Northern Kentucky University Hosts Five Ghanian Artisans
Northern Kentucky University’s Ceramic and Sculpture Studio is brimming with teachers. They come from all corners of the U.S. to grind glass, cast bronze, and weave cotton cloth under the tutelage of master Ashanti artisans of Ghana, West Africa.
MaryCarol Hopkins, professor of Sociology, Anthropology, Philosophy at NKU, conceived the idea four years ago of a summer African Art Institute for teachers. She enlisted the help of Associate Professor, of Art Education Lisa Jameson in writing for an NEA grant. Jameson is a well-known local artist and DAAP alum with a 20-year career exhibiting. Her work is included in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection. I was recently struck by her seductive charcoal drawings prominently displayed above the bar of A Tavola Pizza in Over-the-Rhine.
Together Jameson and Hopkins brought 48 teachers, and five Ghanian artists to Cincinnati for the summer. On a damp Sunday in June the teachers are ready to give public demonstrations. Mary Asumadu has taught them how to pound clay into vessels using wooden mallets. Gladys Frimpong-Mansoh shared her cultural knowledge of Andikra cloth stamping. The teachers drag wooden combs loaded with black dye over a deep red cloth, and press hand-carved stamps into the fabric.
Outside there is a curious smell of burning coal. Ghanian artist Paul Amponsah fires up a kiln he built from fire brick coated in clay. The course white facade looks like a miniature adobe house. Artist Michael Asumadu has also built a kiln for firing glass beads. Molten bronze casts bake in pod-shaped molds mixed from clay and charcoal. A crowd gathers around Amponsah. “He’s ready, the casts are coming out,” someone says.
Amponsah grips a large pair of tongs and wipes sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. Now it’s a mad dash between the white hot kiln and a mound of sand. He extracts each mold, piping hot with flames shooting from their shells. He places them like sea turtle eggs in the sand. His face drips with sweat, his pants droop over his thick skate shoes and his boxers hang out. The look of exhaustion and determination stirs the people until they are clapping and cheering at every achievement. A dozen clay molds lay in the sand, cooling their jets. The bronze casts wait to emerge.
A calmer scene unfolds at the loom. Instructor Thompson Yao Avornyotse comes from the Volta Region of Ghana to teach the ancient art of Kente weaving. He wears a Kente smock, with vibrant patterning and predominantly yellow colors. Ghana means land of gold and Kente is the cloth of kings. Yellow signifies gold, green is for the earth, red the toil and bloodshed of their fathers, black the people, and white for victory. Rising economic prosperity in the 19th century made Kente cloth available to more people so that it is now worn by non-royals. It is traditionally a ceremonial cloth for weddings, funerals and life’s other important events. The cloth carries specific messages of morality and political commentary. An orange Afia Deke Mefa O wrap conveys the message ‘no success is gained on a silver platter.’ A step-like pattern signifies struggle.
The teachers at NKU toiled away learning this art of Ghana’s Agotime people. Now they sit barefoot at a four-heddle loom working with care and precision. The technique is so difficult only the very determined are able to complete a small Kente cloth, but Avornyotse, like many boys, began at age nine. Kente weaving is meant to be practiced by men because traditionally it is man’s responsibility to care for the home. This is changing. There are now many female weavers in Avornyotse’s hometown. In 1992, he established TY Kente Weaving Enterprise to help African artisans sell their products direct to the market. In addition, his Agotime Kpetoe Weavers Association supports 350 artisans carrying on the Kente tradition.
Centuries of art history and culture on the world’s second largest continent are often relegated to small galleries in our museums. African art garners little more than a mention in Janson’s History of Art. NKU’s African Art Institute and the subsequent ‘Afternoon with African Artists’ brought a deeper understanding of West Africa to these 48 teachers. They now carry the experience home to schools across the country.
Wonderful article! Thank you from all the Ghanaian artists. I have forwarded this to them, and they are proud to have been in your publication.
Great summary of an amazing day! As one of those 48 lucky teachers, I really enjoyed your article.