of markets, the apparently chaotic scenario of high-energy human interaction you can almost hear.
He also paints the restless energy of lorry parks and endless shantytowns with seas of rooftops. Usually these townscapes vibrate with intensely vivid colour, as the African sun beats down, or rain glistens off the rooftops in fleeting shades, creating unstructured images like the solos of modern jazz musicians. But there’s another aspect of his work too: lyrical impressions of individual trees, rainforests and beachscapes.
Ghana was the first nation in Africa to be granted Independence in 1957, while the young Ablade Glover was a student in Kumasi. Two years later he won a scholarship to study textile design in London, at the much-respected Central School of Art & Design.
On his return to Ghana he taught for two years, and then, in 1964, he was honoured with another scholarship, personally authorised by Nkrumah, to return to England to study Art Education at Newcastle University.
There his teacher suggested he used a palette knife to apply paint, rather than brushes. This became his chosen tool, characterising his technique. It was, he says: “The perfect fit”.
Back to Ghana he went, again to teach, but only briefly, since he seized the opportunity for more art education abroad, travelling to the USA, to Kent State University, where he gained a Master’s degree. Then he proceeded to study at Ohio State University, where he was awarded his Doctorate in 1974.
On his return to Ghana he began to share all these inspiring but also functional studies with his students at the College of Art in the University of Kumasi, where he taught for two decades, eventually promoted to being Department Head and College Dean.
Winding down his prestigious academic career, nowadays Ablade Glover is an elder statesman on the contemporary Ghanaian art scene, and also a significant mentor and patron for younger artists. Following the fulfilment of his youthful dream to study abroad, he has realised another ambition – to create a gallery where Ghanaian artists can not only exhibit, but also learn from and support each other.
He is the founder of the legendary Artists’ Alliance Gallery, whose roots go back to 1968, to the Glo Gallery. It later re-emerged in successive venues, their rise and fall helping Glover to hone his objective, but it was not until 2008 that it finally flowered in its present form, a purpose-built, beautiful, three-story venue overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, one of the few major private galleries exhibiting contemporary Ghanaian art in Accra.
The former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, opened the reincarnated Artists’ Alliance Gallery at Omanye House, “Omanye” meaning “Victory”. He called on future generations of artists to rise to the challenge of the previous ones, who had struggled to survive, and succeeded in being internationally recognised without the infrastructure now available to them.
Considering it was born from Glover’s personal vision alone, its very existence is infinitely impressive. “There’s no government support for this kind of thing,” says Glover. “When there are hospitals to build and schools to pay for, the government response is ‘Art? What is art?’”
The reserves of energy spent nurturing this gallery, as well as 20 years of academic and administrative responsibilities had left Glover precious little time to devote to his own artwork. In 1994 he retired and decades of pent-up passion for painting exploded into a mature period of concentrated creativity.
From then on the volcanic fall-out has initiated a steady stream of spectacularly intense work, swirling back and forth between abstraction and realism. In this context, as Gerard Houghton has pointed out, “almost every single painting reveals a double aspect, being at once an abstract epiphany of colour and a detailed rendition of a reality closely observed”.
Which of these two contradictory aspects, abstraction or realism prevails, depends upon the viewer’s distance from the canvas. Up close, the paintings are abstract combinations of seemingly random shapes, and daubs of eye-watering colour. But when the viewer moves back from the picture, a point of distance arrives where the amorphous and apparent disorder is suddenly transformed into a more orderly, recognisable depiction of an urban panorama – of people, markets, rooftops, lorries; they all come into focus and become recognisable.
In effect, it is mirage in reverse. Were we hallucinating up close? Was it all an optical illusion? What is “reality”, what is “delusion?” Riveting questions Glover poses to us.
These extraordinary alchemical shifts in focus and meaning are dependent on the aesthetic concept of Western perspective, in the sense that each subject appears to be viewed from a high vantage point, a bird’s eye view overlooking the scene, perhaps in one’s imagination from a hillside overlooking Accra.
Following the premise of Western perspective, the “reiterated shapes, enlarged near the bottom of the canvas,” as Houghton points out, “gradually shrink in size towards a virtual horizon beyond the frame’s top edge.”
This perspectival concept, in which distance determines size, differs radically from the traditional African view in which size is a function of significance. For instance, in sculpture, frequently the head is depicted larger than the body, because it is the seat of the spirit.
Some art historians and critics have identified similarity to Kente textiles, with their repeated designs in primary colours; and though this is clearly an aspect of Glover’s culture, his own canvases have travelled far beyond that reference. They are textural, rather than textile.
As we have seen, as early as his study stint at Newcastle, his technique of choice has been to use a palette knife to apply his oils in a thick impasto, in slices rather than with the glides of a brush. The knife strokes accumulate weight as they build in repeated planes, amassing into a shimmering mirage.
“The image emerges, “says Glover. “And you must be alerted to it – you must see how and be able to capture it. Cracks form and earlier layers and colours come through – that is all a part of it.”
So as Ablade Glover celebrates his 80th birthday on 3 July, he is still looking forward to creating more art. “Why should I stop? Painting for me is part of a healthy life – I walk thousands of kilometres when I work, moving in and then stepping back. After the first layer dries, perhaps in two weeks, there’s a second layer, then a third.”
Ablade Glover: 80th Anniversary shows at the October Gallery, London, from 3 July – 2 August 2014.